As rare books librarian at K-State, Roger Adams sees plenty of cuisine in the pages of Hale Library's cookery collection.
Out of curiosity, the Kentucky native began asking Kansans about their own signature cuisine. He usually heard about foods like steak that weren't unique to Kansas or dishes like chicken friend steak that claim origins elsewhere.
"Kansas is flatter than a pancake when it comes a cuisine or a dish that you could say is uniquely Kansan," Adams said. "You've got to get off the main roads. Anybody driving through Kansas at 70 mph on Interstate 70 would come away from Kansas and say, 'It's just like everywhere else.' If they have the time to get off the Interstate and travel a little way in and see some of the older towns, I think they would be really surprised."
Inspired by Alton Brown's television show "Feasting on Asphalt," Adams decided to hit the road, visiting Kansas communities that had strong ties to their ethnic origins. He presented his research in April at the joint conference of the National Popular Culture and American Culture associations.
One of Adams' stops was Cuba, a historically Czech town, where he sampled the Cuba Cash Store's homemade bologna and a loose barley sausage, jiternice, which is pronounced like "ethernet say." Two doors down, the store's owners have a restaurant called Two Doors Down, where Adams tried Czech pastries called kolatches. More than just sampling the food, Adams got a taste of the towns he visited, too.
"The kolatches were just coming out of the oven when I got there, and I'm not joking when I say 10 seconds after being introduced the owner is handing me one," Adams said. "The folks in Cuba are so genuinely nice. They're very tied to their Czech heritage. People just broke out into speaking Czech there in the restaurant."
Adams also visited Lindsborg, a town popular with regional tourists wanting to explore its Swedish roots. Adams said that because of Lindsborg's ties to tourism, its restaurants didn't have the type of authentic ethnic food he found in other communities. Yet the local grocery store, Scott's, has an entire aisle devoted to imported Swedish foods, as well as homemade Swedish bread, ostekake -- a custard made with a cow's gastric juice -- and potato sausage.
"What's fascinating about the potato sausage, having talked with historians there, is that it is an authentic item," Adams said. "It's something people in that community have been eating since it was founded. Locals who have gone back to Sweden and told me that finding potato sausage in modern-day Sweden is difficult because it's seen as 'poor people food.'"
In Marion County, Adams explored the culinary contributions of Mennonites who came from Russia via Belgium and Germany, as well as those who came directly from Germany and Switzerland. Although their descendants have given up a lot of their ethnic foods, Adams, whose wife is from the area, said that sausages are still popular, as is a traditional Mennonite roll.
"I can't ever remember having a family meal where there wasn't zwiebach," he said.
Adams also visited Garden City, whose most recent immigrants from southeast Asia are changing the culinary landscape, as did immigrants from Mexico beginning more than 100 years ago. With Mexican grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants, Adams said that their impact on the cuisine can't be overlooked.
"The restaurants run the gamut from very Americanized to ones where recent immigrants are eating," Adams said. "I think people would be really surprised to find that a good number of Mexican dishes are also fish-based. I'll be curious to see if, like Lindsborg, folks in Garden City will give up these dishes in favor of more easily acquired foods."
Adams said that although language is one of the first things to go when people assimilate, food is one of the last vestiges of cultural identity that immigrants are willing to give up. He said that his research demonstrates the importance of preserving immigrant cultures through food.
"Food traditions go away in bits and pieces," Adams said. "As we become more like every place else, I think it's incredibly important that communities, families and individuals resist the globalization of their diets and stick with the foods that they grew up eating, that they enjoy, and to share them with other people."
One way that people are turning to local food, Adams said, is through the success of microbrewed beers, citing Tallgrass Brewing Co. in Manhattan as an example.
"I encourage people to not only eat local foods but to drink locally as well," Adams said. "Maybe in a few years we'll say that the distinctive Kansas product is actually a drink."
Photo: Sausage from the Cuba Cash Store, one of many places K-State researcher Roger Adams visited in search of distinct Kansas cuisine. (Courtesy photo)