To call Indiana "white bread" might seem like a put-down, until you consider two words: Wonder Bread.
The soft, squishy symbol of bland Americana was created in 1921 by Taggart Baking Co. of Indianapolis. And for nearly 100 years, Indiana has stayed true to the image of its most culturally influential product. Indianans are 84 percent white, and evenly divided between women and men. They are middle aged, middle class and at the geographic middle of the country. In fact, Indiana is so perfectly situated in the middle of so many measures that it is the fictional setting for a prime-time television program called The Middle.
And what's always in the middle? The good stuff. The cream in an Oreo? The middle. Candy in a Tootsie Pop? The middle. The 50-yard line, where gigantic men face off week after week until only two teams are left? Yeah, that's right, the middle.
When Super Bowl XLVI comes this Sunday to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indianans will flaunt their middleness in all its glory. Alongside the burgers, beer, pizza and wings that are the standard-bearers of football food will be the state's signature items: pork, popcorn and a creamy vanilla dessert called Hoosier Pie.
Nearly a quarter of Indiana's 6.8 million people claim German ancestry, according to the U.S. Census. And what do Germans eat? Schnitzel (yes, I know it's Austrian, but trust me — all of central Europe loves a good schnitzel). Enter the tenderloin sandwich.
The fifth-largest hog-producing state in the nation pounds, breads and deep-fries pork chops the size of a salad plate then sticks them on buns (right again — traditional schnitzel is made with veal, but many schnitzels, even in Europe, are today made with pork). Perhaps the most famous tenderloin is the one at Nick's Kitchen, a Huntington, Ind., restaurant founded in 1908 by Nick Freienstein. There are no spices or seasonings involved. The sandwich is served with lettuce and tomato. Occasionally, says owner Jean Anne Bailey, someone will ask for mayonnaise on the bun.
And what game-watching snack is more American than popcorn? Americans put away 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn every year (that's 52 quarts per person), according to industry marketing organization The Popcorn Board, and most of that comes from Indiana, the nation's top producer. Orville Redenbacher — who was an actual human being — founded his popcorn company in Valparaiso, Ind., in 1970.
But the state's signature dish, the one that binds Indianans far from home, the one that is the secret handshake of Indianans everywhere, is sugar-cream pie, aka Hoosier Pie. "It's kind of like green bean salad," says Angie Satterfield, executive director of the Indiana Foodways Alliance. "Somebody always brings a sugar-cream pie."
The pie is typical farm fare, made of ingredients that any country kitchen would have on hand. Similar desserts are popular in Europe (think blancmange), and the religious sect the Shakers also had a version. But its Indiana provenance is unclear. Perhaps it came with a short-lived 19th-century Shaker settlement. Maybe it migrated from Amish country. Another thought is that it arrived with Quaker settlers from North Carolina. But no one much seems to care where it came from. Its jiggly goodness is what counts. Sugar cream recently became the official pie of the state of Indiana, and Winchester — where the family-run Wick's Pies ships them to more than 25 states — its official capital.
"Just about every farm kitchen had a recipe for sugar-cream pie," says Wick's president, Michael Wickersham, "and every one was just a little bit different."
So is sugar-cream pie the greatest thing since sliced bread? Maybe. But even sliced bread — introduced by Wonder in 1925 — came from Indiana.
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