12 Midwestern Food Firsts (and A Couple Of The Region’s Best Recipes)

North Dakota mac and cheese and Minnesota Swedish meatballs. Carrie Snyder / The Forum
North Dakota mac and cheese and Minnesota Swedish meatballs.
Carrie Snyder / The Forum

The other day I was cleaning out my cookbook cabinet trying to make room for a fun, fabulous, and very thick new cookbook that I got for Christmas. So it was time for “out with the old and in with the new” which, as a part-time hoarder, makes my heart race. I hate letting go of anything. It’s even harder when you end up rediscovering old treasures that you had completely forgotten about. In this case, it’s something called, “The United States Cookbook,” a book for kids and parents about foods from around the nation. In addition to recipes, the book includes trivia and fun facts about each state, especially regarding their food. Watch this video we put together about “12 Midwestern Food Firsts,” based in part on the book. (I’ll give you a little hint: Midwesterners have a definite love affair with ice cream.)

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I remember making a few of these recipes several years ago when my kids were little. We made the food and even talked about some of the trivia and state facts – like a little social studies in my own kitchen.  I was not about to throw this book away despite the fact that my kids are a little too old for it now. Instead, I thought I’d share what the book authors picked as our state recipes. I’m sticking with North Dakota and Minnesota because the recipes are really good. On the other hand,  I chose not to include the book’s, South Dakota recipe, Cornmeal Mush with Molasses because, well, it’s Cornmeal Mush with Molasses. Seriously? DeSmet, South Dakota might once have been the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I think South Dakotan’s  culinary tastes have evolved.  (For what I’d pick for South Dakota’s dish, watch that video I mentioned earlier.)

Now to our North Dakota and Minnesota recipes. For North Dakota, the choice is Macaroni and Cheese. How can you go wrong with that, right? The book authors point out that North Dakota farmers are first in the nation for growing durum, a type of wheat found in pasta. Solid choice. To really drive the point home, the authors suggest you sprinkle toasted wheat germ on top. I suggest you not do that. Since I lived in North Dakota most of my life, I think you should listen to me. I didn’t like the flavor of the wheat germ on the macaroni. Instead, I crumbled up a few Ritz crackers which gave the dish a nice salty, crunchy finish.

For Minnesota, the recipe celebrates the food of some of the state’s earliest immigrants. Swedish meatballs is a natural choice. Other options, I suppose could be walleye or Tator Tot Hotdish. The book does not include a recipe for gravy. I used my simple recipe for Swedish meatball gravy. Don’t hurt yourself. It’s really complicated. Ahem.

As for the other 47, states, expect more common sense picks – Mississippi Mud Pie for Mississippi, Baked Crab Cakes for Maryland, and Corn Dogs for Iowa.  The book might not be brand spanking new, but it is still available online and it’s really a whole lot of fun especially for those of you with children. . Definitely worth trying to cram into my cookbook cabinet.

North Dakota Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe from The United States Cookbook

Non-stick cooking spray
½ pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
6 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
3 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup toasted wheat germ (or crumbled Ritz crackers)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Fill a 4 quart saucepan half full with water and bring to boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. When finished drain and return to pan. In a 3-quart saucepan, melt the butter on low heat. Whisk in the flour and continue to cook until the mixture is bubbly, about 3 minutes. Do not brown. Slowly add the milk to the pan and stir with wooden spoon over medium heat until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat. Add the cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese and salt to the pan and stir again until all of the cheese melts. Add the cheese sauce to the drained pasta and mix, coating the pasta well. Place the pasta in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with toasted wheat germ or crackers and put back in oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Minnesota Swedish Meatballs

Recipe from The United States Cookbook

1 large egg
1 pound lean ground beef
½ pound ground pork
½ cup leftover mashed potatoes
1 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup dry noodles


1 can cream of mushroom soup
½ cup beef broth
¼ cup sour cream

In small bowl, beat the egg with a fork. Put the ground beef, pork, potatoes, ½ cup bread crumbs, salt, brown sugar, pepper, allspice, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Add the beaten egg and mix well with wooden spoon. Shape mixture into about 20 meatballs. Put remaining ½ cup bread crumbs in a shallow dish. Roll the meatballs in the bread crumbs to coat them. Put oil in a large saute pan and heat over medium heat. Add the meatballs to the pan and brown on all sides, turning them with the wooden spoon. Reduce heat, cover and cook about 15 minutes. While the meatballs cook, prepare the noodles in the saucepan according to package directions. Drain. Serve meatballs over the noodles. Top with gravy.