As you can imagine, millions of dishes were washed in the creation of this book. A few pounds were gained until it dawned on me to drop off my sweet leftovers at the Two Inlets Mill (they thanked me until the third maple pie walked in the door, and then they said, “Oof, another one? Well, I’m sure someone will eat it.). Some sleep was lost. (I found out that I’m a nocturnal writer, meaning that I ended some days by assembling Hank’s school lunch in the early morning.)
My greatest discovery was that my hunches about Midwestern food were not wrong. I won’t forget the day that a friend of mine bit into a potato doughnut (pictured above) that I had brought to a local art opening. His mouth was muffled with doughnut and covered with a fine mist of powdered sugar, but he blurted out, “holy *%$*, is this a potato doughnut?” His instant recognition of the uncommon doughnuts that both of our grandmothers once made was the greatest gift I could have received.
What is Midwestern cooking? The book is long form, but I’ll say this: Campfires, hunting feasts, fresh fish, and wheels of summer sausage. Rhubarb, fresh butter and a pan of bars, the whittling knife still left in it. Wise cracks and cheese on crackers.
Thanks to photographer Jennifer May and illustrator Amber Fletschock, we have a clearer idea of what this place looks like.
An artist from the nearby town of Hewitt, Minnesota, Amber did all of the beautiful illustrations in the book, rendering this map of the Midwest in watercolor, using the waterways as her topographical guide.
And Jennifer May’s photos have such vibrancy—and in true Midwestern fashion, beauty, but not an overdose of sentimentality.
My husband, Aaron, loves that his ratty old favorite sweater made it into the book. (It is otherwise retired.)
We always stop at Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River, MN, to pick up smoked lake trout, and we did it again with Jen to get the photo. Next to the counter, they have packets of saltine crackers, plastic utensils, and napkins—for eating your fish in the car.
It is not easy to shoot very icy things, because they melt! But we did it.
This pickle sandwich is a tribute to my grandma, Addie Dion. The food of royals.
Here’s our dude, bed-headed, installed in his breakfast chair and ignoring the camera. By the end, he was really over this photo shoot business and ready to have his mom back, cooking for him.
And for Steve, here are the doughnuts:
Old-Fashioned POTATO DOUGHNUTS with COFFEE GLAZE
This is an old family recipe, but I found a nearly identical version in the Greatest Chefs of the Midwest, acookbook from the 1920’s, so it’s a recipe that must have been in heavy circulation at some point. I can see how it would have been very popular because of the addition of mashed potatoes, which most farm families usually had left over from the noonday meal.
Here mashed potatoes effect their usual magic on the dough, adding an almost surreal lightness as well as extra staying power - although these craggy nutmeg-scented doughnuts rarely last long.
The coffee glaze can conveniently be made out of the morning’s leftover cold coffee. My grandmother always rolled the doughnuts twice in confectioner’s sugar instead; first when hot and a second time once cool.
MAKES 12 DOUGHNUTS AND 12 DOUGHNUT HOLES PLUS SCRAPS
1 large (about 1 pound) russet potato, cubed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons salted butter, melted
3 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 to 4 cups canola oil
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup strong brewed coffee or espresso, cold
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting (optional)
Put the potato cubes in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over medium heat until the potatoes are very tender when poked with a thin fork, 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and push them through a potato ricer or a sieve into a bowl.
Measure 1 lightly packed cup of potato into a large bowl, add the sugar and butter, and whisk to combine. Whisk in the eggs and buttermilk.
Pour at least 4 inches of oil into a large, deep pot, and heat it to 380ºF. (The oil will rise up another 4 inches with the addition of the doughnuts, so make sure your pot is large enough to contain it.)
Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg together into a bowl. Sift half of the flour mixture into the potato mixture, mixing with a wooden spoon until combined. Add the rest of the flour and mix until just combined. The dough will be a little sticky. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and pat it out with floured hands until it is about 1/2 inch thick.
Using a doughnut cutter, cut out 12 doughnuts. Gently transfer each circle to a floured plate to await frying, reserving all the holes for a single fry batch.
Add 3 or 4 doughnuts to the hot oil, as many as will fit in a single layer. (Don’t worry if they droop or twist. Craggy, crunchy, messy doughnuts are possibly more delicious than perfect doughnuts.) Fry to a deep brown on one side and then gently flip them with chopsticks or a pair of tongs, and fry the other side to a deep brown. Remove with a slotted spoon or a skimmer to a wire rack to drain.
Bring the oil back to 380ªF each time before frying the remaining doughnuts, holes, and the scraps, too. (Cook’s treats.)
For the coffee glaze, combine the coffee and vanilla in a large bowl. Add the confectioners’ sugar, cup by cup, whisking until combined and smooth.
To glaze the doughnuts, plant them face-down in the glaze, turn them up, and set them on a rack to drain and set. Alternatively, dunk them in confectioners’ sugar.