Episodes: There is no good food in the Midwest


I am spending the weekend in the Midwest for a family event, and the stay has finally confirmed something I have long suspected but didn't want to think about too hard: There is no good food in the Midwest. The very ethos of the Midwest is anti-flavor.

Now, of course, there are good restaurants dotted around the Midwest, particularly in cities like Chicago or Minneapolis, but also in small towns with really great steakhouses. (The Midwestern steakhouse is a helluva thing, perhaps because you can still make a pretty good steak if the quality of meat is high enough, and the meat in the Midwest is high quality indeed.)

But having lived in California for long enough now, I'm constantly flummoxed when I come home by how the foods I eat in the Midwest don't seem to have spices in them other than salt and pepper, how it seems, constantly, like everything has had the flavor forcibly wrung out of it, in hopes of hitting a 6 on the culinary scale -- just good enough to be better than your generic fast food burger, but not so intense as to inspire anything other than, "that was pretty good."

I was thinking about this today, at the place I ate lunch, which was, indeed, pretty good, with a few standout baked goods, but was also a place that was largely unmemorable when it came to its cuisine. The chicken was overcooked and dry. The mashed potatoes had obviously come from a box. Everything tasted just a little too salty, and a little too sweet.

The main distinguishing point of the restaurant was that it had a huge menu. And I mean huge. It was 10 or 12 pages long, and didn't seem to have any real form of organization, bouncing merrily among breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes, with occasional pauses to list alcoholic beverages and "coffee drinks."

Baffled by this menu, I did what any coastal elite might do and turned to my smartphone, looking for recommendations. I found them on Yelp, but the recommendations were so generic as to be completely unhelpful. One commended the restaurant for having some degree of outdoor seating. Another just said that "brunch" was good. Finally, the place was commended for having a large menu.

That last review made me realize just why great food struggles to rise out of the Midwest. The long menu was praised because of its wealth of options -- it meant that everybody could find something to eat and leave relatively happy. In this telling, quality was set aside in favor of simple quantity of types of dishes. The more things on the menu, the more likely it was that everybody could find something to eat. Why strive to make a handful of things terrifically when you could make many things taste slightly above average?

This idea -- it's important to make sure everybody is happy -- is core to the Midwest, and core to its lousy dining scene. Drive through a random town in California or Texas or Georgia, and you're almost guaranteed to have some random-ass restaurant that will leave you remembering it fondly for ages to come.

The great blanding effect of Midwest cooking -- smother everything in salt and hope for the best -- means it's the one region of the country where that just isn't true. Even the great Midwestern contribution to American cuisine -- the casserole (or "hot dish" if you're Minnesotan and/or Lutheran) -- is a gigantic combination of elements, tossed into the same pan, then made into homogenous glop. It's conformity pretending to be food.

I think "It's important to make sure everybody is happy" is a pretty good philosophy to lead your life by. (Then again, I'm from the Midwest. I would think that.) But when you actually take it out on the road, it tends to lead to situations where a broad, mushy middle defines everything and is too slow to call out anything that's sub-par. If everybody is happy, then nobody is, not really, and you probably have a lot of people on either edge of the continuum who feel viscerally let down by the product.

"Pretty good" is a great way to end up with a lot of dissatisfaction, and having a big menu that tries to appeal to everybody is just a delayed promise of everybody feeling a little let down at the end of the meal, but not being quite sure why.

Make of that what you will.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.