Prairie Center: Midwesterners Speak

In my quest to find out what is “quintessentially Midwestern,” I gathered a few quotes over the weekend about the impact of this region on folks who grew up here.

Former student Annette Bridges says: “Being from Saint Louis makes me from the middle of the Midwest. It is a distinction which inspires mixed emotion. As a youth, I rebelled against the blandness, the sameness of Midwestern culture. By the time anything hip, or happening reached the center from the coasts, it was already passe. Though compared to Peoria, St. Louis, is a major metropolis; it retains a small time, small town mediocrity. As an adult, I have been able to relieve the plainness of the plains by traveling to other elevations.”
Author Jenny Pritchett says: “Growing
up in the Midwest makes me appreciate California, my chosen home. I
didn’t like Illinois. But I will say that oftentimes, against my will, a
sense of nostalgia rises for cozy tract homes, the musty smell and
crackle of dead leaves, strappingly cold air, and the kind of anxious
churning that only happens in quiet. It’s the kind of churning that
sprung me, so I’m grateful for that.”
Ceramicist Lisa Gluckin grew up in Peoria, IL. I asked her to send me a list of specific images and places that stand out in her memory: “My dad’s studio in the basement and another in the garage, where he experimented with art and filled shot gun shells. My mom in the family room smoking a cigarette, full of love. Antiques and art objects everywhere. Drawers stuffed full of miscellany. Chan’s–the only Chinese restaurant in Peoria on Main Street. (The owner, Pearl, let us come into the kitchen. I always ordered shrimp and lobster sauce.) Being Jewish in Peoria was an oddity; I felt different but somehow cool. When returning to Peoria from a car trip on Highway 74 there was a dramatic moment when downtown Peoria came into view–I loved that view. We were home!”
Have your own impressions? Please share! I’m determined to undo the elusiveness of the Midwest while I’m here and, other than exploring the land and city, the best way to do that is through primary sources. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

Showing 3 comments
  • Mary

    I don't really consider northern michigan the midwest, although many people do, and it does have some similarities to more southern states. What I think about when I think about the midwest in the seventies and eighties, growing up, are: iceberg lettuce, red-checked flannel coats on older men, a wild posse of kids playing outdoors, all day in summer, Gina's mom ringing a bell to call her daughter home for dinner, sweatshirts before they were called hoodies, and a sense of contentedness with lives that were led not very far from where people grew up. It was outrageously boring, the mountains were only a mystery, the ocean something somebody made up. But it was also safe to walk down the street, there were acres and acres of woods that belonged to somebody who didn't care if you played in them. It was an extra-long, sweet childhood. I wouldn't live there again. The wildness has been distilled down and tamed, although you can still glimpse it in a lake or a waterfall. The winters are long and summers short. Like anything else, you can't really sum it up by its parts. I have met many midwest expats living in the west. They also would never go back. They may not be the most effusive or hip. But they would dig you out of a snowbank. They would save your life.

  • Shana McDanold

    My family is originally from Michigan, which I would consider the "upper" Midwest. So while I didn't grow up there, we were still a decidedly "Midwestern" family living on the East coast.

    I lived in St. Louis for years, and it's very different from Michigan. It has a huge Southern influence. It was, after all, hotly contested during the Civil War. I would probably consider it more Southern Midwest than "middle" anything.

    What characterizes the Midwest? Jello salads. Miracle Whip and/or mayo "dressings". Iceberg lettuce. Casseroles aka "hot dishes". Potlucks. Diners with lots of types of pie. Drinking "pop" instead of soda/coke/etc. Life cycling around a combination of the church calendar and the seasons. A "plain" accent in the middle states but a Canadian influence in the Upper Midwest (that nasal sounding "o"). Playing outside until the porch lights turned on (although that may just be generational rather than regional).

    It's hard to describe. The Midwest culture is almost an absence of distinguishing elements or exoticism. Yet it has a culture.

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in a small paper mill town of about 20,000 in central Wisconsin, ended up in Minneapolis/St Paul for college, til I moved to Asheville NC in 2005. There are lots of ways to look at your question about characterizing the Midwest. I would agree with Mary that upper Michigan feels pretty different than WI, MN, or IL. The landscape and climate of northern WI, MN and Michigan is different – more evergreen trees vs deciduous, smaller towns, more lakes, more of a history of forestry, usually significantly more snow in northern WI and MN than southern… so that changes the feel. I tell people the town I grew up in was a cultural wasteland which is why I left and never went back – there is not much of a sense of history. Minneapolis/St Paul is different of course. I assume the same about Madison and Milwaukee.

    There is a difference in accents between WI and MN – people from rural MN actually do sound like the characters in Fargo. 🙂 Wisconsin accent is slightly more nasal.

    I recently met a interesting guy who teaches music in Johnson City – he is from Michigan and has relatives in Ontario – part of his musical focus is the traditional folk music found in Michigan and Ontario Canada – I was fascinated, never heard of this before – music that was kept by the immigrants to those areas, everything from French Canadian to Finnish.

    I miss the landscape sometimes, and I miss lakes, which don't really exist much in the Appalacian mountains.

    – Leann (L Leaf Wight on facebook)

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