Midwest Living

If you visit the Iowa State Fair, you can see a cow made out of butter. I have--and it takes the concept of butter fingers to a whole new level. There are also several traditional contests and tournaments, including sheep shearing and the big-animal division; the largest rabbit may have inspired the movie "Harvey." In short, we're not in Manhattan anymore. And guess what? This stuff is fun and interesting and a chance to understand the agricultural world. Plus, the fair was turned into a Rogers and Hammerstein musical--in my book, the ultimate tribute.

But wait, there's more.

February's Midwest Living, a 20-year-old regional monthly, part of Meredith's stable, salutes the area's "Best of Everything!" Note the exclamation mark, which is the most overused piece of punctuation. It's not just the best of everything. It's the best of everything! As any good theater director will tell you, the line read is all. If the magazine insists on using the !, the bar has been raised.

So how does it stack up?

The celebration is divided into seven sections, including Best Recipes, Style, Favorite Things and Food Inventions. Apparently, eats take center stage. In fact, despite freezing temps and a wind-chill factor that would discourage Nanook, Midwest cooks think nothing of firing up the grill. I don't know whether this is crazy determination or just crazy. We all love barbecue, but is it worth frostbite? Judge for yourself. Dave Grulke of Milwaukee's spareribs recipe is available at Just scroll down to ribs.

The food fest continues with Midwest food creations. Life Savers and theater popcorn are nifty, but the microwave is a godsend. Kool-Aid and Kraft macaroni and cheese, however, are less brag-worthy. Thanks to Jim Jones, the former got a bad rap; the latter speaks for itself--and it's not screaming healthy.

Still, I was curious about the "20 Best Recipes of All Time," which is some boast. The caveat: it's the best from the magazine, which narrows the field. My particular favorite was cinnamon rolls. As a child, Sara Lee's cinnamon buns were a pre-school treat; but here, white cake mix boosts the flavor. Also the Paradise pumpkin pie was a winner at the Morton, Ill., Pumpkin Festival of 1989. This is Midwest Living's forte, getting all down-home and neighborly. Of the 20 selections, 12 were dessert recipes, so consider adding protein to your diet, otherwise, sugar shock awaits. The good news: judging from the photos, it's worth it.

History buffs will enjoy "20 Midwesterners Who Changed the World." Personally, I hate the expression "flyover country," often used to dismiss the land mass between the East and West Coasts. This is a big country; it can tolerate variety. The trick here is how "Midwesterner" is defined. Since Oprah, who was born in Mississippi, made the list, it's about impact--those who either came from, or made their mark, in the region.

Now, we all know Hemingway and Lincoln, but Midwest Living gives a tip of the hat to swing king Benny Goodman, Betty Friedan, of "Feminine Mystique" fame, and Norman Borlaug, who led the Green Revolution in the 1960s and won a Nobel Prize for improving wheat strains. In the inventor category, there's Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. We owe a debt to their respective inventions and engineering feats, though on the flip side, they were also notorious anti-Semites. Alas, you can't have everything.

Happily, you can have great escapes--be it the art deco Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Mo., or a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh at Northern Michigan's Garland Resort. Or, check out the Grand Marais Art Colony in Grand Marais, Minn., a reminder that natural beauty, like art, is everywhere.

If your destination is Chicago, that tottlin' town, don't miss the 385-acre Chicago Botanical Garden. The city also houses, at the Art Institute, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," one of the definitive images of late-night urban America. And don't miss the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, which stocks 8,000 books on the president and the Civil War. Great men fascinate historians; mediocre ones sustain TV comics.

This issue, and it may be indicative of a Midwest mind-set, tends to favor country over city, but for local residents or potential visitors, it's a keeper. Who knew you could get a Reuben sandwich as big as your head at Shapiro's in Indianapolis? I'm not saying the Midwest is America's best-kept secret, but as the publication reveals, it's full of surprises.

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