What the heartland can offer those on the coasts

On County Highway F west of Oshkosh, Wis., a postcard- perfect scene appears on the horizon. A red barn glows in the afternoon sun, and a silver silo reaches for the sky. Two horses graze in the pasture, while another drinks from a tank. As if on cue, three chickens, straight out of central casting, scratch in the soil.

Old MacDonald would have loved it.

So idyllic is this pastoral landscape that two former Midwesterners passing by stop to click their cameras. What better way to preserve a golden heartland moment for when they return home?

Scenes like this were easy to take for granted during a Midwestern childhood. Now, when I'm in midlife, every return trip brings new appreciation for the long hours, hard work, and shaky profit margins hidden within these barns and farmhouses. Heartland values, indeed. Why, a visitor wonders, are outsiders often so dismissive of this area?

For many of the 50 percent of Americans living on both coasts, the Midwest is flyover country, best seen, sophisticates think, from 39,000 feet. Airline passengers might look out the window briefly to survey the vast, fertile patchwork of green, gold, and brown below. But most are only too happy to go back to their magazines and inflight movies. And don't even mention the prospect of changing planes at O'Hare. Horrors.

For those coastal residents, the cultural delineation is clear: Things cosmopolitan are In, while those with a country setting are Out.

Or are they?

Here and there, signs show that country is becoming chic. It's also big business, capturing both dollars and hearts.

For proof, consider a new magazine, Cook's Country, published in Brookline, Mass., just outside Boston. Editor Christopher Kimball describes it as being about "country folks and country food." As he writes to readers, "It's not about fancy cooking or expensive restaurants or foods with names you can't pronounce. This is honest country fare." Think baked beans, baking powder biscuits, pot roast, and molasses cookies. Just like Grandma used to make.

Or maybe just like MaryJane Butters, a kind of Martha Stewart of the prairie, might consider making. Her new 416-page paean to all things country, "MaryJane's Ideabook-Cookbook-Lifebook," carries the subtitle "For the farmgirl in all of us."

Being a farm girl, MaryJane explains, involves everything from making jam and sewing aprons to crocheting dish cloths and darning socks. For city girls who barely have time to buy socks, much less darn them, it's a reminder of the tasks our grandmothers learned from childhood.

Country also remains a favorite theme on Christmas cards, with snowy scenes of barns, white farmhouses, and horse-drawn sleighs. Think Currier & Ives and Grandma Moses.

You don't have to go to Wisconsin or the "I" states - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana - to find "values," of course, despite the claims of politicians and pundits. Nor do those living on both coasts have a corner on sophistication. But to the extent that there may actually be something kinder, gentler, and friendlier about the center of the country, any sign of its quiet influence on the rest of us would be welcome.

For residents and visitors alike, there's charm in the nature-oriented place names dotting the Midwest: Pine Cone Travel Plaza. Moose Inn Supper Club. It's a region where Piggly Wiggly still exists. Where Friday night fish fries draw crowds. Where farmers' markets fill the town common on summer weekends.

Most of us don't need a real farm in our lives. But it never hurts to have one in our hearts, or at least a picture of one on our desk - a place, however faraway, where we can be reminded of our agricultural roots. If MaryJane is right that perhaps there's a farm girl - or farm boy - in all of us, Old MacDonald just might get the last laugh yet.

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