Central Plains

Regional History and Influence on Cuisine


The first Europeans to travel through the Central Plains were the French fur traders, known as “mountain men,” in the 1600s. Although they were not settlers, they did establish outposts in the region. These outposts were significant because only there could the mountain men obtain food and supplies. Typically, the foods available in the outposts were those from the local area. Relatively few changes occurred in the Central Plains over the next century and a half.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. This event, known as the Louisiana Purchase, included 800,000 square miles of territory west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and north to Canada. The United States had little geographic knowledge of the West at the time of the purchase, so President Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the northern reaches of the new purchase and then to proceed to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River from St. Louis, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and descended the Columbia River on the West Coast. They gathered a vast amount of geographic and scientific information and established diplomatic and trade relations with some Native American tribes. They were later followed by Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long, both of whom explored the central Great Plains area. At that time, the dry, flat, prairie land of the Central Plains offered little to farmers who were used to working on land with plentiful rainfall and having available trees to build houses.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California, and the Oregon and Santa Fe trails opened, signaling the start of the land rush. A few European immigrants and people from other parts of America began to settle in the Great Plains to farm, ranch, build towns, and work on the railroads.

The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged agricultural expansion. The act offered 160 acres virtually free to any citizen willing to develop the land. Lawmakers hoped that the Homestead Act would lead to agricultural development in the western states. Farming families settled on the millions of acres traveled over by those who had migrated to more inviting places on the Pacific Coast. These hardy families farmed the plains with new techniques and equipment developed after the Civil War. The federal government, in an effort to contribute to the development of these new farming methods, conducted research in the newly created Department of Agriculture and endowed agricultural colleges. These universities are today many of the Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa State. To produce crops in an area that had little rainfall, farmers on the Great Plains used new methods of dry farming and irrigated land close to streams. And while the prairies were covered with wild grasses and wildflowers, it was difficult to farm. These grasses had roots deep in the soil, and plows had a hard time cutting through the tangled roots; farmers struggled just to prepare a few acres of land for planting. In 1838, John Deere, a blacksmith living in Illinois, invented a new steel plow that made it easier to turn the soil. These farmers benefited greatly from the industrial revolution, and inventions and innovations in farm machinery have allowed them to continue to cultivate the land and grow more crops.

Immigration and Migration

The Scandinavian Influence

Between 1820 and 1914, over 2 million Scandinavians immigrated to America. Norwegians were the first to arrive, and they began to work along the East Coast as loggers, fishermen, and farmers. Soon, many moved inland, where they found the weather and lands of the Midwest and Central Plains similar to Norway. Around 1840, the Norwegians settled in the area of the upper Mississippi Valley—specifically, the region that today makes up much of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Following the Norwegians were many immigrants from Sweden and Denmark, who also settled in the Central Plains. As this westward migration took place, the Mississippi River quickly became a dividing line between the “civilized” East and the “untamed” West. The Central Plains, with the Mississippi River running through the middle, lured new residents with hopes of agricultural wealth and great prosperity.

These immigrants from northern Europe who settled throughout the Central Plains first learned how to harvest corn and wild rice from the Native Americans. Native Americans taught them techniques for hunting the abundant wild game of the region, including pheasant, quail, grouse, wild turkey, deer, and buffalo. The settlers also learned how to fish in the many rivers and lakes, which contain walleye, yellow perch, trout, and pike, and are home to many varieties of duck, geese, and other waterfowl. Most important, the vast lands were well suited for farming and for grazing livestock. Rustic stews, breads, and the root vegetables that were the traditional foods of Scandinavians became dietary staples. The Scandinavians brought to the area many other food traditions from the Old Country, such as cheese and sausage making, and smoking fish and meat.

The Eastern European Influence

As western migration continued, people from Eastern Europe began to settle in the Central Plains, which also reminded them of their homelands. Germans, Poles, and Austrians settled in Illinois and Iowa as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin. They farmed the land and raised dairy cattle as their primary source of income. Wisconsin became a popular destination of German and Swedish immigrants. Cheese production began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and Cheddar cheese was made in the English tradition while other cheeses from the Old Country, such as brie, ricotta, Limburger, mozzarella, feta, and gouda, were made as well. Two of the three cheeses invented in America-brick and Colby-were first produced in the 1870s. Today, there are over 200 cheese-making plants in Wisconsin alone. Wisconsin is also the number-one dairy state in the country, producing milk, butter, and excellent domestic cheese.
Germans and Bohemians who emigrated to the region brought the art of brewing and their love of beer. The extensive prairies and farmlands of the Central Plains were perfect for growing wheat, oats, barley, rye, and corn, which are the grains used to produce beer. The region's major trade areas of St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Paul, and Kansas City became homes to America's first breweries. By the end of the 19th century, thousands of breweries had sprung up and began to produce unique beers. The great beer industry went into decline during Prohibition, which began in 1920; by 1933, when Prohibition ended, only 400 of the original breweries were able to reopen for business. Although many of the original brewers no longer operate in Milwaukee, residents still enjoy the traditions and culture that beer brewing left behind.

German immigrants also brought their expertise in sausage making. Not only were they experts in sausage production, they were inventive as well. The German farmers of the Central Plains regions originated sausage varieties such as knackwurst, bratwurst, liverwurst, Mettwurst, and Thuringer, which are still popular products today. They also built smokehouses to smoke hams, bacon, and fish from the region's lakes and rivers.

The Effect of the Railroads

The growth of railroads encouraged westward expansion more than any other single development. By the mid-1800s, railroads had connected the East with the West, and the Central Plains became a major hub. Railroads were also responsible for the growth of ranching. After the Civil War there was growing demand for beef in the eastern and northern cities. Railroads provided the means of linking supply with demand. Cattle were herded northward out of Texas along the Chisholm and Great Western trails to towns on the Great Plains. There they were loaded into specially built rail cars and carried to slaughterhouses in Kansas City, Chicago, and other urban centers.

By the late 1800s, cattle drives were no longer necessary. As Native American tribes were defeated, cattle ranching spread into the Great Plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. New breeds of cattle that could withstand the harsh conditions could now be fattened on plains grasses and shipped east with relative ease. Ranching became a big business and many of the largest ranches were owned by corporations funded by millions of dollars in stock sold in the East, Britain, and Europe.
One of the original forces behind westward expansion-farmers looking for better land-was also important in the development of the plains states. The railroads provided a way to transport harvested crops to markets. Men like Adolphus Swift and George A. Hormel developed methods of keeping food refrigerated in railcars so that quality and sanitary conditions could be maintained during the long trip.

Chicago: A City of Diversity

Chicago's stockyards emerged in the late 1800s. With them came a huge migration of newly freed slaves from the South, as well as Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants seeking new opportunities in the fastest growing city of the Central Plains. Small ethnic communities sprang up, providing a great deal of ethnic and cultural diversity. Even though the stockyards are no longer there, ethnic neighborhoods still exist in Chicago. Hispanic, Swedish, Asian, Jewish, Pakistani, Indian, and Arab cultures, to name a few, are vital communities making up Chicago's rich cultural diversity. Small enclaves of Russians, African Americans, Italians, Greeks, and Poles contribute to the cuisine found in Chicago today and have allowed Chicago to grow into one of America's great food cities.

Some of the greatest chefs in the world are in Chicago, including Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, and Michael Foley. These famous chefs and their restaurants have helped support today's market farmers, who grow and sell crops only for urban markets and restaurants featuring high-quality ingredients. The farmers follow the principle of “farm to table,” indicating that their products are usually less than a day off the vine or out of the ground when sold. These people are committed to respecting the region's culture and demand to keep its food sources strong and healthy.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 6.2.3).