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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?! [1])

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:

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 [2] 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 [3]?). 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 [4] by Amy Thielen)

Pizza Dough

Sauce

For Topping

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.