The First Nations
Notable tribes around the Great Lakes at the time of European immigration included the Ojibwa (Chippewa), Fox, Huron, Iroquois, Ottawa, Pottawatomie, Sioux and over 100 additional smaller bands of native peoples over the course of history.
Food traditions included fishing, hunting, and farming. Fish included sturgeon, whitefish, and lake trout. Game included deer, elk, bear, rabbit, beaver and fox. Crops included corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, and Jerusalem artichokes. Maple sugar and wild berries also were diet staples of the tribes. Wild rice is a uniquely Great Lakes grain that was also a common part of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) diet.
The largest flow of German immigration to America occurred between 1820 and World War I, during which time nearly six million Germans immigrated to the United States. A large majority settled in the “German Triangle” between Milwaukee, Cleveland, and St. Louis.
Ethno-culinary contributions include a robust brewing tradition as exemplified by brewers like Jacob Best, Bernhard Stroh, Frederick Pabst, Frederick Miller, and Adolphus Busch. The sausage making tradition continues with major brands such as Klements and Usingers, and countless, smaller sausage making operations. Uniquely German dishes include rollbraten and sauerbraten often accompanied with spätzle and sauerkraut. Limburger and brick cheese and a host of other German-style cheeses permeate the Great Lakes region. Dark rye breads are often characteristically German, as are many types of mustard. Hamburgers and frankfurters are also German in origination.
German ancestry is one of the largest self-identified groups in the United States, with the greatest concentration occurring in the Great Lakes region. According to the 2000 U.S. census, the concentration of those that identify themselves as German ancestry can be seen on the map at right.
Significant Oktoberfest traditions exist in cities throughout the Great lakes region (though by no means exclusively). The largest in the US is largely recognized to be the one held in Cincinnati, Ohio. The festival held in Frankenmuth, Michigan was the first to be recognized by the German parliament. A common tradition in these festivals, along with the enjoyment of the Oktoberfest-style beer, is the spanferkel, a slow-roast suckling pig.
Over a million Polish immigrants came to the US, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century. Approximately 10 million people today self identify as being of Polish ancestry and many reside in the Great Lakes region. Strong ethnic traditions continue in Chicago and historically Polish neighborhoods can still be explored in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland.
The kielbasa sausage is part of Polish culinary tradition. Pierogis are the national dish of Poland and have provided a wonderful new canvas for innovation. Michael Symon includes them on the menu of his restaurant in Cleveland and Detroit. Paczkis are a donut-style pastry that are served on the Catholic feast the Thursday before Lent that often generate lines down the block on that particular day.
The largest push of Swedish immigration to the US occurred in the later decades of the 19th century. Approximately one million immigrants settled in and around the Great Lakes region, primarily pursuing the farming traditions they had left behind. Many immigrants settled in the Chicago area, though today many of those of Swedish ancestry live in Minnesota. Similar trends were seen in smaller numbers from Denmark, Finland, and Norway.
Culinary traditions from Sweden have included meatballs in a cream sauce, often with a lingonberry jam accompaniment, preserved fish, dumplings, and a variety of pastries. Preserved fish include gravlax, fermented herring, and lutfisk. Root vegetables are also a prominent part of the ethno-culinary heritage.
The Irish immigration to the US was extensive and those who self identify as having Irish ancestry today represent a population 6 times larger than the population in Ireland. Many immigrants fled during the Great Potato Famine from 1845-1852. Many settled in larger cities around the Great Lakes and provided much of the manual labor needed to build those modern cities.
The national dish of Ireland, corned beef and cabbage with potatoes, exemplifies many of the elements seen in Great Lakes cuisine; preserved meats, slow roasted meats, cabbage, and root vegetables. Add a stout beer to the mix and you have a nicely representative Irish meal.
Other Immigrant Groups not Included
Italian immigrants also comprise a significant ancestral base for the Great Lakes region. Newer immigration trends have lead to a significant Latino population in the region as well. From a definition of Great Lakes Cuisine, however, these ethno-culinary traditions have remained largely homogeneous. Italian-American cuisine and Latino cuisine are ethno-culinary traditions that also exist prevalently outside of the Great Lakes region and reflect their countries of origin more than the Great Lakes region.
There are many great restaurants and wonderful culinary traditions that are part of the Italian-American tradition and the Latino tradition throughout the Great Lakes area. One representative example would be the Chicago deep-dish pizza. That dish is unique to Chicago (though it has clearly been transplanted throughout the US) and is deeply ingrained in the Italian-American tradition. It is not authentically Italian cuisine, but is clearly more akin to the cuisine of Italy than to any other tradition.
Our effort here is to identify and codify a culinary tradition that stretches back across the ethnic history of the Great Lakes region, is a unique outgrowth of this geographic region, and cannot be identified as belonging to another defined culinary tradition.