I’m an unintentional Midwesterner. I grew up on the East coast among pizza, bagels, fresh seafood and every ethnic food imaginable. For a time, I attended the University of Michigan, with a full intention of heading to either New York City or Los Angeles after I graduated. Then, as life tends to do, I took a lot of detours and turns, and I fell in love with and married a man in the military. We moved around a bit over many years. So when my husband’s military career culminated, we found ourselves in Kansas and really fell in love with this part of the country.
As a modern-day settler in the heartland, I realized I have lived away from a coast longer than I lived near it. So I figured it was time to embrace my newly minted regional cultural inheritance by donning a Kansas City Chiefs jersey, bundling up for the snow and creating comforting food memories for my family during the multitude of ice and snowstorms that have closed our schools. Because yes, it really is all about the food.
As if on cue, the day came for an epiphany. A co-worker mentioned he had made porcupine meatballs for dinner the night before. Porcupine meatballs? I had never heard of porcupine meatballs, but was immediately intrigued. The description came quickly, and upon hearing words like “lightly seasoned meatball” and terms like “mixed with rice” and “baked in a tomato sauce” I knew that this was something I had to eat.
I garnered that the rice in the meatballs were the “quills” of the porcupine and the sauce that was described seemed as if it would taste reminiscent of the sauce in which you cook stuffed peppers or cabbage. This warm kind of meal seemed ready for my gullet. It resembled everything in one bite that I find delicious and comforting, and I vowed to serve it with either rice, mashed potatoes or potato pancakes. The sauce needs a vehicle besides the meatball in which to eat it, and carbs just sounds like umami heaven.
I was sent off with a verbal recipe and then I immediately researched variations so that I could try my hand at a hybrid of various proven porcupine-esque meatballs. My mouth was watering and on my way home, I stopped at the grocery store, grabbed all the ingredients and with the weather threatening a school closure the next day, I realized the stars were aligned.
Before even trying the recipe, I could tell by all that was within they were going to be good. So, never one to be satisfied with just one new fact a day, I had to delve deeper into the world that incorporates the Midwest. I needed to learn of the meals that my friends who call Iowa-Nebraska-Minnesota-Wisconsin-Ohio-Illinois-Indiana-North Dakota-South Dakota-Michigan-Missouri-Kansas home.
That evening I reached out to friends on Facebook alerting them to my plans to make this meal and was instantaneously applauded. I then asked, “What foods tickle your Midwestern sensibility? What are the foods you grew up eating?” I also created parameters because I didn’t want foods that are known in our part of the world. So things like barbecue – sorry KC – were strictly prohibited from being mentioned. I wanted the unknowns, the fringe, the “in the club” kind of food.
The buzz was palatable. I heard a different language as foodstuffs like booyah, horseshoe sandwich, chippers, bierocks, tater tot hotdish, maidrites, pasties, lefse and juicy Lucy were listed on my page. Apparently chili and cinnamon rolls are served in school cafeterias and my friends have a warm sentimentality for that meal. Fish fries and pork tenderloins bring about the same kind of wistfulness and the word “salad” is something that describes items that have Jell-o, Snickers and pretzels in them. What I also learned is that while my friends from Wisconsin love their porcupine meatballs, not everyone in every Midwestern state knows what those are, my friends from Iowa were more interested in Maderites while my friends from Minneapolis preferred talking about casseroles.
It is remarkable how there are so many foods that bring back memories for so many people in such a visceral way. And that is what made me nervous. What if I didn’t like the meatballs? What if the name was more gimmicky than tasty? We’ve all been there. What you grew up eating stirs the deep-seated memories of being taken care of, it conjures up a cold snowy day that you can immediately return to just by smelling it cooking when you go home and visit your childhood home. Since I have never eaten these meatballs, would they be merely a bland ball of meat in some sauce that wouldn’t satisfy my yen for all things comforting?
At 9 p.m. I received word that school was closed and the next day my daughter and I immediately got to work making a double-recipe. I totally double-downed that it would be good and wanted to have plenty of leftovers.
Knowing our need for some spice I added a little more salt and pepper and some garlic powder (as some recipes call for that), but didn’t deviate too much from tradition as we wanted to taste the meatballs in their purest form. While they baked my house filled with soothing smells. We didn’t wait for them to cool down, and as soon as they came out of the oven we popped one in our mouths.
Porcupine meatballs have received a five out of five in my family and have been deemed “make again-worthy.” They tasted like little mini-meatloaves in a lightly spiced, slightly tangy sauce, that just begs to be eaten throughout the day. In fact, I caught my daughter revisiting the meatballs during the day and sticking a fork in one, stuffing it in her mouth and running away. These definitely have an appeal and I don’t need years of eating them to get another craving. I’m so excited to call myself and family Midwesterners. There is so much to learn, explore and eat and I’m going to do it one recipe at a time. Next up is booya. I will report back.
If you have any favorite recipes from childhood, please share them and their history with me. I would love to give them a try.
Lisa Sweet writes about food for the Leavenworth Times.