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What’s Cooking – Cultural Food Traditions

interpreter in tangen kitchenJuly 15, 2019

The food people choose to eat is influenced by many things–what is affordable, what is available, what we find tasty, and what our family and community traditions have taught us is appropriate or needed. The Midwest is made up of many cultural groups who have brought specific food traditions with them—Native American, New Englanders, Norwegians, Germans, Dutch, Danish, Irish, Czech, Italians, and many more! Explore food traditions with us this week! The 1850 Pioneer Farm will be preparing sauerkraut on Monday and Zwiebelkuchen, a German onion pie, on Thursday. Visit the 1700 Ioway Farm on Thursday for a look at using wild rice—a plant associated with native tribes of southern Minnesota. The Tangen House kitchens will prepare Lefse bread on Wednesday and Norwegian Kringla on Friday. Irish Stew will be featured on Saturday at the 1850 Pioneer Farm.

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“What’s Cooking” Program Presenting Sponsor – Hy-Vee


Iowa lands have attracted immigration for hundreds of years. During the 1700s, various Native American nations lived and hunted in the Iowa territory. Sac, Fox, Winnebago, Sioux, Omaha, and many other tribes moved through the state, trading food ingredients, sometimes warring over hunting areas, and sharing culture. Each nation had its own unique traditions, but also cooking techniques they shared in common. Wild rice was a staple of the Ojibwe tribes of southern Minnesota. This water-growing grass isn’t a true member of the rice family, but is highly nutritious. Ojibwe peoples harvested this wild plant in September, cutting the grass and drying it in the sun. When dried, the plant could be stored for the winter or traded with other tribes. The Ioway, who at one time also lived in the southern Minnesota regions, might trade for wild rice as part of their own food tradition.

As white settlers entered Iowa in the 1830s, immigrants came from many places. Many Americans living in crowded areas of the eastern seaboard came to Iowa looking for cheap farm land. They were joined by European immigrants. German, English, Irish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Swedes made up most of the first waves of immigration prior to 1870. Later eastern European Czechs, Poles, and Italians made their mark on the Iowa food landscape. Often settling together regionally, all of these ethnicities passed food traditions from one generation to the next as a way to maintain family and cultural ties, especially around holidays and special occasions. Sometimes these traditions had to be altered when the traditional ingredients were not available in a new land. For example, it was a challenge for Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians to make their traditional seafood and fish recipes in their new home, until railroads could ship canned oysters and salted or fresh fish to them. Often new ingredients were substituted. Norwegians adopted freshwater fish for many of their previously saltwater fish recipes.

German immigrants came to Iowa from the 1840s through the turn of the century to escape economic downturns, drought and food shortages, and political upheavals in Europe. German immigrants make up the largest influx of foreign born settlers to the state. German settlers congregated first in the river towns in eastern Iowa—especially Dubuque, Davenport, and Burlington, but then spread throughout the state. By 1900, every Iowa County had some measure of German immigration. German foodways introduced sauerkraut, German sausage and meat dishes, potato salad, and many other items now considered American staples. Sauerkraut was initially a way to preserve cabbage for eating in the winter. Sliced cabbage is mixed with salt in heavy crocks. Naturally occurring Lactobacilli on the cabbage leaves cause fermentation and create lactic acid. This acid keeps bad bacteria from forming. True sauerkraut does not use vinegar in the brine, only kosher salt. The salt draws out moisture creating its own pickling brine. Almost every type of cabbage can be used to make sauerkraut.

cabbage in gardenHow to make Sauerkraut, Buckeye Cookery, 1877.
“Slice cabbage fine on a slaw-cutter; line the bottom and sides of an oaken barrel or keg with cabbage leaves, put in a layer of the sliced cabbage about six inches in depth, sprinkle lightly with salt and pound with a wooden beetle until the cabbage is a compact mass; add another layer of cabbage, etc., repeating the operation…until the barrel is full . . . cover with leaves, then a cloth, next a board cut to fit loosely on the inside of barrel, kept well down with a heavy weight. . . examine every two days, until … scum forms, when lift off cloth carefully so that the scum may adhere, wash well in several cold waters, wring dry and replace, repeating this operation as the scum arises . . . , at first every other day, and then once a week . . . from three to six weeks. Up to this time keep warm in the kitchen, then remove to dry, cool cellar, unless made early in the fall, when it may be at once set in the pantry or cellar.” 

By the 1900, Iowa had over 25,634 Norwegian immigrants living within its borders. Norwegian families immigrated to America for economic and religious reasons, bringing a rich food tradition with them. Christmas cookies, breads, and rolls were a large part of Norwegian traditions passed from one family member to the next. Sometimes, special pans were used to make tarts or cones. Not all Norwegian recipes were alike. Regional differences in Norway translated into varying “traditional” versions of recipes in America. Lefse and Kringla are great examples. Depending on where families drew their roots from in Norway, their traditional recipes could be very different.

interpreter in TangenLefse is a traditional Norwegian flatbread made from leftover potatoes. It is cooked on a griddle. A long wooden turning stick is used to flip the bread. Norwegian Americans often served lefse at holiday times, such as Christmas. Every region of Norway has their own favorite. Lefse bread is normally always round and flat. There are two main varieties of lefse:

  • 1st variety– The finished product is dry and thin. To eat, it must be moistened in a damp cloth.
  • 2nd variety–The bread is thicker and served moist and fresh.

There are many options for spreads sweet or savory. Butter, sugar, cinnamon, lingonberries, cheese, fish etc. It seems that most Iowans with Norwegian great-grandmothers each have their own Kringla (a sweet pastry roll) or Lefse recipe; and each person tends to feel that only their recipe is truly “traditional”. This family reverence for “their” tradition shows the power of food to connect us with a culture and our past.

2 cups sour cream
1 scant cup sugar
1 egg
¾ tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. butter
¼ tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
3 to 4 cups flour

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar together, beat in egg. Sift or stir together dry ingredients. Alternately add dry ingredients and remaining wet ingredients to the sugar mixture, stirring to incorporate. Cover and chill until firm. On a lightly floured surface, roll out small hunks of dough into 8 to ten inch ropes. Twist ropes into a figure eight knot. Bake on cookie sheet at 450 degrees until light brown.


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1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   What’s Cooking

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