Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food
by Peggy Wolff, Editor
University of Nebraska Press, 2013
Review by Grace Pauley
Canned vegetables, cornmeal, and gravies have flavored most of my life. I was raised on the hillsides of Appalachia, but for five short years I lived in the Midwest. My last years of elementary school and my middle-school were spent in Fargo, North Dakota. Before moving, my family visited the city looking for a house. It was during this trip that I first tasted lefse. Lefse is a traditional Norwegian dessert; in Fargo it’s a delicacy. It’s a tortilla made out of potatoes, spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar, and then rolled. It looks like a sad pastry. I hated it, although it was probably the best (and only) homemade treat I ate while there.
Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie has a much different take on Midwestern food. This anthology is a collection of loving, first-hand accounts of baking, eating, and cooking by food writers with a rich understanding of Midwestern taste. The book is divided into five sections and includes pieces about everything from memorable Midwestern delicacies to savory family holidays. These range from tragic tales of the quest for a breaded, tenderloin pork sandwich to memories about the Minnesota state fair. Each piece is perfectly paired with endearing sketches and complimentary introductions. Some essays even come complete with recipes.
My favorite section was the first, “Midwestern Staples.” On the last day of our week long house hunting vacation in Fargo, we had breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast was included, but, instead of the average assorted buffet, we were seated at a table with wrapped silverware. At this point, I was overwhelmed after seeing so many potential future homes. I was ready to go back to my home. While glancing over the menu, I spotted comfort food: biscuits and gravy. The biscuits arrived doughy and the gravy was bland. Ironically, this disappointing experience with Midwestern food is why I enjoyed this part of the book. During our trip, I was relying on familiar foods in an unfamiliar place. No, it wasn’t the biscuits n’ gravy of my childhood, but it was comforting all the same. And although I’d later find out the food I was eating wasn’t traditionally Midwestern, it turns out my experience was. In the very first essay, Elizabeth Berg describes the same predicament but with meatloaf:
It wasn’t like my aunt Lala’s and it wasn’t like mine, you could tell. The truth is, it sort of looked like dog food. But it was meatloaf, symbol of too much to pass up. I bought it all.I’ll admit: I don’t like meatloaf. And, honestly, I didn’t enjoy most of what I ate in Fargo. But this is the very reason I liked reading Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: its authors were able to do for me what its food could not—give me a true appreciation for Midwestern food. Not because it persuaded me to appreciate the Scandinavian cuisine of Fargo, but because this anthology allowed me to compare Midwesterners’ mealtime sentiments to my own. And these sentiments, regardless of the food they’re related to, are always delicious. I probably won’t give lefse another try, but I found myself willing to open my mind, and my mouth, to the tasty treasures these writers vouch for. Perhaps I’ll even give meatloaf another shot.
Note: You can read the reviewer's interview with Editor Peggy Wolff here.