Judith Fertig is the author of a comprehensive cookbook about America’s heartland. Published in 1999 by Harvard Common Press, PRAIRIE HOME COOKING contains 400 recipes that “celebrate the bountiful harvests, creative cooks and comforting foods of the American Heartland.”
As explained by the publishers, “The food of the Heartland is the flavor of America itself: fresh and creative, adventurous and abundant. Judith Fertig brings to life in stories and tales, all the immigrants and settlers, old and new, who have come together in the Midwest, and she interprets and perfects in 400 dazzling recipes, all the tastiest contributions they have made to the American table…”
It was a vast undertaking for the gal from Cincinnati, my hometown. Who but Judith Fertig could have taken on such a mammoth project? The author is an authority on the foods of her native Midwest and writes a weekly column “COME INTO MY KITCHEN” for the Kansas City Star. She has also written for SAVEUR, COUNTRY LIVING, and the NEW YORK TIMES.
The thought occurred to me that taking on the entire Heartland, encompassing all of the Prairie states, was a daunting enterprise. Whereas most other parts of the country are predominately one ethnic group or another, the great Heartland is made up of many different immigrants and pioneers from various parts of Europe.
“For the European immigrants who came here in the nineteenth century,” writes Judith, “the sea of grass that was the prairie was an alien environment. Many of the new arrivals settled, of course, along the banks of rivers, where trees and brush broke up the monotony of grass. Inland, too, groves of oak and walnut provided more relief, as did wild scrub plants, like mulberry, chokecherry, and wild plum, common in low-lying areas…”
That prairie has changed, Judith notes, “Less than one percent of the original four hundred thousand square miles of prairie survives in its natural state. Enclosed by fences and windbreaks, tamed by machinery and the will of man, the prairie is rangeland, dairyland, and breadbasket…The eastern prairie, from Ohio to Iowa, now is the Corn Belt.
‘’’The lush and rolling pastureland of the Dairy Belt, where America’s best cheeses are made, stretches down from Wisconsin to southern Indiana. The Wheat Belt fans north from Kansas through Nebraska into the Dakotas and Canada. Hard red winter wheat, which grows through the winter and is harvested in June, dictates the rhythms of the years in Kansas and much of Nebraska In the Dakotas, where the winters are harsh, spring wheat, planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, takes over. On the western edge of the prairie, where in most places it is too dry to farm, the wide open spaces provide rangeland for grazing cattle and buffalo…”
Judith says that “…the great expanse that you see from the plane window as you fly from one coast to another–is home to ethnic communities of all kinds, where festivals celebrating cultures as diverse as Czech, Norse, Russian Mennonite, and Sioux are occasions to remember the past and observe traditions in the present. In the pages of this book you will meet some of the people who contribute to this region’s culinary and cultural melting pot: great home cooks, farmers, specialty food purveyors, experts on regional foods, and even writers of essays and fiction…
“The settling of the Midwest coincided,” Judith explains, “with the flowering of a literature that was truly American. Prairie writers continue to discover and rediscover their regional identities. Not only do we gain a sense of place from the works of authors as varies as Willa Cather, Susan Power, Louise Erdrich and Jane Smiley, we also savor the tastes of the region…in the novels of Willa Cather, the changing foods and wares on the dinner table reflect changes in families’ fortunes and status, as virgin Nebraska prairie gives way to hardscrabble sodbuster farms and then to lush fields of wheat and corn…”
Judith writes, “…In a description that is sheer poetry—as we read these writers, we sense how the kitchen was a haven, the farm a little world all its own, the root cellar a treasure trove of jewel-colored preserved and canned goods from the garden…”
Midwestern cooking, says Judith, in its long history and its present form, goes a long way toward defining what American cooking is all about. She writes that she and her mother and sister all treasure a old brown-covered school style notebook that belonged to her grandmother, Gertude Willenborg Vamnderhorst. The pages are brittle now, and the recipes she gathered therein, written in pale blue fountain pen ink on the lined paper, are sometimes barely legible, but a recipe like spiced tomato catsup brings back a rush of memories for her mother, who recalls the delicious spicy smell coming from her neighbor’s kitchen and Mrs. Seebohm bringing over a plate of still warm catsup that they would sample with pieces of homemade bread…”
For all of us who savor old manuscript cookbooks or old wooden recipe boxes crammed full of recipes, whether scribbled on pieces of envelopes or a sheet of paper torn from a school notebook, Judith’s description sparks a flame of recognition.
“Now imagine,” suggests the author, “an old quilt spread out under a big prairie sky. On this quilt an array of sweet and savory dishes from the small towns (and the small towns within big cities), farms, and ranches in America’s heartland beckons you to taste the best of prairie home cooking…”
And oh, my! What recipes! Discover America’s Heartland as you have never seen it before, with wonderful mouth-watering recipes, some I have never seen elsewhere: peach leaf syrup, honeysuckle syrup! Wisconsin Cheddar Beer Soup! Heartland Smoked Chicken and Corn Chowder!
Sample Potato Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread that you may discover is similar to flour tortillas, Great Lakes Goulash, Amana Pork Schnitzel and Hickory Smoked Pecans.
While you are delving deep into a melting pot of America’s Heartland recipes, you will surely enjoy, as well, the many food-related stories, such as Ma’s sourdough Starter, described by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
A newspaper columnist once asked me to name my favorite cookbook…I was hard pressed to limit myself to one. “OK,” she agreed, “then name four.”
I couldn’t limit myself to four, either. But if that newspaper columnist were to call me now and ask me to name one, I think PRAIRIE HOME COOKING would be at the top of my list.
I was first asked to review PRAIRIE HOME COOKING in 1999 for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, for whom I regularly wrote cookbook reviews. I dug the book off my shelves (and amazed even myself that I knew exactly where to look – not easy if you have thousands of cookbooks) – and I found it just as charming and interesting thirteen years later. And I’m not just saying that because I am from Cincinnati, too!
Most of the copies available on Amazon.com are pretty pricey—however, as it happens, you can get copies on Alibris.com for 99c plus shipping.
Judith Fertig has written several other cookbooks since PRAIRIE HOME COOKING and it appears that this book has also been reissued.
The book was published by Harvard Common Press and is a format that I like and appreciate – easy to read. The Prairie Pantry is my own personal favorite but I love canning fruits and vegetables and I’m always on the lookout for something new and different. Happy cooking! Happier cookbook collecting!
–Review by Sandra Lee Smith