Thursday, April 14, 2011

The world’s first but not the last

If the new metropolis is a cultural stew, rural America, at least in my neck of the prairie, is a goulash. 

Frankly, this surprised me. From what I’d seen over two decades of annual visits, northeast Kansas was predominantly white, Protestant, friendly and Republican. (Which proves that there’s no free lunch.) There were a few characters, oddballs and doofuses, mostly harmless but steadily racking up frequent flier miles in the local hoosegow, familiar to every town. Their significance depended less on their actions than on population density, which in the hinterlands was something of an oxymoron. 

Once we settled in on the edge of town, a clearer image emerged. That the bulk of the demographic was Anglo-Saxon was indisputable, but it consisted largely of the latest generation whose forefathers settled the area in the mid to late 1800s. Not only were there Swedes and Germans and Czechs, there were little pockets of French and Welsh and Poles and Lutherans. A little sleuthing revealed that at one time nearby counties were segregated into cultural enclaves, each nationality striving to retain its identity, if not purity, in the face of an overwhelming polyglot amalgamation. To some extent the idea continues to this day though based on religious dogma rather than race.

Immediately apparent was that someone from the Southwest didn’t fit. While the various and sundry nationalities had inevitably mingled together through intermarriage and interfaith, certain traditions survived more or less intact. They usually involved culinary matters, with each group holding in high esteem their own specialized offerings and not a little disdain for everything else. That, too, continues to this day.

Outwardly, traditional rural Kansas fare is grease and gravy, or g&g in short. The designation includes hamburgers, that iconic American staple, French fries—only now lapsing to their original name after an unfortunate bout of Francophobia in the aftermath of 9-11—fried chicken, fried pork tenders, fried pork links, fried sausage, fried chicken wings, fried bacon and fried eggs with a side of fried hash browns, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak smothered in gravy, roast beef smothered in gravy, chili dogs and sauerkraut dogs. Oddly, one finds with distressing regularity hamburgers served completely naked. No condiment, no lettuce, no tomato, no onion nor any other topping that might add flavor is included unless specifically requested, and then the request is greeted with suspicion, as if you’d admitted to cruising online porn sites or had a thing for women’s underwear. So virulent is this response that I suspect its roots lie in a particular severe religion whose tenets deny pleasure of any sort, even gustatory. 
Thankfully a few eateries take a more adventurous approach toward hamburgers. Parkside Cafe, a small mom-and-pop restaurant just south of downtown Pawnee City, Neb., is an exemplary example of refined taste. Their Dallas burger, a heady handful of a barbecue sauce, crisp bacon and grilled bell peppers and onions atop a third-pound slab of quality beef, is perhaps the finest of its kind in the entire Midwest, and well worth the drive. 

Occasionally one finds regional oddities such as tacos-in-a-bag (also known as Frito pie), a bastard fusion of g&g-meets-Tex-Mex-meets-vomit, and of course every restaurant in every town no matter how slight or insubstantial hosts its very own Mexican night.

The less said about Mexican night, the better.

For a card-carrying chilehead, Kansas has been a sore trial. I’ve learned by trial and error (mostly error) to avoid Mexican restaurants at all costs, especially when (A) they’re run by white people and (B) sanchos are on the menu. “Authentic” Mexican food sometimes is indeed authentic but unfortunately it’s not New Mexican cuisine but farther south, across the border into the nether reaches of our neighbor. As I grew up in New Mexico, that state’s signature style is the pinnacle of perfection, closely followed by variances found in Colorado. Here, I’ve had to do it myself, but fortunately I’m a good cook.

Friends and prairie relatives have questioned my taste in food since we first began coming here. I’ve gone along with their good-natured ribbing even while trying to mask my horror of their own favorites. Not long after moving here it seemed everybody was trying to foist bierocks on us, a German pastry filled with beef, onions and cabbage. When I balked—I don’t do cabbage—I was treated to a supercilious air of snobbery. There was nothing to do but fight back.

And I did. For the church cookbook I submitted several killer recipes including green chile potato soup and green chile stew. I dropped the term green chile whenever appropriate and often when inappropriate, just to remind them that their ways are not my ways, that there are other cuisines and other ways of eating. And though it was a hard, long slog, I’m finally getting some respect.

So it was that when my wife was coerced into leading a class on making kolaches, I decided to add my own signature ingredient.

Kolaches, for the uninitiated, are one of the other infamous regional pastries notoriously popular in these parts. Instead of meat filling they’re topped with apricots, prunes, cherries, peaches or poppyseed, and often iced or sprinkled with powdered sugar. Several distinct varieties exist, with each side snubbing the other as complete idiots. You can imagine my delight when I informed them that I would create the world’s first green chile cheese kolache.

One of the two chefs teaching the class thought the idea so outrageously wacky that he immediately signed on. 

“That’ll blow their minds,” he said.

An entirely subjective and non-scientific poll among friends, people on the street, employees at various businesses and homegrown relatives revealed an overwhelming bias against the undertaking. For many, it wasn’t just revolting, it was almost sacrilegious. It was as if I were suggesting adding green chiles to communion wafers or something. A few, maybe five percent of the total, thought the idea had merit. One or two actually wanted to try them.

At the last minute, the willing chef dropped out with a nasty cold. At least that was his excuse. That left me alone in a room of Kansas women busy mixing dough, preparing fillings and weighing alternate structural methods such as folding versus rolling out. And when I brought out a package of cream cheese with diced Sandia chiles, their looks were mutinous.

“How many do you intend to make?” they asked. I don’t think they had a real problem with my making green chile cheese kolaches, they just had a problem with me using their dough. 

Nevertheless, I convinced them in the name of fusion cooking (Czech-Mex) to share eight dough balls.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The kolaches were light and buttery. The topping added zest. I shared five and gobbled down the rest, and whether from the heat of the chiles mingling with the semi-sweet pastry or from divine revelation instantly saw myself opening a small taco-cappuccino-green chile cheese kolache stand on the town square, with little covered tables out from and a drive-through on the side for Highway 77 traffic and mariachi-Czech music blasting from speakers. Those that tried them wanted more—lots more. Blue Rapids would be the center for fusion cooking! 

And why stop there? With crystal clarity I could see my next challenge: green chile cheese bierocks...


Carol said...

This piece is great fun. I read it in the morning, just after having my coffee and oatmeal. I was glad I'd just eaten--your column made me hungry, but I need to buckle down and get some work done, so at least I'm fortified.

Come see us in Topeka. We have LOTS of Mexican restaurants run by folks who know of what they cook. If you and Laurie come, we'll treat.

Peg Nichols said...

STOP IT, TOM ! ! ! I'm trying to lose five pounds before my doctor's appointment next Tuesday.

Bierocks? You most assuredly would not like runzas, which, apparently the only difference between a runza and a bierock is the shape. It's an adult-acquired taste, but I go crazy over runzas. The Runza chair originated in Nebraska, there is one in Lawrence, and now, great news, I've just discovered that a former fast foode (fish?) place in Mission is being remodeled into a Runza place. I can hardly wait.

Another place I like, but get to rarely, is the Kolache Factory at 135th street and (old) Metcalf in Overland Park. When they first opened, most of their kolaches had sweet, fruity fillings, but three or four years later, they are going more heavily into meat, egg, cheese combinations. No bierocks.

I enjoyed your treatise on various foods, I favor the milder kinds of chili, and tex-mex (not too hot), but if you could find me a bakery that sells salt-rising bread, I'd be forever in your debt.

Anonymous said...

Used to have good Mexican food in Newton, KS. Don't know about now. I live in TX on the border in the McAllen area and there are at least a hundred Mexican rest. here all of which serve the worst Mexican food you can imagine.

Vikki said...

You are right, there is such a difference between Mexican food and New Mexican; we can get authentic Mexican food here, but we don't really care to. It's something many people here, who've never been to New Mexico, just don't understand.

I have never heard Frito pie referred to as "tacos-in-a-bag", but I was shocked to learn most people here have never heard of Frito pie!

Czech-Mex, sounds funny and delicious! :)

Suzanne said...

I can see all those situations in my minds eye because it's the same here in rural Illinois. The us-versus-them mindset is getting watered down a bit with the younger generation but it still exists. Swedes and Lutherans rule around here.

My Polish mother-in-law is the Queen of the Kolache and would be APPALLED at a cream cheese/chile version but it sounds stellar to me.

When my son starts dating a new girl the first question my mother-in-law asks is, "What IS she?" He swears that one time he'll answer, "Martian!!" What she's getting at is.... is she Polish, Bohemian, Czech or possibly Italian? Old ways die hard and she grew up in a Polish enclave.

Tom Parker said...

Suzanne -- Same thing happens around here. Old mindsets die hard, or, shall we say, evolve slowly.

shoreacres said...

Dang! I'm half Swedish (father's side) and Lutheran - I'm moving to Illinois! I wanna rule!

Actually, as I get older the Irish in me's taking over, although I keep my Swedish grandmother's recipes pretty close. But Kolaches? Texas has taught me about those. Up in Yoakum and other central Texas towns, there are varieties that would knock your socks off. There's one filling that is kind of a tres leches, except it's done with three peppers. Jalapeno, poblano and habanero, I think. Too hot for me, but people swear by them.

As for Mexican, well... The worst ever was a "Mexican" restaurant in Oklahoma that served a bowl of rubbery chips with ketchup as a dipping sauce. Blech.

Come on down here and we'll get you some real Mexican. The word is that there's a new chef in town who made a run north to the border to get away from the violence in MX. There's going to be more of that, and palates all around town are salivating.

Tom Parker said...

Ketchup is known around here as "extra-mild hot sauce." Next time I come down your way it'll be for fresh seafood!

You'd make a good and benevolent queen.