‘No food or drink has evolved as much as beer in the past 15 years,’ says J. Ryan Stradal when we meet for a drink at the Beer Grotto, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The author of the New York Times bestselling debut Kitchens of the Great Midwest is in the middle of his Midwest book tour. His latest novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, is a multi-generational saga that starts with two sisters, a stolen inheritance and a dream of making the best beer in Minnesota. It’s a family story told through beer goggles, which charts the evolution of Midwestern brewing from the 1960s to the present day.
It also reveals Stradal’s intimate knowledge about the making of different types of beer, including IPAs, saisons, porters and sours. But before he started writing Lager Queen, Stradal was just someone who liked beer. ‘I couldn’t tell you the difference between an ale and a lager,’ he says. Instead, what drew him to his subject matter was his attachment to the food history of the Midwest. He grew up in Hastings, Minnesota, and now lives in Los Angeles, but his heart remains in the Heartland.
In the past decade, the American beer market has changed dramatically. We’ve developed a love of craft beer and no region has been more enthusiastic than the Midwest. While visiting restaurants for research for his first book, Stradal was struck by the number of brewpubs he discovered, especially in the upper Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin). ‘I started asking around,’ he says, ‘and realized the ethos behind these breweries was an interest in running a small business in a smaller community, developing a conscientious product using local labor, and often local ingredients.’
What’s more, many of the brewery owners had been educated elsewhere and returned to their hometowns in order to start their breweries. ‘They were interested in being sustaining members of their hometowns,’ he says.
While craft and local breweries exist all across America, the Midwest spoke to Stradal, not only because he was born and raised there, but also because of the area’s history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, beer-making was heavily concentrated in the upper Midwest. The Grain Belt region was rich in the necessary raw materials and had a large population of Czech and German immigrants, who had brought brewing culture to their adoptive homes.
The colder climate was also well-suited to making lager. ‘You don’t see a lot of Southern beer brands,’ explains Stradal. ‘The beer would spoil in the heat.’ Regional breweries like Grain Belt, Stroh’s, Blatz and Hamm’s boomed, even as late as Stradal’s teenage years. ‘I used to see signs for these companies on the side of bars,’ he remembers. ‘I wanted to unravel what happened to these breweries of my childhood.’
Had they survived? The answer, Stradal found, was, yes, though only in the slightest of senses. These brands live on but most have been bought and consolidated under the umbrellas of giant multinational companies, which slap the same label on the can, but are under no obligation to brew to the same recipe. Instead, profit comes from the nostalgia of the brand. ‘I was intrigued by that,’ Stradal says; ‘how as consumers, we’ve come to accept a simulacrum of something that was once authentic.’
Meanwhile, there has been a resurgence in the number of breweries in America. During the 1890s, it peaked at around 2,000, but by the 1980s, this had dropped to roughly 90. Nowadays, there are an estimated 7,450. This time around, however, most of these new breweries seem uninterested in the rapid growth that brought about the downfall of the earlier regional brands. ‘The local breweries I talked to all told me, “The size we are now is the size we want to stay,”’ Stradal says.
Stradal is interested in this tug-of-war between integrity and nostalgia, in part because it applies more broadly to how people see Midwestern cuisine. ‘I’m constantly trying to divorce my feelings from a pure sense of sentimentality,’ he says. ‘To see the food of my youth, the food of my family, from an objective standpoint.’ The food his family made often prioritized resourcefulness over health, corporate brands over organic, affordability over sustainability. ‘Lipton Onion Soup mix, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Miracle Whip mayo — recipes would list those brands by name,’ he says.
At the same time, fresh, local ingredients were easy to come by in the region, with seasonal produce cheaper to buy than what was available at grocery chains. This created an interesting hybrid food culture. ‘Eggs from the farm next door mixed with corporate sugar,’ as Stradal describes it.
Stradal believes that Midwestern food is not only practical, but also offers simple, unpretentious pleasures. ‘There is a heartiness in Midwestern cooking. It’s food that keeps you warm.’ The hotdish (another word for casserole), Kraft caramel bars (made with one bag of Kraft caramels) and homemade apple pie with a hand-rolled crust are classic examples. And what is a tater tot hotdish if not something that just tastes good?
There is one Midwestern staple that doesn’t taste good though, even if it does evoke a bygone era: lutefisk. Picture a piece of whitefish soaked in lye until it develops a congealed, jelly-like texture. Brought over by immigrants from Norway and Sweden, the preparation of lutefisk is stringently passed down from generation to generation. It is the cornerstone of most Christmas dinners.
‘My Norwegian great-grandfather was the lutefisk enforcer, and if he knew that there was no one in the family still making lutefisk, he would be very depressed,’ Stradal laughs. But in fact, even current-day Norwegians and Swedes have disowned the traditional dish. Lutefisk was a food made during times of hunger and shortage. Now that the Nordic countries no longer have to eat it, they don’t, which means only the American descendants of those early immigrants are keeping the tradition alive. In the Midwest, heritage isn’t easily left behind.
The Midwest isn’t called the Heartland just because it’s in the middle of the country. It’s a region where sentimentality creates its own kind of integrity. Where beer-makers commit not only to the art of brewing, but also to the towns where the brewing happens. Where people eat the food their parents made them because it tastes good — and came from the heart. And even as tastes have evolved and grown healthier — there’s now a vegan ‘butcher’ in Minneapolis — Stradal knows that the Midwest won’t be leaving all its food traditions behind.
Recently, Stradal made a classic hotdish, with only one slight tweak. ‘I used Amy’s Organic Cream of Mushroom instead of Campbell’s,’ he tells me. ‘There are certain things that are hard to let go of, that sentimentality keeps alive.’
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2019 US edition.