Foods You Must Have in Summer: Midwest
Chicago-Style Hot Dog (Photo: Jeremy Keith via flickr/CC Attribution)

This article is the fourth installment of a five-part series on foods you must have in summer. Next week, we'll be rolling out the final story in our series, so be sure to check back for the latest on Friday. We couldn't include a mention of every local food and eatery, but we would love to hear about your personal favorites in the comments below.

Midwesterners' summer cravings turn to simple all-American foods, from corn on the cob to pan-fried walleye to tart cherry pie. These are the go-to favorites of the season, the kind of food found at backyard barbecues and family gatherings at the lake cottage. We're taking you from a roadside farm stand to a Great Lakes fish fry with a Windy City stop for a ballpark classic. Better stash some extra napkins in the glove box.

Chicago-Style Hot Dogs
Chicago-Style Hot Dogs
Hot Doug's (Photo: Arnold Gatilao via flickr/CC Attribution)

Hot dogs are a classic summer food across the country, but the Windy City's iconic hot dog joints—and there are hundreds of them—are famous for their steamed all-beef dogs, fully loaded and served on poppy seed buns. Order a "classic" and your Chicago Dog will be piled high with chopped white onion, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, a dash of celery salt, and mustard (never ketchup). Be prepared to wait for it. Standing in line at a walk-up window—whether at 10:30 a.m. or after the bars close—is part of the Chicago experience.

Where to Go: Hot Doug's, Vienna Beef, and Wrigley Field's dressed-up ballpark dogs are a few of the city's favorites. In summer, hot dog stands pop up across the city, making it easy to snack while sightseeing or walking to the beach.

Corn On The Cob
Corn on the Cob
Nebraska Sweet Corn (Photo: Alice Henneman via flickr/CC Attribution)

In Indiana, Illinois, and Nebraska, it's not summer until you've had bits of sweet buttery corn on the cob stuck between your teeth. Found at county fairs, roadside stands, and farmers' markets, this Midwest summer produce staple is usually either shucked and boiled or grilled directly in its husk. Eating a steamy cob with grace is next to impossible, but Midwesterners often keep a stash of mini skewers on hand for holding corn. Here, buttering etiquette varies by family: Some use a plastic gadget to spread the butter, while others roll the corn on a piece of buttered bread or directly on the shared stick of butter. County fairs and festivals simplify things, serving ears pre-buttered and salted on a stick.

Where to Go: At the Sweet Corn Festival in Omaha, you can try Nebraska sweet-corn ice cream. Real enthusiasts in Illinois can enter corn on the cob eating contests at the Sweet Corn Blues Festival in Normal and the Sweet Corn Festival in Mendota.

Tart Cherry Pie
Tart Cherry Pie
Grand Traverse Pie Company Cherry Pie (Photo: Steven Depolo via flickr/CC Attribution)

The Pacific Northwest can keep its sweet Bings, Lamberts, and Rainiers. In the Midwest, the tart Montmorency cherry is the darling. Grown in Michigan's Traverse City and in Door County, Wisconsin, where Lake Michigan tempers arctic winds in winter and cools the orchards in summer, these bright red cherries pack a distinctive punch for a sweet-but-not-too-sweet cherry pie. And summer harvest is the best time to sink your fork into a traditional pastry-topped cherry pie or the crumb-topped variety with more cherries than goo.

Where to Go: The honors go to Grand Traverse Pie Company for baking the signature cherry pie of the National Cherry Festival. Cherry Republic in nearby Glen Arbor houses a bakery, a cherry winery and tasting room, and a shop with hundreds of cherry products. For Door County cherry pie that will take you back to your grandma's kitchen, try Scaturo's Baking Company and Cafe, the Inn at Cedar Crossing, or the White Gull Inn.

Cantaloupes (Photo: Eleanor Ryan via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Although cantaloupe isn't exclusive to the Midwest, it's synonymous with summertime and family gatherings in the region. Nothing beats the season's first drip-down-your-arm bite into a smile-shaped wedge, especially when cousins and grandparents are sitting around the picnic table with you. Midwesterners haven't settled on a definitive name for the sweet juicy fruit, and even within families there can be debates about what to call it: cantaloupe, muskmelon, or sweet melon. But no one seems to care, as long as someone at the reunion stopped and picked up a ripe one at a roadside farm stand, leaving a dollar or so in the honor-system coffee can.

Where to Go: In Indiana, hit one of the Indianapolis farmers' markets or the Bloomington Community Farmer's Market. In Iowa, two of the longest-standing roadside stands are Hoopes' Melon Shed and Schmidt's Farm Market, both along Highway 61 on the southern edge of Muscatine.

Bratwurst (Photo: Alan Chan via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

While the rest of the Midwest is grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, Wisconsin is doting over its bratwurst on the barbecue. The brat (rhymes with "pot") is a longstanding summertime tradition of the state's huge German-immigrant population. Here, there's only one way to eat the high-quality meat in natural casing: It's practically sacrilege if you don't fry (never grill) it, serve it on a round (never oblong) Sheboygan hard roll, and top it with onion and brown (never yellow) mustard. Cook it in beer before it's fried on the barbecue and you've got Wisconsin's popular beer brat, usually served with more beer and requiring a Zantac chaser.

Where to Go: Pick up brats for the barbecue and meet a fourth-generation "wurstmacher" at the legendary Usinger's in Milwaukee. In Sheboygan, the Charcoal Inn is known for its double-brat sandwich. No summer visit to Wisconsin is complete without downing a brat at a Milwaukee Brewers pre-game tailgate party, the state fair, or Brat Fest in Madison.

Juneberry Pie
Juneberry Pie
Juneberries (Photo: misawakatsutoshi via flickr/CC Attribution)

Sometimes called the Blueberry of the Northern Plains, purplish-blue juneberries (also called serviceberries or saskatoons) are relatively unknown throughout the country, but in North Dakota, they're the superstar of summer pies. Although the hard-to-find sweet fruit resembles a blueberry, it tastes more like a dark cherry or raisin with a hint of almond when it ripens in July. The nutty flavor is a great surprise the first time you taste it in a berry pie. Because juneberries are less watery than blueberries, they provide a firm, satisfying texture when you bite into a warm slice at a down-home restaurant.

Where to Go: Lund's Landing, a fishing lodge on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea in Ray, North Dakota, is a favorite for juneberry pie a la mode. Analene Torgerson, co-owner of Lund's, has a network of summer pickers who supply enough berries to fill her juneberry, juneberry-rhubarb, and juneberry-apple pies for the whole year.

Pulled-Pork Barbecue
Pulled-Pork Barbecue
(Photo: Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue)

In the South, pitmasters slow-cook pork, vying for bragging rights with their vinegar-based sauces, mustardy sauces, or dry rubs. In the Midwest, it's a sweeter scene. Kansas City-style barbecue is typically smoked with a dry rub, then slathered in a thick tomato-and-molasses sauce that's sweet with varying degrees of fiery kick and tang, depending on who's cooking. No two recipes are the same in this town of nearly 100 barbecue joints. Baked beans, French fries, and coleslaw are typically served on the side. In Kansas City and throughout the region, self-proclaimed barbecue masters host neighborhood barbecues in backyards, where guys gather around grills and debate about how to get the perfect bark (outer crust). Bring on the wet wipes!

Where to Go: Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue has been voted most popular in Kansas City, Missouri. Local barbecue hot spots in Kansas are Wichita's Pig In Pig Out BBQ and Salina's Hickory Hut.

Pan-Fried Walleye
Pan-Fried Walleye
(Photo: 5chw4r7z via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

When you grow up around the Great Lakes or one of Minnesota's 10,000, summertime signals the return of your craving for breaded, pan-fried walleye. One of the region's most sought-after fish, walleye is tender and flaky but doesn't have an overpoweringly fishy taste. In season, the best place to eat walleye is at any restaurant with a Friday night all-you-can-eat fish fry. Glasses of beer are poured, and French fries or German-style potato pancakes and homemade tartar sauce accompany the lightly breaded fish. The beloved walleye is also at the center of shore lunches, where families and friends cook their catch on the lakeshore and serve it up with all the fixings.

Where to Go: The Saturday seafood buffet at Mon Ami Restaurant and Historic Winery is a popular spot for walleye in Port Clinton, Ohio, the Lake Erie town that throws a Walleye Madness New Year’s Eve bash. In Wisconsin, several taverns and restaurants host Friday night fish fries. In Minnesota, hit the state fair for the classic walleye roll.

Ice Cream
Ice Cream
Moomers Homemade Ice Cream (Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

During the summer harvest, ice cream makers throughout the Midwest add chokecherry, juneberry, and other seasonal favorites to their menus. Here's where to find those summer-only offerings and a few local specialties.

Where to Go:

  • Iowa: The Bauder Peppermint Bar (peppermint ice cream and hot fudge sandwiched between an Oreo crust) made by Bauder Pharmacy, a pharmacy and old-fashioned soda fountain in Des Moines, is available only at the Iowa State Fair.
  • Michigan: Each summer, Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor and Moomers in Traverse City come up with new cherry-themed ice cream flavors, including cherry-butter pecan and amaretto cherry.
  • Nebraska: Potter Sundry, an old-fashioned soda fountain and ice cream counter in Potter, stakes a claim on inventing the Tin Roof Sundae (ice cream, chocolate syrup, marshmallow cream, and peanuts).
  • North Dakota: The state's last small-town creamery, Pride Dairy dishes out homemade ice cream using the original recipe from the 1930s, when the dairy first opened. Chokecherry and juneberry are big sellers in summer.
  • Wisconsin: Depending on the day, the Cranberry Discovery Center in Warren may be scooping cranberry, cranberry-truffle, cranberry-cheesecake, or chocolate-cranberry-caramel swirl ice cream. Try the legendary Bucky Badger Cranberry Sundae at the Warrens Cranberry Festival.
Food On A Stick
Food on a Stick
(Photo: Jason Lam via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

In summer, state-fair season is in full swing in the Midwest, bringing with it the assurance that a few bucks will buy some sort of innovative, irresistible, artery-clogging food on a stick. Here's what to look for between the Tilt-A-Whirl and the ring toss.

Classics on a Stick:

  • Illinois: Corn on the cob
  • Indiana: Pork
  • Minnesota: Walleye
  • Wisconsin: Cheese, Door County cherry pie, cranberry cookies

Newest on a Stick:

  • Nebraska: Moink ("moo" plus "oink") balls, bacon-wrapped meatballs with a barbecue glaze
  • Ohio: Hot buffalo eggs, cherry gummy bears

Quirkiest on a Stick:

  • Illinois: Alligator, s'mores, pizza
  • Iowa: Twinkies, salad, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, shrimp corn dogs
  • Minnesota: Spaghetti, chicken nachos, olives, ostrich teriyaki
  • Nebraska: Chocolate-covered bacon
  • Wisconsin: "Deep-Fried Fat Elvis," a deep-fried banana-battered peanut butter cup wrapped in bacon

Be sure to check back with us next Friday for the fifth and final installment, Foods You Must Have in Summer: West.

You Might Also Like:

Read comments or add your own insight!