When you live in the Midwest, the most basic all-American foods around you—everything from burgers and ice cream to coffee and doughnuts—tend to come with their own signature, geographically specific quirks. Whether you hail from St. Louis, Missouri (where I spent several food-happy years) or St. Paul, Minnesota, the Great Plains or the Great Lakes, this mini-glossary of Midwestern delicacies is bound to get you nostalgic for the regional flavors you know and love.
1. Toasted ravioli
A St. Louis staple, toasted raviolis are meat-stuffed morsels that come with a cup of marinara for dipping. The finger food is found at many of the city’s Italian joints, as well as almost any local bar. (Fun fact: They’re actually not toasted, but deep-fried!)
2. Gerber sandwich
St. Louis’ open-faced creation piles ham and Provel cheese (a local fave that’s kinda like provolone) atop a slab of Italian or French bread; the whole thing is then slathered with garlic butter, toasted and topped with a sprinkle of paprika. Ruma’s Deli is a great place to get one.
An ungodly yet sinfully good platter of fried eggs, hash browns and hamburger patties smothered in chili, shredded cheese and diced onions, St. Louis’s slinger sounds like a breakfast-time feast, but it’s usually ordered at 24-hour diners in the wee hours after a night of drinking. Cholesterol is a hangover deterrent, right?
4. St. Louis-style pizza
The pride of the Gateway City, St. Louis-style pizza is a round pie with a cracker-thin crust that swaps out mozzarella for Provel (see also: Gerber sandwich) and is traditionally cut into small squares rather than long triangular slices. Beloved local chain Imo’s stakes its reputation on St. Louis pizza (slogan: “The square beyond compare”), while non-St. Louisans tend to find it an affront to their tastebuds (if not to Italian-American cuisine in general).
5. Chicago-style hot dogs
Also known as Chicago red hots, these Windy City wieners follow a strict recipe: an all-beef frank on a poppy bun, garnished with onions, relish, a pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt and mustard—never ketchup!
6. Frango mints
Made popular at Illinois’s erstwhile Marshall Field’s stores (and now sold at Macy’s and other retailers), Frango mints have been part of Midwesterners’ holiday gatherings and visits to Grandma since 1929. The truffle-like candies were even produced on the 13th floor of downtown Chicago’s flagship Marshall Field’s for more than 70 years. Their signature dark-green boxes bring back a flood of memories for scores of Midwesterners.
What Midwesterners call mostaccioli, you might call baked ziti (although technically, a mostaccioli noodle is like a narrower version of penne). The dish is typically served by the tray at family gatherings and made with a meaty tomato sauce. And funny enough, most Italian-Americans have never heard of it.
8. Beer nuggets
These chunks of deep-fried pizza dough were allegedly invented at Pizza Villa in De Kalb, Illinois (home of Northern Illinois University) to satisfy drunk college kids’ insatiable appetites on the cheap. They don’t contain any beer, but those who eat them sure do.
9. Blue Moon ice cream
Smurf-like in hue and Froot Loop-y in flavor, blue moon ice cream is largely found in Upper Midwest states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But what exactly gives the treat its surprising taste? Good luck getting to the bottom of that one; purveyors are notoriously tight-lipped about their secret recipes.
This thick meat and vegetable stew is a traditional food served at parties throughout the Upper Midwest. Families, communities and churches make use of steel “booyah kettles” that can feed dozens or even hundreds of people at a time at annual booyah get-togethers. While the dish is simple and hearty, it often involves a two-day process to prepare; cooking the booyah’s bone broth from scratch is a can’t-skip first step.
11. Butter burgers
In Wisconsin especially, burgers are better with butter. At the famous burger chain Culver’s, buns are buttered and lightly toasted. Other local eateries might even mix butter into their burger patties. What else would you expect from America’s Dairyland?
12. Cannibal sandwich
Steak tartare patties nestled between slices of cocktail bread, cannibal sandwiches are especially popular among Germans in Wisconsin at Christmastime. But watch out: Locals were sickened a few years ago when the raw-beef treats were linked to a bacterial outbreak.
These meat-and-veggie hand pies are particularly popular in Michigan, where there’s even an annual Pasty Fest held every June along the state’s Upper Peninsula. The portable meals were often made for miners to take with them for underground lunches.
14. Mangoes, aka green bell peppers
In various corners of the Midwest, including southern Ohio and southeast Kansas, green bell peppers are colloquially called mangoes. Why? Some people think it’s because a ripening green pepper, with its splotches of red, yellow and orange, resembles a mango.
15. Graeter’s ice cream
A Cincinnati favorite, Graeter’s uses the “French pot” method of ice cream-making, a small-batch, handmade process that allows less air to get whipped into the creamy frozen treat. C’est magnifique!
16. Hot dish
Minnesotan for “casserole,” hot dish is often made with ‘50s-housewife-fave ingredients, like canned cream of mushroom soup and tater tots. If you’ve ever attended a potluck dinner in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, then you’ve definitely had hot dish. (You betcha!)
17. Swedish egg coffee
Coffee made with raw egg sounds like the kind of kitchen mistake you’d make if you tried cooking breakfast before your first cup of morning joe. But not only is this one-of-a-kind beverage sold (on purpose!) at the Minnesota state fair every summer, you can also find versions that throw in ground-up eggshell as well. (Don’t worry, the coffee is strained.)
18. Pork tenderloin sandwiches
This Iowa and Indiana favorite starts with cuts of pork that are pounded pancake-thin, then breaded, fried and baked so they’re crispy outside and juicy inside. They’re traditionally served with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle; you’ll know yours is authentic if the cutlet measures about twice as big as the soft hamburger bun it’s on.
19. Taco pizza
It’s hard to say which part of this culinary curio, invented in the Quad Cities area along the Iowa-Illinois border, is more bizarro: the pizza or the taco. Pizzas here traditionally start with a thin, malt-heavy crust; to make a taco pizza, you then add such “Mexican” toppings as Heinz taco sauce and tortilla chips. But perhaps most mind-blowing of all? Pizzas in the Quad Cities are cut into strips with scissors.
20. Brats and beer brats
Tailgating party, Oktoberfest, state fair, backyard barbecue: Throughout the Midwest, there’s no wrong occasion for munching on a bratwurst. Boiling one of these German-style sausages in beer before slapping it on the grill makes it a beer brat, and an extra-tasty one at that.
21. Long johns
These are long, narrow doughnuts, usually topped with chocolate icing. They may remind non-Midwesterners of an eclair or some other cream-stuffed pastry, except a long john is never filled (although it’s definitely filling).
This Polish pastry is traditionally eaten on Mardi Gras in many parts of the Midwest where populations of Polish immigrants have traditionally lived, especially Detroit.
23. Funnel cake on a stick and other state-fair foods
Plenty of fairs throughout the country offer funnel cake, but only in the Midwest will you find the fried-dough delight on a stick. In fact, as any born-and-bred Midwesterner will tell you, the feats of finger-food engineering sold at state fairs are worth a visit unto themselves. Apple pie on a stick? Check. Deep-fried Milky Way on a stick? Of course! Caprese salad on a stick? Believe it or not, yes.
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