Eight different sausages were served for lunch at the inaugural symposium of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance last month. There were Chicago Polishes, Wisconsin brats, Illinois smoked bratwurst, Toledo-bred Hungarian sausages, and Springfield-style corn dogs. A Michigan hot dog got the Coney Island treatment (which originated in southeast Michigan), and a Vienna Beef wiener got the classic Chicago fixings. And then there was the south-side specialty known as the mother-in-law, where the so-called sausage is a meat-stuffed tamale covered with chili and served on a bun.
Attendees lined up before buffet tables in a demonstration classroom at Kendall College and piled the meats on their plates, dressing them with the appropriate condiments-mustard, kraut, sport peppers, onions, or in the case of the Michigan dogs, Flint-style Coney sauce, a ground beef chililike mixture that Macedonian peddlers cook up with a bit of heart and kidney in the pot. There was no ketchup in sight.
After presentations on the science of sausage by Iowa State professor Robert Rust and small-scale sausage production by meat-market owner Randy Ream, Vienna Beef VP Bob Schwartz must have sensed the audience slipping into a collective postprandial coma. “I want everybody to stand up,” he said. “Put your hands in the air, count to three, and shout hot dog. One, two, three!” Academics, chefs, journalists, and regular food enthusiasts complied without argument.
The alliance’s half-dozen-member founding board-which includes Roosevelt University food historian Bruce Kraig and Kendall culinary arts dean Chris Koetke-would have been pleased if 50 people had showed up for their first event. About twice that number paid $30 to $35 to get into “Stuffed: A Journey of Midwestern Sausage Traditions.”
The idea of creating an organization “dedicated to celebrating, exploring, and preserving unique food traditions and their cultural contexts in the American Midwest,” as the Foodways Web site puts it, has been around for a while. Back in 2000, scholars at Michigan State hit up the National Endowment for the Humanities for the funding to get one started, inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance, which sponsors everything from oral histories to documentaries to conferences.
They didn’t get it, but Kraig, founder of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, kept looking for ways to move forward. In 2004 he became the traveling scholar for a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit called “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” which visited museums and historical societies in 11 small Illinois towns. He gave talks about midwestern food traditions, occasionally enlisting Cathy Lambrecht, a moderator on LTHForum, to lecture on the history of pie. Along the way they quizzed the locals on regional restaurants and specialties.
Kraig was fascinated by the way immigration patterns had influenced regional foodways. He became particularly interested in Illinois River towns like Chillicothe, north of Peoria, an English-German enclave whose economy was once largely based on harvesting oysters and clams from the river. Locals ate them only in hard times-they prized them for their shells, used in button manufacturing-but they did hunt ducks and fish for carp, which was shipped to Chicago to produce gefilte fish. Thanks to overfishing and pollution, not many shellfish come from the Illinois River anymore, but there are still restaurants in the area that serve a seasonal local specialty: fried turtle.
Kraig and the others were convinced that the food cultures of the Great Plains and upper midwest were diverse and significant enough to warrant an organization dedicated to preserving them. But they didn’t know if anybody else would be interested. They decided to try to find out when Oxford University Press gave them $500 to hold an event promoting The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
To plan the symposium, Kraig and Lambrecht huddled with Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge for advice. A discussion of the iconic Chicago hot dog gave rise to the idea of focusing on sausage specialties across the region. As word spread, culinary historians came forward to donate time and money. Corporations stepped up too: by August the group had secured donations from the farm co-op Organic Valley, Eli’s Cheesecake, and Treasure Island. Board member Kantha Shelke, a CHC member and food scientist with lots of industry contacts, hooked up with the Almond Board of California, which has pledged $7,000 to help fund future programs, starting in January with another symposium titled “A Journey of Midwestern Nut and Dessert Traditions.”
At last month’s sausage symposium food historian Andy Smith put forth the controversial idea that a hamburger is a type of sausage. During researcher Peter Engler’s presentation on the mother-in-law, he ventured that “a lot of Greeks were involved in the early tamale trade.” Bob Schwartz offered that Vienna Beef hot dogs are made from 75 percent bull meat because it has good color and binds well. Trudy Paradis, the grandmotherly author of Milwaukee Germans: Their History, Their Food, brought along a giant plush brat, explaining that such items were popular at tailgate parties outside Miller Park. “Do you do that?” she asked the audience.
When the meeting adjourned at four o’clock, about 20 people signed up to work with the alliance. Its next steps are to apply for not-for-profit status and solicit more contributions. Lambrecht and Kraig want to be sure the group isn’t Chicago-centric, so they want out-of-towners to get involved and hold their own regional meetings. They’re holding off on drawing up bylaws and recruiting general memberships until people like that get on board. “We’ve got one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake,” says Lambrecht.
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Smoked brats from Ream’s Elburn Market in Elburn, Illinois by Ron Kaplan.