Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review: Prairie Home Cooking

Year: 1999

Recipes? Yes.

Grade: A reluctant C-.

I moved to Austin from Wisconsin with a four year book-learnin' stint in Iowa in between, and occasionally I get the question “What is Midwestern cooking like, exactly?” My Texan buddies look around them and see very well-defined Texan staples such as tacos, kolache, and the ever-present omelette with sauce on it (which I STILL don't understand, but no one else seems to find strange), and I can understand their confusion. I usually start out with discussing Wisconsin's German, Polish and Scandanavian heritage and tell them about microbreweries and sausage, and usually I mention Chicago style pizza/hot dogs and Minnesotan hot dish.

A well meaning, extremely Texan friend of mine who also went to school in Iowa responded to this question a little bit differently. She told them about jello salad. She told them that if someone asked you to bring a salad to a party, you had to ask them whether or not they meant leaf salad, potato salad, or jello salad. She described some trip she took to a friend's Minnesotan parents' house at which there were numerous types of jello salad, with marshmallows and pineapple, but also chicken and almonds and curry and lord knows what else. Everyone looked at her in awe, having never heard of jello salad, and even though I tried to explain that actually, jello salad is incredibly old fashioned, not Midwestern and that there is actually a huge difference, beer and horror overpowered them and I fear I failed to remove this impression.

I've had jello salad, yes. I had it prepared for me by a 70 year old woman who used to take care of my sister and I after school. I know what it is, yes, but I also collect mid-century cookbooks. The food of my youth was a combination of German staples and fresh local produce and easy, quick things my parents made after work, and none of these are really all that different from what people down here eat. The reason Judith Fertig's Prairie Home Cooking appealed to me was because it reminded me of the food I ate at potlucks and barbecues and super bowl parties growing up. It was full of slightly hippie-ized versions of Old World classics, with a healthy dash of Wisconsin staples like cranberries and wild rice thrown in. I saw it first at the college bookstore in Grinnell and fell in love; I bought it the day before I left Iowa because I knew I couldn't leave the Midwest without it.

Unfortunately, the recipes don't work. It is with great, great regret that I say this, because I would love to write a glowing review and use it as my go-to Midwestern reference book, but they are just awful. Take the first recipe I tried, the “Eagle River Venison and Cranberry Deep Dish Pie.” It tasted, as my boyfriend so generously put it, like I had “accidentally dropped some meat into a pot of jam.” (Full disclosure: I used pork instead of venison. We're in Texas. I'm sorry.) The “Honeyed Carrot-Ginger Marmalade” didn't suffer from such problems as it never fully materialized into a spreadable consistency. The “Asparagus, Goat Cheese, and Fresh Herb Bread Pudding” turned out a little better, but the combination of bread and goat cheese made it crumbly and dry in my mouth; I would've used something that would melt smoother, possibly Parmesan or goat Gouda. I also made “Herbed Buttermilk Dressing,” which was the only recipe I'd actually possibly use again, although I'd remake it with dill instead of chives and omit the raw garlic.

Combine my general lack of success and the twee paragraphs introducing each recipe (“Driving down to Wichita from Kansas City, you might stop for lunch in a small-town cafe. The menu may be limited—mostly sandwiches, burgers, soups and pies—and it may or may not be the best food you've ever tasted.”) and I think the only way I can recommend Prairie Home Cooking is in the same way I defend Garrison Keillor: I know it has faults, but I grew up with it. Please, please, please don't think about it to hard.

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