Dinner in rural Kansas

As you think of Kansas, the first things that might come to mind are KC ribs, wheat bread and pancakes. Yet there is a lot more to this semi-flat state when it comes to food. As the pioneers started to move through Kansas, they brought with them their favorite foods from home. And with Kansas' open door policy, many of these foods found a permanent home on their tables.

Kansans have a mixture of traditional country foods, as well as German, Swedish and Irish. And a few Native American dishes. You are never sure what will be on the table in rural Kansas, or if you'll be eating at a table.

During the summer, you are greeted with the smoky smells of a barbecue; a large group of family and friends eagerly waiting for you to join them. Even in some of the more hostile families, you are sure to be greeted with a hug or slap on the back. The only table in sight is an old picnic table, covered in a flower embroidered table cloth. No one can sit there because it is covered in many different side dishes, and if you find yourself indeed sitting there, be prepared to hear pardon me, as hands reach around you.

Several potato salads reside in various bowls, from plastic to glass and pastel colored ceramic, and each flavored differently to suit one individual's taste. Two and sometimes three types of pork and beans steam in their containers along side roasted, steamed or boiled corn on the cob. Green beans, pea salad, and hot dinner rolls with sweat butter are scattered between the pasta salads and raw vegetables. And yes, at a Kansas barbecue, fried chicken is considered a side dish. On the grill you will find, steaks, hamburgers, brisket and hot dogs for the kids. And if you are lucky, kettle corn will be popping nearby. Lemonade, cold water and beer, fills the cups.

With fall, harvest comes, and a new variety of foods. Fresh fruits and berries are turned into jam and canned in large jars. The wheat is turned into bread. Bierocks, Swedish meatballs, cabbage stews or pork chops will sometimes grace the dark stained tables. Potatoes are baked, creamed, mashed or fried, the corn will smothered in butter and pepper, and green beans are freshly picked, and cooked to perfection. Hot spiced ciders, black coffee and elderberry wines are the drinks. Rural Kansans cozy up together for an intimate, yet active dinner time. If you are not used to large families, the noise of conversation can be deafening. Everyone helps in setting the table, from the youngest child, attempting to put a spoon on the table, to Great-grandfather, suggesting where everyone should sit. But the women serve the food. You can tell who the mother is, for she will be the last one to eat. Dessert is served in the living room, where music and laughter can be heard, and is typically a warm freshly baked pie. Apple and cherry are the favorites. Coffee and more beer are then served.

There is a lot of friendliness when it comes to a dinner in a rural Kansas home. Strangers in need are rarely turned away, as long as you pose no threat. Passing them on the road will get you the one finger wave, but not the city kind of finger. No hats of any kind are welcome at the dinner table, but as long as your hands are washed, the rest of you can be covered in mud. And if you ever find yourself invited to one of these warm and loving dinners, don't forget to bring food as a gift.


Erin Phelan combines cooking, writing and talking about food with her love for the countryside. She has a modern homestead and raises her own organic food.

Erin lives in a lovely farm in Kansas, with her husband and young children. You can read about her adventures in her blog, A Homesteading Neophyte; her recipes were also published regularly at All Foods Natural until the online magazine closed.