Jed Portman Rediscovers the Midwest

Jed Portman’s Midwesterner newsletter celebrates the surprisingly diverse food culture of “flyover country.”

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Cincinnati native Jed Portman, formerly of Garden & Gun magazine, returned to the Queen City last year and launched Midwesterner, a subscription digital newsletter on the increasingly popular Substack platform. The newsletter features contributor-written food and food-adjacent stories about Middle America, what Portman calls “ground-level stories from flyover country.” For $5 a month or $30 a year, subscribers delve into topics ranging from pawpaws to immigrant farmers in the Twin Cities.

Why did you launch Midwesterner?

It started as a small-scale stimulus project. We can’t replace a writer’s lost wages or lost business, but maybe we can pay an electric bill or a water bill in exchange for a story that might take someone 30 minutes or an hour to write. It’s sort of an extension, in some ways, of my experience coming back to and rediscovering the Midwest. I recognize the Midwest is incredibly diverse—you go from Appalachian Ohio to the Western Dakotas. From the very beginning, it was about providing a platform for other people to tell these stories.

Why focus on the Midwest?

When you talk to others about the Midwest region, it’s this blank slate in the middle of the country. It’s ranch dressing and cornfields that’s sort of defined by its lack of identity, culture, and history. That’s not what I’d experienced growing up in the Midwest. This is an incredibly diverse region, and I think so often people label the Midwest as America’s white bread region, a bland, white heartland. That’s just not accurate at all. The Midwest doesn’t just include but is defined by Black and Native American and Hispanic communities, as well as immigrant communities, including the Hmong in Minneapolis and Somalians throughout the upper Midwest. We wouldn’t be doing this project right if we weren’t representing all those voices.

How does the newsletter work?

We have about 1,200 subscribers right now, which is great, and that number continues to go up. I wanted Midwesterner to be a fundamentally democratic project; Substack is a democratic platform. Media is expensive and hard to break into, and I had looked at other ways of doing Midwesterner. I came across Substack, which was a no-cost way to get started. They take a percentage of revenue, and it allowed me to get this set up in a day or two.

What’s your favorite story you’ve run thus far?

You’re going to think I’m just pandering to the hometown here, but I love the piece Keith Pandolfi wrote for us early on about Cincinnati brats and metts. It’s one of the longer pieces we’ve run and one of the more writerly, but I’m showing my Cincinnati bias here—I had the same experience with brats and metts growing up. There was so much here in Cincinnati I didn’t realize was distinctive until I came back.

What’s up next for Midwesterner?

We’re moving to a new site, with hope for a better 2021. We’ll be selling some merchandise and working on our first print guide. It’s by Marika Josephson, one of the founders of Scratch Brewing in Illinois. She wrote it, she illustrated it, and she’s hand-printing it, and we’ll sell it on the website.

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