Page to Plate: Cooking From Kitchens of the Great Midwest
I always love stumbling upon recipes in books. It’s so rare that you can pull such a specific detail out of a story and make it real, but when you find a recipe, you can. And then you can eat it. I thought it would be fun to make recipes as I find them in books and share them with you here. Last time, I made the perfect sandwich.
The Book: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel
I picked up Kitchens of the Great Midwest because 1) it has a gorgeous cover, and 2) kitchens and the Great Midwest happen to be two of my favorite things. I had a lot of ideas about this book before I started reading it: I was hoping it would be a cheffy memoir, because I love cheffy memoirs. I was hoping it would be about fancy food and how the Midwest is not only Great but The Greatest. Instead, I got a novel about how good, simple food, handled with care and creativity, is the best food, and good, simple people, handled with the same care, are some of the best people. What I wanted was a book that yelled, like I sometimes do, that Midwest is Best, that we can be fancy and important too. What I got was a book that showed that worth doesn’t come from fanciness and importance isn’t dependent on other people’s opinions.
I almost never like books that can be described as “a series of interwoven vignettes.” I either want a group of short stories or a novel. None of this in-between stuff or I will spit you out of my mouth. What Stradel does, though, is take a series of eight vignettes, all from different perspectives (a chef, a church lady, a college student, a hunter), and tell the life story of world-famous chef Eva Thorvald. Each chapter focuses on a dish or ingredient that is important to Eva, and Stradel shows just small glimpses of Eva that pull together to create a full picture of the woman. Simple ingredients, handled carefully, to create a delicious whole.
The Food: Pat Prager’s Peanut Butter Bars
When I saw that Kitchens featured recipes, I was sure I would have something fancy and exciting to pull out and cook. I read through several chapters waiting for something to pop out at me, but all of the recipes were just normal food. In fact, all of the recipes included in the book are pulled from a church cookbook that the author found. You know the ones: the floppy little books with the plastic binding and recipes listed listed alphabetically by contributor. I spent hours when I was little, pulling church cookbooks out of my grandma’s kitchen drawers and finding names I recognized.
So, instead of making something complicated and expensive, I ended up making Pat Prager’s peanut butter bars, which, although they have two of my favorite ingredients in them (peanut butter and chocolate), I probably would never have made otherwise. They are no-bake! And I am kind of a snob! Baking isn’t baking if it is no-bake! But then these took me about 15 minutes to put together and were maybe the most popular foodstuff I have offered to my coworkers, so that shows what snobbery will get you.
In the spirit of the book, I went with high-quality ingredients where I thought it made sense to upgrade: good butter (which also plays a role in the book), and a good quality peanut butter. I suspect that some of the wonderful crunchy texture of the bars came from the sort of stone-ground texture of the Smucker’s Natural peanut butter, even though I went with creamy. I thought very briefly about trying to make graham crackers to make my own graham crackers, but I am a snob, not a crazy person.
2 ½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
1 cup melted Grade A butter
1 c peanut butter
2 ½ c powdered sugar
1 cup milk chocolate chips with 1 teaspoon Grade A butter
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter, and sugar. Put into a greased 9-by-13 inch pan. Melt the chips and butter and spread them on top of the bars. Set in the refrigerator until firm. Cut into bars.
That’s it. Truly, 15 minutes, tops. Make sure you spread the chocolate pretty. When I was done, I stood around my kitchen listlessly, wondering if I still had time to invent graham crackers. Then I realized that the wonder of quick recipes is that they allow you to do other things with your life besides cook and clean up after cooking, which is some beautiful Midwestern efficiency. In the book, Pat Prager wins bake-offs year after year with this recipe, and I didn’t want to believe that could be true. And then my 9-by-13 was emptied in record time. I wondered out-loud if I should mayyyybe cut down on some of the sugar, you know, because this recipe is currently mostly sugar, but I was told emphatically not to mess with a good thing. Sometimes you just have to trust the wisdom of a Midwestern church lady.