WHAT’S UP WITH BUNS?
No doubt every region of the country has specific culinary preferences, many brought by immigrants who needed the taste of “back home” in their new land. Some are dependent on local availability from sea, lakes, waterways, forests, plains or simply the efficacy of specific agricultural conditions. And some are simply traditions that have evolved over time.
I have no tie nor have ever visited our east coast with the exception of one brief trip to New York City when my son was an actor in the Red Moon Ensemble. I’m not certain that any one food concoction in Gotham City would qualify for regional tradition given the hodge-podge, melting pot, grand-metropolitan atmosphere overall. In other words, New York transcends the norms and anything goes. I can certainly imagine Boston interlinked with baked beans without having a clue as to the provenance simply because they are touted in references to “Beantown.” Or a clambake on the New England coast because we know where the shellfish are abundant and Rodgers and Hammerstein told us so. “The vittles we et were good, you bet.”
On a family trip many years ago throughout the south I felt I was traversing a different country, a far cry from the other three quadrants. Yes, I was particularly stunned by “Whites only” signs on drinking fountains (it was the sixties), but the local food as well. Grits with every breakfast. Heavily sugared iced tea a necessity. Gravy required on biscuits. Collard greens and cat fish. I have a particular fondness for Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy and William Faulkner and if creativity is in any way influenced by diet, they seem to have thrived on the fare. I admit I experienced only a fleeting traveling café agenda, but in my heart I have to pass on their cuisine. Except for the greens. But sautéed and not fried in bacon grease, please. However, I must admit that at the first taste of New Orleans beignets, I just might revise and succumb.
On the west coast, another melting pot, the culinary mix is exotic, daring and experimental. How I miss our weekly excursions to the local sushi bar – Tekka Maki (always my favorite) or whatever the chef chose to serve. “Your choice,” we would say. “Surprise us.” And the dishes would arrive, each one like a precious culinary painting. Tamales – the ultimate test of Mexican gastronomy, steeped in heavy corn aroma and flavor, sauced with salsa verde. A steamed artichoke, fresh from the foggy fields of the central coast, dipped in melted butter before sensually scraping the meat off each leaf with one’s teeth. Or our weekly drive down the old Morro road to the orange grove stand on the left , the avocado on the right – fruits freshly picked from the surrounding fields, exotic in their perfection.
I can’t speak for the entire Midwest but I now know (somewhat) the idiosyncrasies of Minnesota and North Dakota. In a hunter/fisher culture, walleye and venison rule. I found that I love walleye. Venison, not so much. Scandinavian fare is the preference and the norm. Many of us would pass on lutefisk, but it is offered in abundance at Lutheran church dinners during the holidays and even at the local Viking Café in Fergus Falls. If you can make great lefsa you are lauded and can sell as much as your grill, stick and flour tossing allows. Garrison Keillor made fun of hot dishes, but they prevail. And bars. Not of the alcoholic variety, but cookie dough that is faster and easier to mush into 9 x 12” baking pans.
There is one anomaly, however, that continues to stump me here in the upper Midwest. What’s up with buns? It seems that every church gathering, graduation or family reunion, holiday club meeting, or just because – begins with buns. I have heard it again and again. “I get my buns at …” “That was the first thing I did, I ordered the buns.” “How many buns will we need?”
It seems that buns are the foundation, the culinary prop, the stage and platform upon which the entire menu is structured. The pulled, sauced meat, the pickles and olives, the side cold and hot dishes are merely accoutrements to the buns. I don’t get it. But maybe I do. Are the buns the equivalent of not being too pushy, too forward? Is it possible that someone at one primal moment in some Lutheran church basement set the standard and ever after it would have been considered too fancy pants, too not proper for the flyover zone, too “who do you think you are” to plan an event differently? Is it akin to the tradition of not sitting in the first half of the pews so you won’t seem like you think you’re special?
I come from a line of great cooks and bakers and they were North Dakotans and Minnesotans. Grammy Marie made the best pies in the fly-over zone. Grandma Ingebretson set the standard for rhubarb torte. Aunt Lil whipped out two turkeys, multiple side dishes, lefsa, flatbrod AND buns this past Thanksgiving at age 91. The Nelson “girls” – Lena, Milla, Lottie, Tilda, and Ella – were known throughout the community for the yummiest food in town. And if they shared a sacred recipe, you were blessed.
Gastronomy is alive and well in the northern Midwest. I say let’s ban the bun, don our aprons and celebrate our creativity. Scandia-fusion lives!