We have finally passed from “Pumpkin Spice” season. So many foods have been shellac’d with the tell-tale pie flavors of the gourd–all spice, cinnamon and nutmeg–that the once-beloved trio has lost all meaning. This is made most evident in J. Bryan Louder’s experience on the “Pumpkin Spice Diet” as told in Slate. To this we’ve come; a world where the Heartland flavors are exploited; the harvest bounty expressed as a mere additive to processed foods. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the things we love most become commodified and often do. I have noticed the Autumnal assault on pumpkins, for example, and I am sure you have as well. When I was a kiddo, pumpkins came in two basic forms–the pumpkin pie, and the jack-o-lantern. Big Food, Big Candy and Big Coffee have taken that cherished seasonal flavor and applied it to every other consumable in the free market. Consider that the “Green Mermaid” is celebrating its tenth year of Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Hershey has infused pumpkin into their Kisses. Booze comes in pumpkin flavors. And all fail to satisfy like Grandma’s pumpkin pie.
I blame the foodies and their saints who hold court on food television. They have scourged every corner of America to upend those special foods for poaching by opportunists. Having said that, I am conflicted about sharing some of my guilty food pleasures found in the American Heartland. Yet I am reassured that since they have survived unsullied in their natural habitat for so long, that they will remain a regional favorite beyond the interest of mass production. In her 2011 cookbook, Heartland, Judith Fertig captured the agrestic qualities of the cuisine, even if some of her recipes were gentrified for the East Coast dwellers and Midwest expatriates that miss the flavors of the breadbasket but cannot surrender their acquired Champagne tastes and passion for places like Dean and Deluca.
When I think of food from the Heartland, the fare is simplified. A farmer’s breakfast is much like its cousin from across the pond—eggs, pork in its glorious incarnations of bacon, sausage and ham, a hearty carbohydrate in the form of white or wheat bread, with canyons to hold the reservoirs of butter and jam. Unlike the full English breakfast, the Heartland variety will have potatoes—either hashed or home fried. This particular diet has been recently made famous by Ron Swanson, fictional libertarian bureaucrat of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” fame, who subsists on a farmer’s diet of bacon and eggs and steak. This diet is called “paleolithic” by the jet-setting, bi-coastal, urban types. Farm boys can eat 10,000 calories with abandon, knowing they will burn it off over the course of a hard day’s labor farmside.
Hoosier food–food favorites from Indiana–is a subspecies on the Heartland culinary family tree. As is most often the case, the cuisine is a blend of what is produced on the farm and off the land, using the old-world recipes and vocabularies passed down from pioneer mother to native-born daughter. At first glance, Hoosier cuisine seems nothing more than an invitation to a heart attack. Surely, it could be so. However, the ways by which Hoosiers take the fruits of the farm and transform them into plated pleasure is worthy of protection and esteem. That is at least the opinion of the Indiana Foodways Alliance, that seeks to protect Hoosier food in the same manner as Kentucky Bourbon or French Champagne. There is a bit more to Hoosier food of course than a Rockwellesque idyll. Orville Reddenbacher, from Valparaiso, Indiana, made popcorn ubiquitous. Little known outside of Indiana was his cross-state rival, Wilfred “Cousin Willie” Sieg. Even a state as small as Indiana can have an industry rivalry akin to PC vs. Apple. Or on the dessert end, Hoosiers added dairy to the Pennsylvanian shoo-fly pie to create an even higher octane sugar creme–or “Hoosier” pie. Lastly, the burger chain Steak and Shake, while founded in Illinois, is headquartered in Indianapolis.
Deep in Hoosier country, the region of Southern Indiana is a best kept secret of the Midwest. When the bi-coastal snobs think of Indiana, they think of flatlands filled with amber waves of grain. To the contrary, the Ohio River Valley–where the region lies–is hardly flat. Unblemished by the brute force of glaciers, the region remains hilly and remote. And in those hilly knobs and deep ravines, people have lived relatively quite lives, playing up their proximity to Kentucky Bluegrass, Bourbon and river rats. In one such hamlet, named Gnaw Bone, the traveler can find a remnant of the region’s German heritage, adapted for its Hoosier surroundings–the Hoosier Tenderloin sandwich.
The tenderloin, as the locals call it, is essentially Wiener Schnitzel on a hilariously tiny hamburger bun. Using pork over veal, the tenderloin fillet is pounded paper thin, drenched in flour and deep fried. While likely “invented” in Huntington, Indiana, the folks at Gnaw Bone Food and Fuel (now the “Gnaw Mart”) have perfected it. So popular are the sandwiches in the region that they have become required eating for politicians. In 2006, for example, then-Senator Dick Lugar took the Gnaw Bone breaded tenderloins to DC for his fellow senators for a luncheon. And when offering advice to national politicians campaigning in Indiana, pundit Brian Howley offered this advice:
“Get [the candidate] familiar with the pork tenderloin sandwich and what to say about it. Remind him that we are not “Indianians” but Hoosiers. Give him better lines than “South Bend is in the north and North Vernon is in the south.” Have him listen to some Mellencamp. He needs to know about Tony Stewart, Butler Bulldogs and Crystal Gayle.” [emphasis added]
Further down the road, in the hill town of Nashville, Indiana (pop. 3200) is the Nashville General Store. At the back of the store is a short-order kitchen that serves up the local favorite–fried biscuits and apple butter. The biscuit is a misnomer–this is a small, fried doughnut coated in cinnamon sugar. The hot oil absorbed in the biscuit combined with the sweet local apple butter creates Indiana’s answer to umami.
Those foods are not likely candidates for the next Starbucks Latte or small plate boulangerie, as consuming them daily may lead to an untimely demise. Of course, not all local delicacies are found in the hillside. My first re-entry into this corner of America was at a Circle K. And the exchange there reminded me that I was no longer among the Michael Bloomberg’s of the world. At the Circle K outside of Bloomington, Indiana, I was looking for a fountain soda. And, as any Circle K customer knows, the store is home to the Polar Pop–their answer to the 7-11 Big Gulp. All sizes of the Polar Pop are always $0.89, as if the laws of economics do not apply beyond the threshold. Being modest, I reach for the 20oz Styrofoam chalice, pointedly erect alongside the gauntlet of Pepsi and Coke products.
A local notices my action, taking it for a lapse in judgement.
“You know, you can get the 44 oz for the same price,” he offered, in a twang that sounded more annoyed than sympathetic.
“Nah, that’s alright,” I said. “I’m just not that thirsty.”
I thought I detected, above the buzz of the soda nozzle and clunking of the ice dispenser a polite, yet definite “Hmph.”
I’d like to think that Hoosier food is, to borrow the phrase from Gershwin, a “sometime thing.” Admittedly, many of my neighbors do not find it so. And here in the Heartland, it is no crime against humanity to consume these things routinely. Mr. 44oz was spry, and dare I say, fit. I was the one chained to an office desk for 6 years. He’s been working with his hands twice that long, and likely burned off whatever carbs he freebased into his system. Maybe next time, I’ll get my 89 cents worth, and take a long walk too to try to balance out the bloat.
Aside for the obvious market for the Polar Pop (not an Indiana native, but happy carpetbagger), I do not know if Hoosier food will ever be commodified like pumpkins, wasabi peas, PBR our whatever else the hipsters are into. It would be a sad day if I saw apple butter exploited the same way, or a Hoosier tenderloin available at a drive-thru in Seattle or Miami. Some foods are best enjoyed in situ–in their natural setting. I couldn’t imagine Hoosier food outside of Indiana. It’d cease being Hoosier food.
Fried Biscuits Photo credit: http://oc2seattle.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/exploring-dining-in-nashville-indiana/