The Midwest Is the Heart and Soul of American Bread

Exploring Middle America's Baking D.N.A.

close up of bierocks
German bierocks.

The Spruce / Leah Maroney

It's Bread Month here at The Spruce Eats. All through February, we'll be sharing stories about this important staple in all its glorious forms—from pizza to pretzels to bierocks—and the way it's made, eaten, and shared across countries and cultures.

My great-great-grandparents came through Ellis Island with family recipes and enduring food culture. Eventually, they moved from New York to Pennsylvania to Kansas, from big cities to a Midwestern farm. While their Irish McYoung surname became Young, coming to America didn’t take away their love of salt-of-the-earth baking. As a fourth generation Irish-Italian, I grew up in Kansas with European-turned-Midwestern breads like the bierock, a yeast roll stuffed with seasoned beef, cabbage, and onions—sometimes with cheese, sometimes without—but always served with a single pickle spear on waxed paper.

Growing up, Wichita was a bread basket of enduring cultural recipes: City celebrations served up Danish, Polish, and German breads and pastries like kringles, paczki, and Native American fry bread, a local favorite that predated my ancestors.

Sixty years after my family immigrated, I moved from Kansas to North Carolina and assumed my favorite baked goods would follow. After all, I had Midwestern bread infused in my DNA. I was surprised when I couldn’t find those familiar pastries in the South—although there were new discoveries: cheese biscuits, cornbread, hush puppies, beignets, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I adapted, but nearly had my beloved bierocks (and cheese curds) shipped cross country. Occasionally, I’d stumble upon something familiar, discovering a local German bakery, for example, or spotting fry bread at Washington, D.C.’s Indian-American museum.

When I found out there was a new Midwest baking book, I wondered what secrets it might unlock. Why are some baked goods hyper-local to the Midwest? How did some recipes endure? Why is bread a Midwest staple? Why are the contents of bread baskets across the country so different?

On a morning between school drop-offs, I chatted with Shauna Sever, the author of “Midwest Made: Big Bold Baking from the Heartland.” I went into our conversation thinking I knew Midwestern breads and came out knowing more about my bread family tree. The first thing the Chicago native took on was my lament that bierocks and paczkis don’t widely exist outside of a few Midwestern states. She had a viewpoint that I didn’t expect.

“Midwestern breads enduring for so long in several states is impressive,” said Sever. “What other culinary products have lasted hundreds of years?”

It made sense as I recalled my favorites and their limited, but impressive scope. My favorite bierocks are available in Kansas as squares, but are known as runzas and shaped as circles in Nebraska. After our call, I went in search of their history and stumbled upon runza-branded restaurants in Kansas and Nebraska founded in 1949 by Lincoln native Sally Everett. Stories varied, but her family recipe for the meat-filled yeast roll has either Russian or German roots.

Danish Kringle
Danish kringle.

 The Spruce / Kristina Vanni

Sever also gave me a quick history lesson. She explained that the first commercial baking powder wasn’t available until the late 1800s; baking soda came into widespread use after that. Until then, yeast- and leaven-free breads were the standard. Today’s quick breads didn’t exist until the early 1900s. Just as today’s bakers innovated the Cronut, Midwestern quick breads were a marriage of old and new worlds, often using simple, inexpensive ingredients.

I asked Sever for her most interesting Midwestern bread story and she waxed sentimental about the Pullman loaf. Made in specially-designed rectangle pans with lids for easy stacking on Pullman trains, it was a great metaphor for bread baking in the Midwest: easy, unique, and quickly recognizable. Still available in Chicago, Pullman loaves weren’t just a bread option; they embodied romantic and glamorous train travel.

Sever also talked about family baking histories as food memory imprints. She explained how we experience foods that become locked in our memories—for the flavors, textures, and smells—because they remind us of good times and special meals. Those sensory connections to breads (like my bierock obsession) remind us to bake old favorites and bring them into daily rotation, while also exploring new recipes.

“We lock away in our cellular memory things we’ve had a few times, but don’t have time to make. Coming back to them with a cookbook or recipe reinvigorates that sensory memory,” she said.

But with hybrid pastries and unicorn everything filling our Instagram feeds, is there still room for these old-school items? I asked Sever if she thought trends would make Midwestern favorites even harder to find. She told me our love of foods falls into two categories: things to look at and things to make. While rainbows and doughnut hybrids may be fun to look at, in the end, we have to decide between simply liking something online or bringing it to our kitchens to make, eat, and share. Sever’s hands-on love of bread helps her favorites endure and inspired “Midwest Made.” She didn’t rule out Instagrammable trends in becoming something future generations remember and want to recreate.

“As you bake bread, choosing to be inspirational rather than aspirational is crucial. Creating something simple that may not be as pretty may bring more joy. When shared with family and friends directly, you participate in the age-old community baking and breaking of bread.”

Polish Paczki doughnuts
Polish paczki doughnuts.

The Spruce

 

Sever notes that the community growing around sourdough bread is an example of how simplicity, nostalgia, and food memories can endure in the age of social media. She encourages bakers to choose recipes that are beneficial in some way—de-stressing through kneading, relaxing with tea and a slice of quickbread, baking with your kids—instead of trying to create and post the perfect mirror glaze cake.

I was interested in learning about Sever’s Midwestern bread favorites. Some—like savory bierocks and runzas—I was already familiar with, but others, such as Swedish limpa bread made with orange, fennel, anise and caraway, were new to me. Kansas sunflower bread again used available resources; my childhood memories included the crunchy loaves and fields of nodding sunflowers. Irish soda bread is another Midwest transplant my ancestors most likely ate, as only a few ingredients and no yeast was required to make it. But she didn’t stop there, describing English muffin bread in loaves and a 1960s casserole bread.

“Rediscovering that favorite childhood bread recipe—from the Midwest or your own home state—can become like that perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe that you want to eat every day,” Sever said.

Later, I read through Sever’s book, earmarking recipes with my thoughts flashing from Ellis Island to my childhood and today. The book is described as “a love letter to America’s Heartland, the great Midwest” with familiar favorites, but also new ones. I opened to page 234 to create a shopping list for my first project: the runza, cousin to my beloved bierock. I may Instagram the results, pretty or not. I do plan on filling my family’s bread basket first, creating my own Midwestern baking traditions.