Midwestern memories

Henri goes back to his roots

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

I can scarcely believe the fuss my dear Dr. Epinards is making.


He says that I absolutely must get on an exercise program to lower my “bad” cholesterol level and lose some weight. But of course, Doctor. I’ll get on an exercise program as soon as I find a treadmill with a decent cup holder. So far, the cup holders on all the treadmills I’ve tried make the glass all tippy, and you end up spilling perfectly good wine all over the floor.

At least the Sears salesman and his nice friend the security officer were polite enough to escort me to the door when they decided it was time for me to leave.

Please don’t misunderstand. Henri adores the Bowflex look—the grapefruit-sized calf muscles, the broad shoulders, the little gray shorts—but he also loves to eat and drink. Besides, with L. long gone from my life and Miss Marilyn my only companion, I’m taking great comfort these days in elastic waistbands and oversized T-shirts.

In fact, a painful confession: Henri the culinary globetrotter is feeling rather, well, ordinaire. Although I’ve traveled to the world’s most magnificent cities and eaten in some of their finest restaurants, I’ve been thinking lately of more basic American food, Midwestern food—most of which is hardly compatible with any kind of “program,” particularly in the quantities in which it’s consumed in the American heartland.

As far as I know, the Bourrides were the only French-Catholic family in the little Midwestern town where I spent my youth. The other boys and girls in my classes were Lutherans from large families of big blond Scandinavians with names like Dag, Hegg, Clatt and Magna Bagna. They lived on farms and came to town to shop and go to church and sometimes to celebrate—a wedding, a birth, a return from a semester abroad (St. Paul) or, more likely, a fortuitous rainfall.

And often, thanks to the warm hearts and generous natures of these people, the Bourrides were invited to join them at mealtime, so not infrequently our Sunday dinner took place in the dining room of a classic American farmhouse at a table of anywhere from eight to 14 or 15 strapping Norwegians. The large-buxomed women in print dresses and aprons would serve great quantities of stews and potatoes covered in cheese sauce to the obdurate, resolute men, who talked softly the entire meal—two or three hours—about the weather and how it looked like another grim harvest.

Usually, my mother would offer to contribute something—a simple petit pan aux pavots, for example, or faisan duxelles—but again and again she was told not to bother. In fact, one Christmas she offered to bring a crème brulé, suggesting that something different might be good for a change, but was told that the traditional lefse with lingonberries was just fine, thank you, and that “Change is good, just not around here.”

So we ate what they ate. Dairy, lots of dairy. And root vegetables. Parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes, yams, broccoli, leeks and cauliflower. Lutefisk, fish pudding, persimmon pudding, Jell-O salad, turkey loaf, cheese balls, tuna casseroles, meatballs, scalloped potatoes and always the relishes, the pickles and the pies—pecan, apple, cherry, banana, lemon.

When I first left home at 18, I swore I’d never go back to the Midwest or to its cooking. But something’s been drawing me back—perhaps it was watching all those Andy Hardy movies last weekend—so this Sunday I’m going fix a mid-afternoon Midwestern dinner. I’ll watch the Easter parade while I eat scalloped potatoes with diced ham and broccoli with cheese sauce and finish up with pecan pie—each piece of which I’ll top with a double scoop of chocolate-chip ice cream from Shubert’s and a big mound of real whipped cream. Afterwards I’ll start my "program"—by jogging over to the sofa for a nap.