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What to Eat in the Midwest

You'll find European influences and lots of meat in these states' hearty dishes

En español | Some of these foods, such as South Dakota's kuchen and Wisconsin's Friday fish fry, reflect the heartland's German immigrant history. And a few, including the Chicago hot dog (whose ancestor was born in faraway Frankfurt), now seem as American as apple pie.

three Chicago style hot dogs

Sergii Koval / Alamy Stock Photo

Illinois: Chicago hot dog

Order this steamed all-beef dog "with the works" or "dragged through the garden," with yellow mustard, dill pickle spear, chopped onion, sliced tomatoes, neon green relish, sport peppers and celery salt. Want ketchup? Go to a different city.

Indiana: Sugar cream pie

Sometimes called Hoosier pie, this sugar cream pie is what’s referred to in culinary history as a “desperation pie.” Needing no fresh seasonal ingredients like fruit, desperation pie can be made with what you’ve got on hand, in the kitchen. Recipes typically call for sugar, cream or milk, butter and possibly the likes of flour, cinnamon or nutmeg. (Whether to include eggs can be a point of contention.) “The sugar cream pie was born on the farm, made with the simplest ingredients found in most farm kitchens,” says Michael D. Wickersham, owner of Wick’s Pies Inc., in Winchester. Using a family recipe that dates back to the early 20th century, Wick’s has been making sugar cream pies since 1944, and sold around 350,000 of them last year.  

Iowa: Breaded pork tenderloin sandwich

Think Wiener schnitzel, but crafted with pork and served on a bun. The deep-fried cutlet sandwich begins with hand-pounded or tenderized center-cut pork loin that's breaded or dipped in batter, then fried until golden brown and crispy, but still juicy. A regular on restaurant menus throughout Iowa, it’s not unheard of for the pork to be bigger than the bread. If you're up for a very filling road trip, the Iowa Tenderloin Trail features 14 places to try the sandwich.

Kansas: Kansas City-style barbecue

Kansas is crazy for barbecue — especially Kansas City. It's home to the annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue, said to be the largest barbecue competition in the world, and boasts more than 100 barbecue hot spots, each with its own signature dish and devout following of foodie fans. One favorite is Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, which wins trophies at barbecue contests across the country. From ribs to chicken and pulled pork, barbecue of all forms is beloved in these parts, but the most popular dish at Joe's is the Z-Man Sandwich, with slow-smoked beef brisket, smoked provolone and onion rings atop a kaiser roll. (Vegetarian? No sweat: You can try the Portobello Z-Man made with smoked mushrooms.)   

"If you go to St. Louis and you don’t have toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, you’re missing out on things that are quintessentially St. Louis.."

— Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern

Michigan: Pasty

It rhymes with “nasty,” not “tasty,” but this portable delight is best described by the latter. A yummy, simple mix of ground beef or pork, rutabagas and potatoes, it’s baked in a pocket of dough. Based on the version born in Cornwall, England, as an easy-to-hold meal for miners, the pasty arrived with those who came to work the copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has since evolved to adjust for local tastes. “There’s always a big debate over whether you pour ketchup or gravy into the pasty,” says Charlie Hopper, general manager of the U.P.’s Pasty Central, which ships about 45,000 pasties around the U.S. every year, many to homesick transplanted Michiganders.

Minnesota: Hotdish

If you ever make it to a church supper or a family reunion in the upper Midwest, you’re going to find this casserole-style meal, made with a protein, vegetable and starch, and usually mixed together with canned cream of mushroom soup. Common ingredients include ground meat and green beans, topped with tater tots, but it has evolved to include anything from shrimp to caramelized brussels sprouts to potato chips. It's not glamorous, but it’s comfort food writ large, developed during the Great Depression as a way to stretch meat and make use of leftovers. If you’re not lucky enough to have a great-aunt in Duluth, you can sample hotdish at restaurants like The Mason Jar in Eagan.   

Homemade Fried Ravioli with Marinara Sauce and Basil

bhofack2 / Getty images

Missouri: Toasted Ravioli

T-rav, as the locals call it, stems from a happy accident: A local cook missed the hot water and dropped some ravioli into hot oil, sprinkled some Parmesan cheese on top and presto! — a crispy classic was born. Now it’s a destination dish that can be found all over St. Louis but particularly on the Hill, the Italian neighborhood, where restaurants with names such as Mama’s and Zia’s are as welcoming as the Midwestern residents. “The key is the tangy tomato sauce for dipping. That’s what gives t-rav that Grandma-made-this-just-for-me feeling,” says area food blogger Josie Bell.

Nebraska: Runza

You can’t have too many variations on the brilliant meat-in-a-bread-pocket concept, can you? Nebraska’s version, which was brought to the state by German and Russian immigrants, and also called bierocks, features sautéed beef, cabbage, onions and spices, baked in fresh dough. The result is a juicy, hot and hearty sandwich that’s available all over the state — but it’s a trademarked name belonging to, yes, Runza, an 82-restaurant chain that opened its first shop in 1949 and has baked the sandwiches on-site at University of Nebraska football games for more than 30 years. As many as 10,000 Runzas are gobbled up at every Cornhuskers game.  

North Dakota: Lefse

This state's got some serious Norwegian roots, shown most deliciously in lefse, a tortilla-like Scandanavian flatbread made with flour and riced potatoes and cooked on a griddle. Often eaten rolled up with butter and sugar or jam, it’s particularly popular here around Christmastime, and always a hit at the big Scandinavian festival Norsk Høstfest (billed as “pure Scandimonium!”) in Minot, usually in late September. You can also try the carbtastic treat in West Fargo at Freddy’s Lefse, which has been baking lefse since 1946, and at Charlotte’s Homemade Lefse in Erdmore.

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Ohio: Cincinnati chili

The long-ago inspiration of Macedonian immigrants, this dish is made of spiced-meat sauce plopped on spaghetti, then topped with a whole lot of grated cheddar, kidney beans and/or chopped onion. No twirling; you eat it with a knife and fork. The whole stomach-stretching shebang is called a five-way. Drop the beans and you’ve got a four-way.

South Dakota: Kuchen

The South Dakota Legislature actually has an official definition of the state dessert: “a sweet dough crust filled with custard” that is served plain or “studded with fruit.” But the German cake (that’s what kuchen, pronounced “ku-gen,” means), brought to the state by Russian-German immigrants in the 1880s, varies widely, often resembling cheesecake, coffee cake or pie, with fillings ranging from apples to peaches. You can find some of the best at Pietz’s Kuchen Kitchen & Specialties in the town of Scotland, whose kuchen are also sold in many stores around the state.

Wisconsin: Friday fish fry

The Catholic community’s Friday fish fry tradition blossomed in Milwaukee during Prohibition — some say serving the dish was a way for speakeasies to hide the smell of alcohol — and is now found at countless taverns around town. Go hungry: You’ll usually get a hearty dish of cod fried in a beer batter, served with tartar sauce, creamy coleslaw, French fries and sometimes rye bread. If you do it the old Milwaukee way, you’ll wash it down with a local brew or two.

With reporting and writing from Larry Bleiberg, Ken Budd, Chris Hall and Dana Rebmann

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