November 19, 1999
Contact: Barbara Shortridge, firstname.lastname@example.org or (785) 864-5147.
LAWRENCE -- Early in the fall semester at the University of Kansas, Barbara Shortridge poses a question to students in her Geography of American Foodways course: What is the typical, symbolic Midwestern meal?
"A lot of people - food writers and some academics - have made the claim that Midwestern food is the most American food," says Shortridge, assistant professor of geography.
"But when I first talked about studying Midwestern food, my colleagues said, 'Oh, Midwestern cooking is just casseroles and Jell-O.' I wanted to prove them wrong."
Her extensive surveys in the 12-state Midwest region (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri) showed that the "typical" meal did not include Jell-O. On the menu in the Midwest: roast beef (grilled steak was the second choice and hamburgers, third), potatoes - mashed or baked, green beans, corn on the cob, and apple pie.
"Now doesn't that sound like the American meal?" Shortridge asks.
Shortridge's upper-level course on food and culture starts with the South - "because more's been written about the South than any other region," she says - and takes students on a regional tour of the United States.
The course covers more than just the geography of food, which Shortridge defines as "who eats what where." Instead, she mixes history, sociology, American studies, and agriculture. Lectures include such topics as the beef- and pork-packing industries in the Midwest, pioneer meals in New England, the fact that most Southern foods are of African origin, and the effect of religion on diet.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, Shortridge lectures to the class in a geography classroom. On Fridays, however, the professor and her students - a mixture of undergraduates and graduate students - gather in a conference room and sit around a table to discuss food-related issues and to eat. Each Friday, one student must bring a snack - "food with a story," Shortridge says. Sometimes she, too, brings food. Several years ago, after a trip to the South, she brought moon pies and RC Cola to her class. "Most of them ate it," she says. "I think students will eat anything."
This semester, Lawrence graduate student Mary Gage contributed peach kuchen and cottage cheese kuchen, two German coffee cakes she remembered from her childhood in North Dakota but had never made before. "I was so nervous making this - and not just because of this class. I felt like all my relatives were watching me," Gage says. She laughs. "I did call my mother when I was done."
Friday discussions center on personal, food-related decisions made by students and their families, with Shortridge posing the questions: When you lived at home, when was the big meal of the day? What do you drink with meals? When and why do you order pizza?
"It's important to look at what we're doing, what we're eating," Shortridge says during one Friday session. "Then as the course continues, we'll extrapolate. We'll talk about marketing and look at what influences our food decisions."
During a later class, she asks students what they'd learned from their food diaries, a chronicle of what, when, and where they'd eaten over a two-week period.
"I go through a lot of drive-through lines and eat in the car," says Terence Moore, Leawood senior in geography.
"My one exception to eating at a table was when I ate in a hole in the ground because I was doing geography fieldwork," says Jeremy Dillon, Prairie Village graduate student. "I had a sandwich and a can of pop in a trench."
Brian Phenix, Lawrence senior in business administration, says he's noticed some patterns to his food choices. "I had a lot of protein. I ate one form of chicken each day."
"Have your eating habits changed since you came to college?" Shortridge asks.
"I eat lighter on the weekends - for economic reasons," Phenix says.
Shawna Wright, Wichita senior in geography, says she's become a vegetarian. "I don't like red meat that much," she says. "It's disappeared from my diet here, but when I go home and am being nice to my grandma, of course I eat her roast beef."
Shortridge requires her students to work on a variety of food-related projects. Each must write a restaurant review. Class members must interview someone from another culture about food in that country. Shortridge sends students to a local farmers market and assigns an essay about their observations.
"I want students to learn different ways to collect information. It's one of the themes that runs through this course," she says.
She also addresses library research and other forms of information collection and analysis. For final projects, students may do original research or library research and must write papers on the results. They must also give final presentations in front of the class.
"In a survey the geography department does when seniors graduate, students say they'd like more writing experience and more oral presentation experience while they're in college," Shortridge says. "This is my small attempt at giving them that."
Her students have analyzed school lunch menus across Kansas, compared the recipes in charitable cookbooks, and looked at regional variations in McDonald's menus.
"Even McDonald's has really different menus," Shortridge says. "In Arkansas and along the Mississippi River, they have grits on the menu. In Hawaii, McDonald's serves a chunk of pineapple with your meal. In Iowa, they test marketed a pork burger.
"We don't all eat the same across the United States. There's a lot of regional variation, even among national chain restaurants, and that's what geography is all about."
WHAT'S FOR DINNER?
To uncover the typical, symbolic Midwestern meal, assistant professor Barbara Shortridge surveyed county extension agents, food editors at daily newspapers, geographers at community colleges and universities, and home cooks in the 12-state Midwest region.
She asked respondents to create a menu for hypothetical out-of-state guests who wanted to eat food representative of the region. The meal should be the major meal of the day for the respondents, Shortridge said, and should include a beverage and dessert. Participants could choose a meal from any time of the year and weren't limited by cost.
Shortridge learned that beef was the preferred meat in the Midwest, followed by pork and then chicken. "Very few people answered hot dish or casserole," she said. Survey participants planned to offer their guests green beans, potatoes, and corn on the cob.
"I presented this study in Canada and two women stood up and - maybe because of Canada's connection to England - said, 'Do you mean you really eat corn on the cob?' In England, it's simply not done. Corn on the cob is animal feed," Shortridge said. "There were many people in my audience who turned around and said, 'Of course we do.'"
Shortridge has received a research grant to extend her study. This fall, she sent surveys to Western states.