North Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture Communication
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November 29, 2001

Plains Folk: Cookbooks

Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University

 

As an advocate of regional cuisine for the sake of Great Plains identityĖas well as an enthusiastic eaterĖI frequently note great grassroots compilations of regional food traditions. Iíll mention a couple here for the benefit of those seeking to enliven their holiday or winter cooking.

One of the great restaurants of the Great Plains is the Hays House 1857 of Council Grove, Kan., which bills itself as the "Oldest Continuous Restaurant West of the Mississippi." Its cookbook, Favorite Recipes from the Hays House, records the culinary classics rendered by former owners Charlie and Helen Judd and current owners Rick and Alisa Paul, along with several distinguished cooks who have served the establishment with distinction.

The fare of the Hays House is regional synthesis at its best. Favorite Recipes is not just a catalog of recipes; it is a story, a document recording the evolution of cooking and eating that takes place when creative cooks take traditional foodways, add their own ideas, and interact with the Great Plains public. Itís a grand metaphor for regional life, and a good life at that.

Personal favorites from the Hays House: the barley casserole, the piquant carrots, and forgive my excess, that darned Kahlua pie. Address inquires about Favorite Recipes to the Hays House, 112 West Main, Council Grove KS 66846-1703.

For years, too, Iíve admired the hearty cooking of the Germans from Russia. Now welcome to my mailbox comes Sei Unser Gast ("Be Our Guest"), kindly sent me by Sam Brungardt. Perhaps you saw Sam in that wonderful documentary from Prairie Public Television, Schmeckfest, making Pfeffernuessebrod with watermelon syrup.

Sei Unser Gast, which Sam edited, was issued in a revised edition (12th printing overall) by the North Star Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in 2001. That chapter is in Bloomington, Minnesota, reflecting the circumstance that in the past two generations many thousands of Germans from Russia have moved into cities on the eastern border of the plains, but nevertheless remain strongly conscious of their ethnic plains identity.

Samís own family roots, although he now lives in St. Paul, are in Ellis County, Kansas, where he grew up "enjoying the hearty and plain cooking of my German Russian-born grandmother and great-aunts." He brings to Sei Unser Gast the recipes and customs of his Volga German roots, whereas most of his German-Russian friends in the city contributing to the compilation are Black Sea Germans from the Dakotas.

I refer to an "ethnic plains" identity of German-Russians to recognize that there are layers of experience, including, along with old-country ways, the influences of North America. Sei Unser Gast includes a recipe for Pheasant Fricassee, a dish dating from mid-twentieth century. It happens that on both the central plains and the northern plains the German-Russians inhabited localities where ringneck pheasants proliferated when introduced to this continent.

Too, itís fascinating to find blended in one compilation the distinct food traditions of the various branches of German-Russian identity. Here are the signature foods of each branchĖthe bierocks or runzas (baked meat and cabbage buns, the term depending on whether youíre from Kansas or Nebraska) of the Volga Germans, the fleischkuechle (fried meat pies) of the Black Sea Germans, the zwieback (double-decker rolls) of the Mennonites. Here also are many more obscure items, such as watermelon syrup, and the spiced bread made with it. Cultural and sometimes personal notes enrich the compilation, explaining, for instance, the difference in dough between Black Sea German Kuchen (a pie-like pastry) and Volga German Kuchen.

Sei Unser Gast is available to individuals or retailers from the North Star Chapter of the AHSGR, PO Box 583642, Minneapolis MN 55458-3642.

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Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2941, tom@plainsfolk.com 
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865, gmoran@ndsuext.nodak.edu 

 

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