Searching for ethnic food on the Northern
By Tom Isern, professor of history at North Dakota
State University, Fargo
The crossover of foodways from an ethnic culture
into mainstream society is highly selective. Certain foods are selected
by entrepreneurs and by the popular culture to cross the cultural
line, whereas the main body of ethnic foodways remains confined
to the original group.
It's a mystery to me, for instance, just who decided
the taco should become the Mexican fast food of American pop culture.
If you go back to the early 1900s in towns on the plains, it wasn't
the taco Anglos wanted, it was the tamale. in every town that had
a population of Mexican immigrants--mostly railroad section hands--you
find some old guy operating a tamale wagon, wheeling it downtown
daily from the colonia (Mexican neighborhood).
From Italian cuisine American society selected pizza.
Key figures in that selection were the Carney boys of Wichita, Kansas,
founders of Pizza Hut.
In Nebraska, Runza drive-ins of America have attempted
to introduce the Runza to American pop culture. The Runza, also
known as the Bierock, is a baked bun stuffed with cabbage, meat,
and onions, one of those portable ethnic foods. It's a German-Russian
item most commonly associated with the Volga Germans. Although Runza
restaurants are prospering on the central plains, and Runzas are
served at Husker games in Lincoln, this is an ethnic specialty that
has'nt yet broken out of its region.
Most Germans from Russia on the northern plains are
not Volga Germans, but rather Black Sea Germans, and they have their
own characteristic foods. None of these have crossed over into mainstream
American pop culture, but three of them have reached the threshold
of regional recognition. These are Knoephla soup (spelling varies),
Fleischkuechle (again, spelling varies) and Kuchen. I don't know
just why these three items have emerged as signatures of German-Russian
cuisine, but they are the ones that appear frequently on cafe menus
and are known to non-German-Russians.
Knoephla soup is a variant of cream-of-potato soup
that has fluffy dumplings floating around in it. This is the ultimate
comfort food of the German-Russian heartland in the Dakotas. Fleischkuechle
are patties and fried in fat. These are a main dish. Kuchen look
like pies, but they aren't. The crust is a yeast dough, and the
filling is a cheesy custard with some kind of fruit in it. prune
is traditional; I like rhubarb.
These three foods are, of course, firmly grounded
in the traditional cookery of Germans from Russia. Users of the
World Wide Web can explore references and recipes via Mike Miller's
"Culture, Customs, & Foodways" site at NDSU. Those who prefer print
sources can consult two wonderful publications of the Germans from
Russia heritage Society: "Food and Folklore" and "Food and Customs:
Recipes of the Black Sea Germans."
Today I'm interested in how these foods are offered
to the public, German-Russian and otherwise, by cafes. The Fleischkuechle
situation in particular has me worried. I know of no cafe that makes
its own; all seem to be serving the manufactured, shrink-wrapped,
frozen kind. Knoephla soup is the real thing, though. That of Kroll's
Kitchen in Bismarck is probably the best-known, but there are lots
of wonderful variations in lots of cafes. As for kuchen--now you're
talking. My favorite is still that of the Prairie Oasis, in Cleveland,
All right, the floor is open for nomination. Where
can you get a real Fleischkuechle? Where is the best Knoephla soup
in all the land? And where can we find the finest Kuchen you ever
put a fork into (or snatched up in your fingers)?
Reprinted with permission of Tom Isern.