Chicago chef Tim Graham was a teenager in Central Missouri when he developed an unlikely penchant for old, spiral-bound Midwestern cookbooks.
You know the sort: packed with bucolic delights like Jell-O salad, monkey bread and sloppy joes, the kind of spread you might find at a university club fundraiser in 1940s Dubuque, Iowa, or a church bake sale in Quincy, Illinois, circa 1960.
“Growing up my parents had an eBay store specializing in mid-century-modern everything, so on Sundays and family trips I was dragged to a lot of flea markets, estate sales and antique malls,” Graham says. “It wasn’t an active collection in the beginning, since I didn’t really know what was happening. Something just attracted me to those cookbooks.”
It took Graham another 20 years — growing his collection to more than 300 spiral-bounds and working his way up through such lauded kitchens as Michelin-starred Tru and Travelle — to realize that the Midwestern cooking of his childhood and these secondhand books deserved a turn in the spotlight.
He and wife/sommelier Rebekah Graham (Publican) are bringing that vision to life at Twain, set to open this Friday (8/24) in Logan Square with help from co-owner Branko Palikuca (The Dawson).
“Tim came from this cuisine of the Midwest that’s never really, in our lifetimes in Chicago, gotten its fair share,” says Rebekah. “Yet everybody can recall an experience with ‘Nancy’s cheesy casserole.’” (In this writer’s case, it was Betsy’s cheesy ham bake.)
Twain, whose name dually homages the iconic author and Missourian and the Grahams’ partnership, traffics in churched-up versions of said Middle American classics. Think meatloaf-and-eel surf and turf with nori-crusted onion rings, oversized clams casino with chorizo and Parmesan breadcrumbs, pigs in a blanquette with braised pork cheeks and cauliflower in veal sauce, and Mississippi mud pie.
Twain Restaurant (2 images)
Dust off that old blue-ribbon spoon bread recipe if you have one, because the Grahams are positioning a recipe drop box at Twain’s entrance to collect submissions for their very own spiral-bound charity cookbook.
In the meantime, feast on the backstories of three opening-menu dishes at Twain.
In these vintage-cocktail party two-biters, creamed porcini mushrooms are packed into half-moon pastry pockets that owe their tender, flaky texture to cream cheese dough. “This is maybe the only recipe I’ve ripped off directly,” Tim Graham says. “It’s just what it sounds like, cream cheese, butter and flour,” he says. Why mess with a good thing, right?
Few foods embody Americana better than the sloppy joe. “You’ll find sometimes three ladies have submitted sloppy joe recipes to the same charity cookbook,” Graham says. He adds oatmeal stout to his ‘joe mixture, then spoons the beefy crumbles over roasted bone marrow with housemade mustard relish. It all sits atop Egg Harbor Bread, a sliced white pullman loaf — with six risings — derived from a 90-year-old recipe. “The reason we invested money in the staff to make bread in-house is that half of all these books are made up of baked goods, from breads to yeasted rolls to muffins to coffee cakes,” Graham says. “I can’t wait till we start brunch.”
Gooey butter cake
Rumor has it that this St. Louis staple dessert originated by accident in the 1930s, when a baker mixed up the proportion of butter in one of his coffee cakes. Made up of boxed yellow cake mix and “more butter and powdered sugar than you can imagine,” it bakes into a super-sweet, dense, custardy cake. “Every recipe in these books involves yellow cake mix, so (pastry chef) Stefanie (Bishop) created her own version.”
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Images via Galdones Photography