Regional foods seem to speak volumes about an area. For grilled steak sandwiches, go to Philadelphia. Beignets? New Orleans. Chili? Cincinnati.
Indiana has no official state food. Ever vigilant, I would like to take the lead in proposing a "state food" for Indiana. There a lot of things that could be commercial contenders - White Castle hamburgs, Orville Redenbocker or Weaver Popcorn, Steak and Shake.
However, my nomination is based on the following phenomenon that can be observed at picnics and Church dinners throughout the state of Indiana. I have never seen an exception. Never.
Here is the scenario:
A table is spread with a wide variety of dishes, casseroles, meat loaves, salads, cut vegetables, pickles, etc. In two crock pots or other warmers, usually on the table after the meat and before the salads, are chicken and noodles in one and mashed potatoes in another.
The hungry diner makes his way through the line picking up a little meat, maybe a slice of ham, half a slice of turkey.
Arriving at the crock of mashed potatoes, he spoons a large dollop in a space reserved for them.
If you are from Indiana, you know what happens next.
If you are not from Indiana, read carefully. You are about to learn a deeply held Hoosier secret.
The diner then spoons a large dollop on chicken and noodles ON TOP of the mashed potatoes.
Not at the side. On top.
No chicken and noodles without potatoes.
And no potatoes without chicken and noodles.
I know a woman from Connecticut who was visiting an Indiana Church dinner who nearly fainted the first time she saw it. "The concentration of starches alone nearly made me swoon," Nancy recalls.
Starches abound in this delicacy. Thick noodles drip with a chicken gravy, laced with chicken fat and corn starch and plenty of salt (to taste). In some corners, you'll find the gravy laced with chicken boullion.
Mashed potatoes are best made thick with butter, creamy with milk, and thoroughly accented with sour cream. In some corners, the taters are left in small bits in the mashing, but more often they are a smooth concoction, thicker than caramel, but definitely not "whipped," like they do in the cities.
Chicken is shredded or cubed in this tasty assemblage. These variations are not as important as the process of boiling the daylights out of the chicken. There should be no question whatsoever that the chicken is cooked.
(I've seen some places where the chicken is nearly as smooth as the mashed taters. I'm not an advocate of this style, at the same time, I confess that it makes eating the dish easier.)
Chicken and noodles are best accented by white bread spread with butter. The sweetness of the butter helps reduce the saltiness of the chicken and noodles. And a piece of folded butter bread can help serve as a dam for sopping up the last drops of chicken gravy.
Chicken and noodle dinners are common everywhere. Just last week the Methodist Church down the street had a "Chicken and Noodle Fund Raiser." Nothing but Chicken and Noodles. Crock after crock of chicken and noodles and mashed taters, on 8 foot tables lined with rolled paper table cloths . . .crocks yellow with chicken boullion, some soft with creamy sauce, some calicos of mixed of white and dark meat. Some were magnanimously chock full of generously cut breast meat and others more noodles than chicken.
A good plate of chicken and noodles is best followed by another Indiana phenom - the Sugar Cream Pie.
Sugar Cream Pie by-passes any pretext of healthy eating. But it is sooooooo good!
My wife Karen's sugar cream pie is equal parts of sugar and Half-and-Half, rich Mexican vanilla and thickened with flour. This melange is cooked to perfection over a hot stove and then poured into one of Karens' fabulous crusts. As it cools, she dashes cinnamon with a flair that she adds to everything she cooks.
That's my nomination - Chicken and Noodles on Mashed Taters with Sugar Cream Pie for dessert.
What do Chicken and Noodles say about the people of Indiana?
To my way of thinking, Hoosiers will always be known for being homespun and home-made. Chicken and Noodles are best home-made. You can't get Chicken and Noodles at The Eagle's Nest in Indianapolis or at Club Soda in Fort Wayne. You can't get Sugar Cream Pie at the Studebaker Mansion in South Bend or Joseph DeCuiz in Roanoke.
You get them at home. Or at places where people feel at home, like Church.
Chicken and Noodles also remind us of whence we come. Time was that every small homesteader and farmer had chickens. And chickens lay eggs. A little flour and an egg or two, and voila!, noodles.
Hoosiers seem to be gifted in dealing with basics like these. Though we were not the first in flight, Indiana is the birthplace of Wilbur Wright. Though we are not as well-known as Detroit, Elwood Haynes, who invented the first gasoline powered automobile, was born here. And though Benjamin Harrison is our only Hoosier president (and he was actually born in Ohio), we are the "Mother of Vice Presidents," notably Thomas "5 cent cigar" Marshall and J. Danforth "Potatoe" Quayle, with three others.
Finally, I see Chicken and Noodles with Mashed Taters as something that works well together. Hoosiers do that well. We are a state of enigmas - there are tractors in downtowns of our largest cities and collectible automobiles in the garages of our smallest towns. The annual State 4-H Fair draws thousands of white farm kids into the heart of one of the largest African-American urban communities in the Midwest. At the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (the largest single sporting event in the world), countless pints of Miller Lite are slogged by the 300,000 attenders, and yet the winner is feted with a quart of milk at the finish line.
My nomination: Chicken and Noodles with Taters. What's yours? Write it in the Comments section!
(Now, I can't tell if I'm hungry or if I'm going into a sugar swoon. :-)