Wheat and corn and incomparable beef, wild berries baked into the most luscious desserts, crisp summer salads, and the best fried chicken and chili imaginable—the southern Great Plains is a fantastic place to eat. Here, on flatlands teeming with life, farmers and ranchers, foragers and chefs pass down cherished recipes and share new additions to the region’s rich culinary heritage. Join us as we visit Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, three states at the center of America’s delicious heartland.
When I first arrived in Kansas, stepped off the plane, and saw the big blue sky open up over the prairie, I knew I was home. This is a place that can free you in unexpected ways, a place where the Beat writer William Burroughs was as much a part of the local fabric as our church ladies with their chili suppers and homemade cinnamon rolls; where 60 different immigrant groups settled after the Civil War, each one seasoning the melting pot. Today you can taste their influence throughout the state: Mennonite beef and cabbage pies called bierocks, Volga German green bean dumpling soup, plenty of bison burgers, smoky chili, heirloom tomatoes, and iced sugar cookies. In a place where the weather is a cocktail of thunder, snow, blizzards, droughts, ice storms, and 100 degree days, it’s no wonder we veer toward comfort when we eat. If we could click our ruby slippers three times, we’d be at the farm, where fried chicken comes to the table golden and crispy, the side dishes are all homemade, and a hefty slice of cake means that all is well.
–Judith Fertig, author of Heartland: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel, 2011)
See more articles and recipes from Kansas »
Double-fried chicken marinated in an aromatic brine is a specialty of the house at the restaurant Rye KC in Leawood, Kansas.
SACRED GROUND I drove nine miles past Heartland Farm before I realized I’d missed the place, as usual. The tiny (at least by Kansas standards) 80-acre farmstead is located, improbably, near Pawnee Rock–the exact epicenter of the heartland–in the middle of thousands upon thousands of acres of wheat, corn, soybeans, and cattle. Easy enough to miss, I suppose, in this vast sea of massive mono-cropped grids. Retracing my path, I arrived just as the farm’s owners, five Dominican nuns in their 60s, dressed in garden clogs and T-shirts, were finishing preparations for lunch. On the front lawn of their farmhouse, a large table was set. Platters of smoked sausage and caraway-flecked sauerkraut sat beside a tomato-cheddar tart. Wooden bowls held salads of tender greens and baby spinach from the garden. There were jars of bread-and-butter pickles and pickled okra from last year’s harvest, and fresh-baked rye bread smeared with butter. Keep reading Sacred Ground» James Roper
SALAD SOCIAL It’s Friday night, and I’ve got a date with three pounds of lentils. They’re on the stove, gobbling up water and roiling like a stormy sea. Every 60 seconds I fish a couple out, desperate to capture them on the cusp of tender and firm. I always make way too much food. But that’s what you’re supposed to do for a potluck, right? I’m preparing for a BYO shindig tomorrow at William Burroughs’ old house in Lawrence, Kansas. (Yes, that William Burroughs; the eccentric Beat writer chose to wind down his life in this progressive town.) The Burroughs house is today the private residence of Tom King, a chef, gardener, and writer, who is hosting the First Annual Summertime Salad Social for a group of friends (roughly the same group invited to two soup potlucks before this). There will be 24 salads in attendance, accompanied by the people who made them. Keep reading Salad Social and get the recipes » James Oseland
NO PLACE LIKE HOME In the 1970s, when I was little, my family gathered at my grandmother’s house in Kansas City every Sunday for dinner. Born in 1901, Grandma was an old-fashioned cook. She grew vegetables in her garden, kept chickens for eggs, and made everything from scratch. She made sure that everyone helped get dinner ready, and it was under her teaching that I learned to make homemade egg noodles and the lightest, fluffiest dumplings. My mom and her nine siblings all learned their way around the kitchen from Grandma, too. On Sundays they would each show up with a dish they’d made. Keep reading No Place Like Home and get the recipes » James Roper
MARKET DAYS As a San Francisco restaurant critic who gets to evaluate some of the world’s best food, I’m often lulled into thinking I’ve moved away from my Midwestern heritage. Yet my past came flooding back when a waitress at an upscale Berkeley restaurant served me a crock of pimiento cheese spread. One bite and I was back in Chanute, Kansas, standing behind the counter inside the Self Service Supermarket where my father, Gaylord Bauer, opened Bauer’s Meat Market in the mid-1940s. I recalled the ruby lipstick of the woman who came each Thursday and flirted with him; the man who would buy a pound of hamburger and eat it raw from the package; my “old maid” English teacher, a friend of my father, who didn’t bother to pardon her French in their conversations. Keep reading Market Days » Courtesy Chanute Public Library
An aspiring ranch hand at the Kansas Farm expo in Topeka. James Roper
RIDING HIGH Back in the 1860s, out of the rising dust of the Old Chisholm Trail, rode America’s great folk hero, the cowboy. Popular culture turned him into a paragon of deeply held American values–rugged individualism, fierce independence, and a code of rough justice. We often, however, overlook the cowboy’s chief purpose, which is to herd the creatures that provide beef for our tables (though they are known to participate in the occasional rodeo too). While trucks have replaced the need for cross-country cattle drives, cowboys at our Kansas ranches still ensure that those animals make it the ten or so miles from one pasture to the next. Keep reading Riding High» James Roper
Wild rabbit, a favorite among hunters in Kansas, is braised in beer and chicken stock to make an autumnal main dish.
Get the recipe for Braised Rabbit with Mushrooms and Celery Root »
We Oklahomans are not minimalists. Our battle cry could be “Shoot when you see the whites of their plates.” I grew up here, on huge pots of pinto beans, mounds of sweet squash and crispy okra, hunks of watermelon, and platters of cornmeal-fried catfish. The land is swept by tornadoes and steeped in borrowed traditions. We are a crazy quilt of people¿we take food from elsewhere and make it our own. Settlers of all stripes sprinted across the state border in land runs to build homes out of prairie sod. Coal lured miners from Italy to the hills in the southeast; their old mining towns still serve fried chicken with a side of spaghetti, while in the west, Germans sowed hard wheat and endured drought. Cowboys drove cattle from Texas to Kansas through Oklahoma, and the Trail of Tears brought all the tribes of the Southeast to Oklahoma, along with their farming and foraging. In the century since statehood, the cow towns of Tulsa and Oklahoma City have struck oil and sprouted skyscrapers and fancy restaurants. But underneath it all, Oklahoma is still an agricultural center, staggering in its diversity and plenty.
–Mark Brown, author of My Mother is a Chicken (This Land Press, 2012)
See more articles and recipes from Oklahoma »
OKLAHOMA RISING At first glance, Oklahoma City’s Ludivine appears to serve the type of familiar rib-sticking French bistro fare that sends diners all over America into food-induced comas: split beef bones with molten marrow and tomato jam; a croque tartine, a monster of a sandwich heavy with ham, bechamel sauce, and bubbling cheese, topped with a fried egg. But the side salad for that croque is made with foraged dock and chickweed, which lend a refreshing bittersweet crunch. It’s just one hint that this place is more complex than you might think. Jonathon Stranger and Russ Parsons, the young chefs and co-owners of Ludivine, are both Oklahoma City natives who left home to work under top chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Burke. Pulled back by a desire to engage with the agricultural heritage of their hometown, they returned and opened this restaurant in 2010. Their cooking showcases Oklahoma sourcing at its best, from farm-raised Mangalitsa pork and bison to the same native plants that sustained the Choctaw tribe, the area’s first settlers. Keep reading Oklahoma Rising » James Roper
BIG PIE COUNTRY As a young girl living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I was an avid Little House on the Prairie fan. So perhaps it was inevitable I would marry a farm boy. Well, okay, a rancher–but close enough for me. My husband, Gentner Drummond, is the great-great-grandson of Frederick Drummond, who came to Oklahoma from Scotland in the 1880s. Family legend has it that he might have been escaping a conviction for murdering a competitor on the golf course–a story never verified but one we like to tell nonetheless. In 1911, Frederick’s oldest son, R.C., started what would become a cattle dynasty on the ranch where Gentner and I–with the help of our ranch hands and children–now run a few thousand head on more than 20,000 acres of land.Not long after I first got to know Gentner’s family, I started hearing about a massive picnic hosted at the ranch by the men’s club of the local Presbyterian church. From the 1950s through the 1970s, they invited fathers and sons from across the state to enjoy a day on a working cattle ranch and eat barbecued Drummond beef while surrounded by grassland as far as the eye could see. The people who told me about the picnic were not members of the Drummond family themselves but the little boys–now grown men–who had attended with their fathers, and for whom the event had made a lifetime impression. The longing I heard in their voices made me decide to rekindle the tradition. My idea was to invite all of our friends to the ranch for a potluck. I also figured–rather naively, it turns out–that we could host a friendly old-fashioned pie contest to boot. Keep reading Big Pie Country and get the recipes » James Roper
MELON MAN My grandfather, Howard Hitt, has a farm in Sickles, Oklahoma, west of Oklahoma City. While it’s primarily a peanut farm, come summertime it transitions over to cantaloupe and watermelons, which grow beautifully in Oklahoma’s sandy loam soil. When I was a kid, my family would visit for a week each summer from where we lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My two brothers and I spent the days running around the farm. At the end of each hot afternoon, we’d help ourselves to watermelon: enormous Jubilees; crisp, sweet Starbrites; deep teal Black Diamonds; yellow-fleshed Desert Kings; you name it. Keep reading Melon Man » Shannon Sturgis
The dinner crowd at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, a restaurant founded 103 years ago near the city’s original stockyards. James Roper
BOUNTIFUL PRAIRIE The United States could be said to have a heart of flatness. What else is there in the southern Great Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma besides a flatness bigger than France, bigger than Spain, nearly as big as two Germanys–almost a quarter million square miles of big, flat stability?Actually, if you know how to look at it, there’s a lot here besides the flatness. For one thing, there’s plenty to eat. Ask knowledgeable chefs in the southern Great Plains, and they’ll tell you about ramps growing wild; porcinis and meaty oyster mushrooms sprouting on logs; quail nesting in sand plum thickets heavy with sweet-tart fruit; wild peaches, passion fruit, and puckery aronia berries that get dried and ground for seasoning meat. Even the cattails conceal treasures; some Choctaw Indians have taught chefs how to knock the tiny seeds from ripe cattail heads to use for flour. Keep reading Bountiful Prairie » Shannon Sturgis
Piccolo Pete’s Prime Rib
Prime rib is a beloved Omaha steakhouse specialty. One of our favorite versions comes from Piccolo Pete’s, where the meat is rubbed with Italian spices and blasted with high heat to form a flavorful crust.
Get the recipe for Piccolo Pete’s Prime Rib »
A fiberglass steer rests atop Anthony’s in Omaha. Ariana Lindquist
Route 66 is America’s most iconic thoroughfare—and its most delicious.
HERE’S THE BEEF It’s 6:30 on a Saturday night in Omaha, and I’m standing in the kitchen at Cascio’s Steakhouse staring at a flattop grill. It’s a sea of steaks, the grill guys flipping 70 house-cut New York strips in waves. Beside me, a young food runner named John Davis, sweaty bangs flopping over heavy-framed eyeglasses, fits a dozen plates of steak and foil-wrapped baked potatoes onto a tray like puzzle pieces. He heaves the burden onto his shoulder, groaning “aw, f*@k,” then pushes through the kitchen door, calling out as he turns corners, “Hot food comin’ round!” I scurry after him to one of the 2,200-seat restaurant’s basement party rooms, where members of the Cornhusker Corvette Club await their meals. Keep reading Here’s the Beef » Ariana Lindquist
MILK FED One summer night a few years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, I had a local cheese awakening. It happened at a picnic during outdoor Shakespeare at Elmwood Park. There were plenty of snacks, but one rose above the rest: quark, a young, soft, European-style cheese made from organic grass-fed cows’ milk an hour away in Raymond, Nebraska. Tangy, bright, and, as I later discovered, as tasty baked into cheesecake as it is spread on a baguette, it was my introduction to a new generation of homegrown cheeses. Keep reading Milk Fed » Michael Kraus
LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD This past December at the Grey Plume in Omaha, chef-owner Clayton Chapman set his mise en place in front of me. It was a thing to behold. Diverse and vibrant with all sorts of Midwest fruits and vegetables, it contained the building blocks for the dishes I would eat for dinner: delicate buttermilk gnocchi topped with caramelized Bartlett pears, preserved lemon peel, micro basil, and tart tomato powder; a pizzette chockablock with shiitake mushrooms, cold-smoked cauliflower, pickled ramps, persimmons, and local honey; and a colorful salad of finely shaved beets, watermelon radishes, turnips, and carrot and celery curls. Fantastic. Keep reading Local Boy Makes Good » Ariana Lindquist
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY When I came to Nebraska 25 years ago to teach at the university in Lincoln, I visited Omaha, an hour away, and discovered the Bohemian Cafe, founded there in 1924. With its folkloric decor and waitresses in lace-edged kroje, it reminded me of the old country. Its foods–rich duck liver dumpling soup; svickova, sauerbraten enriched with sour cream; sweet and sour cabbage; kolaches, pastries with poppyseed, Bavarian cream, prune, cherry, and other fruit centers–were like the dishes my grandmothers prepared for Sunday family gatherings in Prague, where I grew up. I left there in 1968 when I was 20. But at the Bohemian Cafe, I felt right back at home. Keep reading Bohemian Rhapsody » Ariana Lindquist