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Ethnic flavors in the Heartlands

When it comes to cuisine, Kansas City, Missouri, is celebrated for its barbecue, which reportedly dates back to the early 1900s, when Henry Perry slow-smoked ribs in an old trolley barn and sold them for 25 cents a slab. Today, there’s even a Kansas City Barbecue Society.

But what you might not realize is that the city, located where the Kansas and Missouri rivers converge, also has cuisine with Celtic flair, thanks to the large number of Irish immigrants who settled there. The three-day Kansas City Irish Fest is among the largest in the nation, and it’s easy to find a pub on St. Patrick’s Day.

Minneapolis, meanwhile, is a metropolis with just about every type of cuisine you can imagine, from Thai to Mexican. Yet many chefs today are embracing the city’s Scandinavian roots with a movement known as “New Nordic.”

Offering some culinary touches that give meeting attendees a true taste of a town’s heritage can create a fun — and flavorful — experience.


Irish Pub

At the Sheraton and Westin Kansas City Crown Center in Kansas City, Missouri, groups capitalize on the Irish theme with a night in an old-fashioned pub, which the hotel creates in its meeting space.

The hotel, the headquarters for the Irish dancers competition during the Irish Fest, rents dark leather sofas and deep, comfy chairs to produce just the right ambiance. Dishes of peanuts are placed on low tables, and the group tucks into bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish stew.

Hearty fare is not a far stretch for this meat-and-potatoes region, said Katie Allen, director of catering and event management for the property, which has 730 guest rooms and 42,860 square feet of meeting space.

“A thick stew with big chunks of short rib is right up our alley, something our chef loves to do,” she said. “It’s part of where we are in the Midwest.”

Some groups order beer steins imprinted with the conference logo for the event, she added. “It creates an atmosphere.”


Go Greek

East Moline, Illinois

In East Moline, Illinois, there are two Greek Orthodox churches within a 10-mile radius, said Sue Miller, who belongs to one of the congregations. Between the two is a liberal dose of Greek restaurants and grocery stores.

Her church, the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, encourages meeting groups to embrace the city’s Hellenic heritage with the “It’s Greek to Me,” a package offered at the church, which has a 200-seat banquet hall with a bar and an on-site kitchen.

“They have a traditional Greek lunch or dinner and the option of adding Greek music, dance lessons or a performance,” said Jessica Waytenick, marketing manager for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Quad Cities includes Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois.

Visitors can wear Greek name tags, watch baklava-cooking demonstrations or learn how to make “worry beads.” Miller, the event planner for the church, said the package runs an hour at a minimum.

Although you can do a dinner buffet, most groups prefer to be served. Seated or standing, they can lift their wine glasses and shout, “Opa!”


Friday “fries” and Booyah

Green Bay, Wisconsin

On Friday mornings, Wisconsin resident Brenda Krainik and her husband look at each other and say, “Where do you want to go for fish tonight?”

Because so many Catholic immigrants settled in Wisconsin, fish fries are a Friday staple. During Lent, fried fish is offered on Wednesdays and Fridays.

With so many restaurants offering fried fish, the choice of where to go boils down to the subtle differences, said Krainik, director of marketing for the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some spots use local perch or walleye. Others, including the Old German Beer Hall in Milwaukee, fly in cod from the East Coast.

While some bread the fish, others, including the Titletown Brewing Company and the Green Bay Distillery, both in Green Bay, use a beer batter.

“It’s a very Wisconsin thing for us to do,” Krainik said of adding beer.

Both restaurants have banquet space available. Titletown, near the convention center, has a second-floor space that can seat up to 70. The distillery, located near Lambeau Field, has an 8,000-square-foot banquet room.

Traditionally, the fish is served with a slice of rye bread and a lemon wedge. Coleslaw usually comes in a separate cup or family-style, so the slaw’s juices don’t get the fish soggy.

More particular to the Green Bay area is booyah. “I grew up 40 miles from Green Bay and never heard of it until I moved here,” Krainik said. Some say booyah comes from the French word “bouillon,” and the chicken soup has been attributed to the Belgian or Flemish settlers who settled in northern Wisconsin.

Reportedly, it was first served as a church fundraiser, and the bouillon was initially just that; a whole chicken was boiled in the soup and then removed to serve as the main course. Later, the chicken and vegetables were left in the pot. It’s traditionally simmered for a long time outside over a fire and stirred, oddly, with a paddle.

Groups seeking an authentic booyah can call on Dan Nitka, “The Booyah Guy,” whose mobile Booyah Shed brings the dish to both private and corporate events.

“If the venue allows, we will make everything on-site,” he said. “If there exists space or some other limitation, everything will still be made the day of in our mobile unit; then we’ll bring the prepared food to the event.”

Either way, guests get a distinctive experience.


Italian Meets German

St. Louis, Missouri

Like Kansas City, St. Louis, Missouri, is famous for its barbecue, particularly its St. Louis-style ribs. If you really want to give guests a flavor of the city, start the meal with toasted ravioli and end with gooey butter cake.

“These are totally St. Louis foods,” said Donna Andrews, director of public relations for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

The city’s Italian population settled the neighborhood called the Hill, which is still known for its Italian restaurants and shops. On many menus on the Hill, as well as throughout the city, you’ll find toasted ravioli. Typically packed with veal and beef, these plump pillows sometimes contain cheese or seafood. The ravioli are seasoned and deep-fried until golden. Typically, they come with marinara sauce.

In the 1830s, the German population grew in St. Louis, bringing its own flavors to the region. According to legend, gooey butter cake was an accident made by a German-American baker in the 1930s. As the story goes, he confused the “gooey butter smear,” (normally added to rolls for adhesion) with the “deep butter smear” (used for coffee cakes). Since nothing went to waste in the Depression, the owner baked the cake anyway, and it became a hit. Even Paula Deen now has a recipe for it.


Scandinavian Style


Up north, Minneapolis and St. Paul, dubbed the Twin Cities, are laced with Scandinavian and Nordic culture. In 1930, Swedes made up 17 percent of the population, according to the book “Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota’s Urban Frontier.”

Scandinavian food, however, doesn’t whet many American visitors’ appetites. That’s changing, as the New York Times reported in a 2012 feature story.

Consider Fika, the cafe in the American Swedish Institute’s new wing that opened in July 2012 and was named “Best Lunch in Minnesota” by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, in 2013. Open sandwiches, called smorgas, feature salmon on house rye; raw, pickled and poached radishes with cultured butter on rye; and pork terrine with pickled vegetables.

The baby lettuce salad comes with Vasterbotten cheese, and juniper-spiced meatballs are served with a lingonberry and mustard sauce.

The dishes are also part of the catering menu at the institute, which includes the historic Turnblad Mansion, built in 1929, and the newer LEED-certified Nelson Cultural Center. Both venues, whose buildings are joined by an enclosed bridge, are available for rental, and the catering division, Slate and Stone, will do traditional Nordic fare as well as New Nordic cuisine.

The restaurant Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis, owned by Swedish-American Paul Berglund, also salutes the past with a modern take. The restaurant, whose private second-floor space can seat 50, might serve pheasant meatballs with red cabbage spaetzle and roasted turnips, or northern pike sausage with turnip sauerkraut, depending on the season.

Menu items at the new Kitchen and Prairie restaurant in the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis might include cinnamon-lingonberry French toast with lingonberry jam and maple syrup for breakfast, and “Swedish” meatball fondue, featuring veal meatballs and a chardonnay-Gruyere cream sauce, for dinner.

Given the popularity of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, whose cuisine has been influenced by summers spent in Sweden, New Nordic could catch on outside the Twin Cities as well. But for now, it provides a colorful way to salute the past with the present.


Beer and Brats


Beginning in the 1840s, a large number of German immigrants fueled Milwaukee’s growth, and their influence appears on many menus throughout the city.

At the Milwaukee Brat House, for instance, groups of up to 30 can book space in the back of the restaurant to enjoy German-style sausages topped with sauerkraut and onions; Polish sausages, which have natural casings; and brats cooked in beer and onions, served on a German pretzel roll.

The Old German Beer Hall, styled after venues in Munich, features beer and food party packages that include service from a “beer madel,” or beer girl.

Items such as Bavarian sausage loaf, wurst and bratwurst dominate the menu, but you’ll also find a Wisconsin favorite: fried cheese curds. And on Friday, the hall throws a fish fry.