Hot Dish Lover by Amy Rexford-min

Confessions of a Hot Dish Fanatic

A Middle Easterner’s undying love for Midwestern cuisine

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Words by Donna Arkee

Ever since I was very young, I have been fascinated and obsessed with American Midwestern food. 

I can’t explain it. Even though I can’t eat most Midwestern food anymore thanks to my celiac disease diagnosis later in life, I just love thinking about it and knowing it exists: the pillowy softness of a steamy just-baked runza, crowns of shredded cheddar cheese smothering mountainous bowls of Cincinnati chili, the citrusy chew of a Shaker lemon pie, and the esoteric mysteries of Wisconsin’s Blue Moon ice cream. I spend a not insignificant amount of free time reading blogs and cookbooks cover to cover, watching cooking videos, and conducting impromptu in-depth interviews with every Midwesterner I come across in the wild, leaving them confused by my genuine enthusiasm for 7-up Jell-O salad and deeply worried about the condition of my mental health, but too polite in their Midwestern-ness to do anything except smile nervously and wonder if they’re being cased by some sort of Midwesterner-specific serial killer. 

I suspect I love Midwestern food because I was indoctrinated early: At around 18 months old, my Iranian parents sent me to a combination Christian preschool and elementary school founded by a Midwestern couple near our Bay Area home, where I stayed through most of my formative years, even though we were Muslim. I asked my parents why they sent me and my two sisters, and they were pretty much like, well, we were hoping they would help Americanize and assimilate you. But we also knew you were too smart to fall for that Jesus shit, so we weren’t worried. I guess that’s nice to know. 

Ambrosia salad

"To me, this food was pure joy made edible, with colors and flavor combinations that felt happy and cheerful, chock full of ingredients that rarely made an appearance in my household: marshmallows, potato chips, American cheese, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup."

Anyway, there was a lot of Midwestern food at the Christian school, and I got to have some during special events like the annual Christmas variety show, Easter extravaganza, and parent-teacher meetings I was dragged along to. After such rousing and truly riveting Christian school festivities, we would all pile into the gyma tiny and dimly lit cave decked in brownish linoleumto be greeted by infinite variations of tater tot hotdishes and cheesy, cornflake-and potato chip-topped bakes. Bowls of ambrosia, cream cheese and whipped cream infused Jell-O salads quivered away on tables groaning under the weight of this bountiful excess. I recall being especially entranced by the slow cookers packed with tiny Lit’l smokies sausages simmering away in grape jelly and chili sauce, and later feeling betrayed and dirty when I found out they were made with pork after eating dozens of them over the years.

At the time, I had no idea what you would call this type of cuisine or where it came from. To me, this food was pure joy made edible, with colors and flavor combinations that felt happy and cheerful, chock full of ingredients that rarely made an appearance in my household: marshmallows, potato chips, American cheese, and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. To me, what I was eating after performing a rousing rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with the rest of my first grade class was clearly something very, very special and I felt exceptionally lucky every time I had it.

I grew up primarily eating Iranian food, but this was after my parents and older sister decided to renounce the deep fried ways of the South, adopted during their years in Tennessee after immigrating from Iran. My parents were enamored with Southern cuisine, especially with chicken and dumplings, to the point that they found themselves rarely wanting Iranian food at all.

Funeral potatoes

"Her cooking is not great, but who cares? She’s a person. Some people are bad at cooking. Not every brown immigrant woman has to be some kitchen goddess, imparting Authentic Ancient Ancestral Wisdom™ with every slash of the knife or bite of ghormeh sabzi."

This disconnect from their ancestral cuisine filled my parents with guilt over losing touch with their roots and becoming too deeply Americanized. They wanted to keep things balanced with the “right” amount of assimilation, where their children would only speak English but still be excited to celebrate Norouz, eat fesenjan and be neurotic passive aggressive practitioners of taarof. When my family moved to the Bay Area, they saw it as their chance to start over and leave their Cracker Barrel past behind them. 

My mother, who never had any interest in inheriting her parents’ prolific culinary skills, had to learn how to cook Persian food from Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij, and tries her hardest to be good at it. Her cooking is not great, but who cares? She’s a person. Some people are bad at cooking. Not every brown immigrant woman has to be some kitchen goddess, imparting Authentic Ancient Ancestral Wisdom™ with every slash of the knife or bite of ghormeh sabzi. When my mother cooks she rarely has the patience to read recipes, and, if she isn’t cooking one of Batmanglij’s khoreshts from memory, she is instead coming up with her own harebrained culinary ideas that she stubbornly sticks to, convinced she has just concocted a genius cheap and easy Iranian-inspired meal to cram into the maws of her ungrateful, inconvenient food bag of a family. 

She is in fact, a con artist, using her off-the-charts charisma and self-esteem to convince me and my family that what she is cooking is completely sane and normal, something that you want. Who else but a monster would boil a chicken with onions and a pinch of turmeric for hours, then shred the meat into a hot frying pan, malevolently burbling with margarine and NO SALT and have the nerve to say “dinner is ready”? But, from this insanity emerged two moments of sheer brilliance which I am begging you all to try: put Tajin seasoning on your hummus and sumac on your In-n-Out burgers. That’s my mother for you. 

All this mom talk makes me wonder if there’s something Freudian about me feeling so comforted by Midwestern food? Like, benevolent, homely lady authority figures feed me sumptuous hotdish a few times, so I associate the food with feeling nurtured and safe. I mean, this school was a matriarchy of some of the kindest, most generous women I have ever known and they helped raise me during my most impressionable years. 

Hamloaf

Whether my love for Midwestern food is rooted in childhood angst or not, it’s where I turn when the world is too stressful and I need to unwind. Midwestern food is the brain spa. Had a bad day at work? I read PDFs of the Mennonite Community Cookbook and contemplate the art of the perfect hamloaf. Argument with a friend? I settle down by watching every single Jell-O and mayonnaise filled video by emmymade, making sure to start off with my favorite episode: popcorn salad, which is a delightful and refreshing blend of cheddar flavored popcorn, mayonnaise, and celery. Got rejected from an art show? I cozy up with the Wikipedia page for Watergate salad  or lutefisk, clicking link after link and propelling myself into an information wormhole that ends with me sleep deprived at 3 a.m., accidentally memorizing every fact about Malort. Feeling depressed and waiting for my edible to kick in? You'll find me in denial that my edible is kicking in as I text every single Midwesterner I know to ask them about their favorite foods growing upin great detail. More often than not, they humor me, either because of their reflexive Midwestern niceness or because they are worried that their previous conceptions of me being a Midwesterner specific serial killer are actually correct, and that if they do not appease me they’re gonna be chopped up by yours truly and made into scrapple.

"I want to go on pilgrimage to the Midwest. On foot.  From Minnesota to Iowa and everywhere else. Haji Donna, they’ll call me as I return from my tour of every single Culver’s in existence."

But truly, my love and appreciation for this cuisine is genuine. I want to go on pilgrimage to the Midwest. On foot.  From Minnesota to Iowa and everywhere else. Haji Donna, they’ll call me as I return from my tour of every single Culver’s in existence. I want to see all the cute Midwesterners hurrying around making funeral potatoes for a wake. I wanna play. I want to have my Amélie moment where I put my hands in buckets of cheese curds and think about life. I dream of finding a little tiny Midwesterner and holding them in the palm of my hand, so they can whisper to me all their food secrets. 

Watergate salad

Some of my friends are very unsupportive and think I’m trying to do some radical political commentary on reversing the colonial gaze or whatever. That this is some performance art piece I'm doing to reclaim this or that. Iranian first generation queer something something saffron is superior to mayonnaise something something. 

No. I just love it. Look, I don’t need a smart reason to like Midwestern food. I’ve got my fantasies and dreams and desires like everyone else. Ship me out to Saint Paul and just let me have my fun, DAMN.

Published on February 9, 2022

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Words by Donna Arkee

Donna Arkee is a Bay Area based artist, comedian, vintage sourcer and pigeon enthusiast. Iranian against their will and good judgement, they truly enjoy a cup of hot chai with a side of hot gossip. Despite having a Master's in Women and Gender Studies from San Francisco State University, and two bachelor's degrees in Anthropology and Ethnic Studies from UC Riverside, they perpetually work retail and service jobs and can personally assure you that baristas do not care about what you order. They spend more of their free time spilling paint all over the couch and bothering their cat and wife. Follow them on Instagram @halal.and.oates

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Art by Amy Rexford

Amy Rexford is a multi-disciplinary designer and illustrator from Michigan. When she's not creating she enjoys scouring TikTok for new recipes, playing video games, and spending time with her husband and her cat Zuko. Find her work at amysunhee.com