Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Food Geography of the Great Plains

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Food Geography of the Great Plains

Article excerpt

Despite the fundamental importance of food to human existence, geographical knowledge of contemporary dietary patterns in the United States is far less developed than is that of other cultural markers. We know that food choices are related to place and heritage and that they can be linked to the resurgent need for and interest in community-based identity in our postmodern society. Studies show that rapid cultural change and personal stress have led many citizens to embrace, reaffirm, and even reinvent aspects of the local as a way to increase their sense of attachment to place. Along with supporting local sports teams, attending folk festivals, and participating in historic enactments, people use and identify with regional foods. Food is an especially powerful connection to maintain. It is relatively inexpensive and accessible, and its taste and smell elicit an unmatched response of pleasure. Foods strongly associated with an area can easily take on symbolic qualities, and their consumption can evoke both personal nostalgia and community pride. By studying such culinary traditions, we can improve understanding of how modern Americans strive to create touchstones for group identity.

This article is based on a large survey of food preferences in the Great Plains, a section of the nation known for vast distances and sparse populations. It is also a region stereotyped as "American" in cultural heritage even though numerous ethnic enclaves dot its landscape, including those of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European and Hispanic origin and recent additions from Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Assumptions of physical and cultural homogeneity make the Plains an intriguing place in which to initiate a study of food geography. If variety exists there, it most assuredly does elsewhere in the country.

I explored the food preferences of selected Great Plains residents by asking them what they would serve to out-of-state guests who were interested in eating a meal representative of the region, a subject to which they had probably given thought in the past. With this exercise, executed through a mailed questionnaire, I gathered self-identified foods that had strong associations with various parts of the Plains. My analysis of these data focuses on four research questions: What is the overall character of Plains cuisine? Does it reveal within-region variation? Do culinary traditions from the adjoining South, Southwest, West, or Midwest affect regional food habits? Have specific foods become cultural icons that symbolize group identity and thereby mark vernacular regions?

REGIONAL IDENTITY THROUGH FOOD

Although Wilbur Zelinsky urged geographers to address the intertwined topics of food and culture more than three decades ago (1973, 103-105), studies remain few. Some work exists on the location and development of restaurants (Pillsbury 1987, 1990; Zelinsky 1987; Manzo 1990, 1996; Jakle and Sculle 1999) and some on the consumption of specific foods (Kelly 1983; J. R. Shortridge and B. G. Shortridge 1983; B. G. Shortridge and J. R. Shortridge 1989; de Wit 1992; Frenkel 1995), but we still lack basic knowledge and analyses of regional cuisines. (1) This gap exists despite renewed public interest in all things related to food, as demonstrated by increased cookbook sales, new television shows, and expanded food sections of newspapers. The main problem is scarcity of appropriate place-related data. In the absence of census materials or independent field surveys, scholars are reduced to anecdotal materials that have a narrow spatial focus. Proprietary data collected by the marketing divisions of large food-processing companies are inaccessible to the public for competitive reasons and are limited to specific products. Community cookbooks, especially those compiled for charitable purposes, tend to feature recipes for exotic dishes instead of everyday foods (Ireland 1981; Bower 1997; Haber 2002; Theophano 2002). …

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