A working definition – Great Lakes Cuisine depends on three key factors – geography, ethnic traditions, and seasonality.

The Great Lakes Geography – The uniqueness of the Great Lakes as the largest repository of fresh water in the world sets a context for the cuisine as both a resource and a gathering place.

The region as defined by the watershed boundaries. Image credit: Great Lakes Information Network

For the purpose of of our culinary definition we include portions of the American states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, as well as portions of the Canadian territory of Ontario.  Notable cities in this area include Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Toronto.  The agricultural tradition is rich in soil, fresh water, and hard work. The fishing heritage in this region is being re-discovered on the Great Lakes through diligent conservation and is supplemented by extensive fishing on a myriad of smaller lakes in the region.  From the indigenous traditions to the ethnic settlers, the resources and transportation provided by this geographic treasure has served to gather people in, which leads to the second defining factor.

The Ethnic Traditions – The indigenous and European-settling  cultures have created a rich culinary tradition.  After a long tradition of hunting and gathering by the native people, the settlers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s created a significant concentration of central and northern European people.  The German, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, and Scandinavian culinary traditions are well represented. Many of the culinary icons of this region owe their genesis to the ethnic traditions such as the bratwurst of Wisconsin or the Chicago Hot Dog.  Many of these ethno-culinary traditions have been marginalized in more recent generations and provide inspiration to the imagination of a new generation of chefs in the area.

Seasonality – The strong definition to the seasons in the region lead to two interesting components to Great Lakes Cuisine.  First and foremost is a very clear celebration of the changing seasonality. The awakening brought by spring is attended to by blossoming flowers and treasured early sprouts. The outdoor celebrations of the summer have an urgency born of their short duration.  The fall harvest with the attendant change in the colors and perceptible change in the temperature leads to a thanks-giving that rings with deep authenticity.  The  winter requires a stoutness of spirit that is buoyed by companionship.  Many treasures of the harvest have to be preserved for the winter and early spring.  This becomes a rich source of culinary traditions.  The milk is preserved by creating cheeses well adapted to aging.  The farm-raised and wild-hunted meats are preserved through sausage making of many types or smoked into delectable hams and bacon.  The vegetables are transformed through canning and pickling.  The fruits retain all their summer richness in jams. The grains are fermented and provide craft brews for the celebrations through all seasons.  These are the contents of our Root Cellar – the magic cave preserving our harvest, our traditions, and in some small way, our identity.

We can visualize the interaction of these distinct influences similar to the way Michael Porter once suggested a unique positioning strategy could be mapped as a series of inter-related activities. Porter went on to suggest the interactions between theses activities are what makes the strategy unique and self-reinforcing.


Each of the areas can be illustrated further with representative samples. The samples are not exhaustive nor are they suggestive of importance relative to other examples that we could have chosen.  They are for illustration purposes solely.

Innovative Chefs – Jonathan Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern, Justin Carlisle of Ardent, Thomas Hauck of Karl Ratzsch

Ethnic Traditions – German, Polish, Scandanavian, American Indigenous

Food Traditions – Friday Fish Fry, festivals, comfort foods

Seasonality – Impact of a limited growing season and necessity of “cellaring” foods

Local Ingredients – Milk, apples, single-source honey

Craft Brews – Founders Brewery, Bells Brewing, New Glarus Brewing

Artisan products – Cheese, sausage, breads

Traditional Restaurants – Ethnic, supper clubs, taverns

Menu – Unpretentious, authentic, artisan

Farmers – Dairy, orchards, grains (active family farm tradition)

Preserved Foods – Pickles, dried sausage, jams

Wild game – Venison, duck, freshwater fish

Chefs working in the the emerging trend of Great Lakes Cuisine find ways to combine many, and often all of, these elements to create something compelling, creative, and unique.



6 thoughts on “Definition

  1. Seasonality is certainly important, but lot’s of chefs are claiming to embrace seasonality these days. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about “preserving” the bounty. The preserving methods brought over by the Northern Europeans combined with the astounding agriculture of the Upper Midwest and the riches of the Great Lakes themselves created an environment where there was a tremendous need for smoking, pickling, canning and sausage making. Those ingredients are now central to the cuisine.

    Also, there is a approachability to the Great Lakes Cuisine. Portion size is ample, the plating is not overly pretentious and the food isn’t fussy. This isn’t Manhattan, LA or South Beach. People here by and large want a substantial plate of food that isn’t going to scare them off.

    1. I was raised in Minnesota and have good memories of enjoying smoked chub while growing up. I have since left the midwest for the west, but would like to get, via mail, smoked chub or a smoked fish that would taste similar to smoked chub. Can you recommend a clean, reputable source for me to deal with?

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