Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


"Eat beef!" is a common sign found along roadsides and on pickup trucks throughout the Great Plains. Sponsored by local livestock associations, this slogan reflects the dominant ranching economy in the western half of the Plains. It also holds true for consumption. Beef is by far the preferred meat from the Canadian Prairie Provinces to South Texas. In fact, eating this red meat provides a source of regional identity, especially when a state or province name is inserted, as in Nebraska or Alberta beef. A grilled T-bone steak is the preferred cut and preparation method for home and restaurant consumption, but beef also is the focus of foodways events such as chuckwagon dinners, barbecue contests, and chili cook-offs.

Male-dominated competitive cooking, perhaps inspired by stories from cattle-drive campsites, is a popular activity in the Great Plains. Barbecue contests involve secret dry rubs, marinades, and tangy, tomato-based sauces. These are applied to a wide assortment of beef cuts, with brisket being a popular choice. Chili cook-offs vary in sophistication, from a circuit where contestants collect points to be eligible for a national competition to simpler community social events, such as heritage days. Known regionally as "bowl o' red," chili is composed of meat, tomatoes, chilies, secret ingredients, and sometimes beans simmered together in a large pot.

On restaurant menus, beef in the form of steaks, roasts, and barbecue is regularly supplemented in the Southern Plains by a specialty known as chicken-fried steak. This is tenderized round steak that has been dipped in a liquid (sometimes buttermilk) and seasoned flour, and then fried in a pan. It inevitably is served with mashed potatoes and gravy. Rocky Mountain oysters (also known as calf fries or prairie oysters) are another regional specialty. These are calf testicles that are sliced and fried. The uninitiated may consider this a taboo food, but insiders call it a delicacy. They are served primarily at special events sponsored by lodges. Bison is an alternative red meat that is gaining in status and popularity because of its nutritional value (low fat and less cholesterol) and clever marketing by the North American Bison Cooperative in New Rockford, North Dakota. Wild game also is popular in home cooking. Antelope and elk are preferred on the western, mountainous edges of the Plains and pheasant is preferred in South Dakota.

People in the Great Plains are noted for their inclination toward "meat and potatoes." This diet reflects the European heritage of its settlers in part, but it also provides the highcalorie replenishment needed for the pursuit of vigorous, outdoor labor still common in the Plains. Traditional ethnic foods, such as dumplings, sausages, kolaches, lefse, and lutefisk are today pretty much reserved for holidays, family gatherings, or public ethnic celebrations such as Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota, Czech Days in Tabor, South Dakota, Svensk Hyllningsfest in Lindsborg, Kansas, or Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg, Texas. A notable exception to this rule is Runza, a franchise restaurant out of Lincoln, Nebraska, that is named after a folded pastry sandwich filled with seasoned beef and cabbage that is found in many ethnic cuisines (called a bierock by German Russians). Native American food is presented to the public in restaurant settings or at events such as the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, Oklahoma. An Indian taco (fry bread topped with seasoned meat, lettuce, and tomatoes) is the most popular offering. Mexican cuisine, or Tex-Mex as some call the Americanized version, is now by far the most popular ethnic food in restaurants in the Plains. Two Plains franchises–Taco John's headquartered in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Taco Cabana of San Antonio, Texas–are indicators of this trend; another is the presence of local taco stands in almost every Southern Plains small town.

Being in the middle of the nation's breadbasket, with wheat fields to the horizon, the northern portions of the Plains are, understandably, home to important milling and food processing centers. Because a triangle of eastern North Dakota has a climate ideal for growing premium Hard Amber durum wheat, pasta has become a local specialty. A growerowned manufacturing facility, the Dakota Growers Pasta Company, was established in Carrington in 1993.

Throughout the Plains, home-baked products such as bread, buns, cakes, bars, and pies are important. If grilling beef is the competitive venue for men, then pie making serves the same purpose for women. Winning a blue ribbon at the county fair remains a coveted award, and local cafés prominently advertise home-baked pies on the menu board. The favorite pies utilize local fruits in season, including rhubarb in northern places. Chocolate, coconut cream, lemon meringue, pecan, and sour-cream raisin pies are standard throughout the year.

Farmwives in the Plains traditionally prepared large noon meals for threshing crews during wheat harvest time. A significant folklore exists regarding this activity, and it remains a fact of life today. The extra men from the community who helped harvest the wheat are being replaced today by custom cutting crews who travel the Plains with their combines from south to north during harvest season. These crews still must be fed quickly with filling meals, whether it is in the field, farm kitchen, or restaurant.

Although traditional home cooking has persisted in the Plains to a greater degree than in most other parts of the United States and Canada, it is curious that this sparsely settled area is also the headquarters for many franchise restaurants. White Castle, the first of the burger joints, was established in Wichita, Kansas, and Sonic Drive-Ins in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The major cafeteria chains of Luby's and Furr's first operated in San Antonio and Lubbock, Texas, respectively. Pizza Hut began in Wichita, Kansas, Godfather's Pizza in Omaha, Nebraska, Mazzio's in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mr. Gatti's in Kerrville, Texas, and Valentino's in Lincoln, Nebraska. No franchise seafood restaurants have originated in the Great Plains, as might be expected. More surprisingly, steak chains do not have headquarters in the Plains either. Here the reason is different–the local steakhouse is the place to be.

See also HISPANIC AMERICANS: Mexican American Cuisine / INDUSTRY: Pizza Hut.

Barbara G. Shortridge University of Kansas

Fertig, Judith M. Prairie Home Cooking. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1999.

Powers, Jo Marie, and Anita Stewart. Northern Bounty: A Celebration of Canadian Cuisine. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1995.

Wagner, Candy, and Sandra Marquez. Cooking Texas Style. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

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