The Midwest


My friends and I are approaching middle age, some of us more quickly than others. Babies are included in dinner reservations. Our bodies aren’t as reliable as they once were. Most of us have grown-up jobs or own property (buncha sell-outs!). I’m also noticing that many of us are questioning everything. It’s similar to what we went through after graduating from universities, but now the questions have changed: do we want to have kids? am I on the right professional path? where should we live? (who made these rules anyway?!)

Where should we live? is a question that Bryan and I ask each other a lot.  On our frequent trips to Los Angeles we often have moments where we think it would make sense to live there. We have family and friends in the city, the climate, landscape and lifestyle all seem to fit us. We fantasize about what life would be like in sunny California and it’s a blur of avocados, apocalyptic sunsets, and year-round backyard dinners. These fantasies are usually followed by very real moments trapped in freeway traffic where I end up screaming “I hate this fucking city!”. Sooooo, maybe not Los Angeles.


There are good and bad things about everywhere. I don’t know where we should live, but I do know that if we were to answer a Buzzfeed quiz called “Where should you really live?”, it is unlikely that either of our results would be Chicago. Chicago can be a pain in the ass with crime, segregation, frustrating public transportation, terrible weather, and uninspiring landscapes. It doesn’t look great on paper. But! But! But! How many people live where they should live? Those quizzes don’t take into account the intangibles, the lives we build wherever we are and the connections we have made. There is something about Chicago and the Midwest that I can’t quit. I grew up here, that is certainly a part of it. Chicago feels like home (whatever that means). But the Midwest is also objectively charming. It has its moments:

  • Rolling farmland!
  • Fireflies!
  • The smell of burning leaves on a cold autumn day!
  • Driving all of the way west on Fullerton at dusk on a summer night!
  • October!
  • The beach towns of southwest Michigan!
  • Wisconsin cheese! (or maybe just the entire state)
  • Eating a hot dog at a Sox game!
  • Chicago’s dive bars!
  • etc…

You find that it’s sometimes not easy to see the things you love about what you already have.


When we were last in Madison (a city that is reason enough to love the Midwest), I picked up a copy of The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen. I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the book or of the author. The cover didn’t sell me, I was worried it was trying to peddling a sort of hokey Midwestern puritanism that I do not find attractive. I bought the book anyway, convincing myself that it was a good investment. It was. It is as close to being a perfect cookbook as they get (and it looks like the James Beard awards agree with me). I read it from cover to cover and was bummed when it was over. This is almost unheard of in a cookbook! Thielen is a gifted storyteller and an incredible salesman of the joys of the Midwest. It’s satisfying to see Midwestern culture celebrated and affirmed (It all comes back to representation?). She includes recipes for many foods that are familiar to anyone who grew up here, and so far I have liked every recipe I have tried. The onion dip is especially delicious and will transport you to backyard parties eating off of paper plates and being bitten by mosquitoes.

At the end of the day, I love the Midwest and would be happy living here forever. Part of my questioning is undoubtedly related to mid-life crisis issues that will soon have me driving a bright red convertible around town, and part of the questioning is wanting to make sure we’re happy with the way our life is going. I’m grateful to Thielen for reminding me of why I love the Midwest so much and am happy to live here. (Also, Amy Thielen, please write many more cookbooks!)


In the Midwest we have a certain kind of pizza, often available in dive bars or small-town pizzerias. It is a very thin and cracker-like crust topped with sauce and cheese, sausage is good too. It isn’t unusual for the cheese to be something other than mozzarella, maybe even something orange. In any case, it is the pizza I grew up on and the pizza I will always love the most. Bryan and I make frequent trips to Vito and Nicks on the south side of Chicago (my old neighborhood!) to eat one of the pies that I grew up on. This recipe does a good job of capturing some of those flavors. It’s also a cinch to put together. Just remember, in the Midwest we cut our pizza into squares.

Cracker-Crust Pizza (from The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen)

Pizza Dough

  • 3/4 cup cool water
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more as needed


  • 2 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
  • 1 large sprig fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • freshly ground black pepper

For Topping

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella, shredded

For the pizza dough, pour the water, oil, salt, and sugar into a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth. Switching to a wooden spoon, gradually add the remaining flour, stirring until the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead until it is smooth and supple, about 5 minutes. Divide the dough into three equal pieces, shape each one into a rough disk, cover with a cloth, and let rest on a board for at least 30 minutes (and up to 3 hours) before rolling.

For the tomato sauce: Heat a wide saucepan over medium heat and add the butter, onion, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Saute until the onion is very tender, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and crush them well by hand. Add the tomatoes, 1/4 cup water, basil sprig, rosemary, sugar, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a couple of turns of black pepper, and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Discard the basil sprig.

Set a pizza stone on a rack on the bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 500°F.

Roll one portion of dough between two pieces of parchment paper into a round that is about 12-inches in diameter. Peel off the top layer of parchment. Fold over the edges of the crust and pinch the edge into a small roll, as you would crimp a pie.

Brush the dough lightly with olive oil, and then spread the top with with one third each of the sauce and the basil. Top with a third of the cheese.

Slip a pizza peel beneath the paper and transfer the pizza to the pizza stone in the oven. Bake until browned on top and slightlu charred on the edges, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer the pizza to a cutting board, swiping the paper out from underneath the pizza. Cut the pizza into small squares and serve immediately. Repeat the process to make two more pizzas.

60 comments to “The Midwest”

  1. Clare Poth says:

    May 21st, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    I really recommend Buffalo -it is an incredible city. Full of art, music, great food, wonderful people. A hybrid of East and Midwest. very welcoming, friendly and livable city

  2. Next time you and Bryan go out for pizza I want to come with and I may even drag Rachel along! I am a huge fan of party squares.

  3. This crust and sauce were exactly what I was looking for in a crispy crust for homemade pizza. The sauce is simple and to give it the texture I wanted I gave it a whirl in my food processor.

  4. This is one of those “that’s my life” posts that one reads once in a while. After some world traveling, I ended up in Chicago in the late 1980s to go to grad school. I stayed for 25 years. Chicago became my home, was the place I became a man (or my slightly bent definition thereof), was where I created a family.

    I moved away twice, once to Paris and once to New York, but Chicago pulled me back both times. Something about that damn city…

    Finally, about two years ago, Seattle called my name. I love it here and this time the move appears to be sticking — but good ol’ Chicago has claimed happy, permanent residence in my soul, DNA and personal history.

    And pizza made at home? Three years ago, a friend and I instituted a weekly pizza night. A tradition strong enough to convince him to move to Seattle, too. We haven’t missed a week, and no two pizzas have been the same. My advice is, go wild with your toppings. Make whatever kind of pizza you can imagine, because everything is good baked on a flat crust!

    Thanks, Tim.

  5. In my experience (as a native Californian), midwesterners have a hard time living outside the Midwest. I’ve known lots who’ve moved to California only to wish for and eventually make plans to move back “home” to the Midwest. California is too… intense, expensive, unfriendly, or who-knows-what for them. I feel bad for the midwesterners. No other region is full of such kind, generous, outgoing people.

  6. I grew up in NYC and spent summers with my cousins who lived in a little town of 150 people 7 miles from Galesburg, IL. I loved those summers filled with delicious fresh corn, barbecued ribs, and ice cream socials. We walked to the general store for sticks of gum that cost 1 cent a piece and picked up the mail at the Post Office, which was a little corner in the hardware store. We spent Sundays tooling around the Mississippi River in my uncle’s motorboat and picnicked on sandbars eating my aunt’s delicious fried chicken, coleslaw, and potato chips – same menu every Sunday. The sky was huge, and the dirt was black and loamy with a scent I can sense whenever I think about it. After years of living in NYC, attending the opera and the ballet, I am retiring to a small country town in upstate NY, and I credit my love and longing for the country to those happy childhood midwestern summers.

  7. I grew up in Montana and have moved frequently around the country with my husband. He hails from WI. We’ve lived in Seattle, Nashville, and now, upstate NY. My cooking palate and preferences have changed a lot from what I grew up eating. We ate meat and potatoes five days of the week. The other two days were most likely cheeseburgers or pizza. Slushburgers, spaghetti (with ground beef), and Tex-mex tacos (also with ground beef) were staples. My mom was a great cook. But it’s interesting to look back at how different certain regions of the country are in terms of cooking. Most of our desserts that we ate were of Scandinavian origin, especially around Christmas time. The older ladies of our church were such great bakers. I really wish I could have spent more time with that generation, learning all of the tricks of their trade! Gonna check out this cookbook.

  8. It’s nice to read a blog from my hometown. So many of the blogs I read leave me wanting more greenery (which at times is lacking in Chicago) or mountains (most definitely lacking in Chicago). I spent the last year and a half away from the Midwest but I’m back and have really tried to get creative on how I can feed the part of me that loves wide, open spaces. Lake Michigan sure helps. I went an hour out to the Indiana Dunes last weekend and even though surrounded by factories, it’s still pretty. I’m thinking maybe I’ll attempt cross country skiing out there this winter.

    Well, I’m rambling but like I said, it’s great to hear some midwest pride and reminders of what makes living here so great.

    I looked at your Chicago guide and was a bit surprised to see Big Star absent from the list. Maybe overrated but one of my favorites for sure :)

  9. Hey Sally,

    Thanks for checking in. My Chicago guide is not meant to be comprehensive, it is just a list of places I eat at a lot and enjoy. I think it is sometimes helpful to people visiting Chicago. I like Big Star, too. But it would not be a place I recommend to visitors from other places, and to be honest I don’t find myself wanting to eat there that often myself. It requires a certain energy. And the same kind of taco joint is present in many other towns.

  10. Lovely to read such in-depth comments. This is my first time visiting your site…got here because of your “cracker-crust” pizza, reminds me of the Kraft Pizza Kits that I would so much like to prepare from scratch! Will definitely give this recipe a whirl. I can relate so much to a “love of place”. There is something about memory of where one grew up…flavors, colors, smells, seasonal activities…they are hard-wired into our brains so that wherever we move, there is always a tug on our hearts to experience it all again to feel content…perhaps to revisit youth. I live in north central Canada, have traveled the world in my younger years but I always “come home”. Yes, the winters are harsh but it makes spring and summer so much more sweet. Love your site and will check in regularly.