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The mysterious 'Midwest'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 21, 2008 12:55 PM

The story on White Lily flour, a Southern favorite, that ran in the New York Times’s Wednesday Food section was one of the top 10 e-mailed pieces, and it more than earned that flurry of forwarding. Author Shaila Dewan separated the (soft red winter) wheat from the chaff, detail-wise, and really got down to the nitty-gritty -- or, in this case, the silky-downy -- of her subject:

Underneath the husk of a wheat kernel, a layer of bran encloses the germ and a white substance called endosperm. White Lily is a patent flour, meaning it uses only the heart of the endosperm, the purest part.
White Lily is bleached with chlorine, a process that not only whitens the flour but weakens the proteins. Chlorination alters the starch particles to make batters more viscous, and thus less likely to fall. It loosens the strict balance of starch, liquid, fat and sugar that baking requires to allow for higher proportions of sugar -- thus, sweeter cakes.

But when I reached the end, I forwarded the story to a fellow Ohio native, asking “Can you spot the geographical labeling bias?”

The news here is that White Lily’s Knoxville mill, source of the flour for 125 years, is closing because the newish owner, J.M. Smucker, is moving the milling elsewhere -- to “two plants in the Midwest.” Ah, yes, the Midwest, that vast uncharted territory. Anywhere in particular?

Sure, it’s only natural that a story datelined “Knoxville” would focus on that city. But to identify the new home of White Lily as only “the Midwest” seems a bit dismissive -- kind of like Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue” triangulated with the Tennessee perspective.

The Midwest (like the South) is a big region, with debatable borders; the language blogger Wishydig polled readers on which states to include, and generated this map from the results:

midwest%20final.JPG
Where in the world is the Midwest? Wishydig's reader poll results

But (also like the South), it’s far from homogeneous.

In any case, the geographical fact is that the new White Lily -- taste-tested for the article -- is being milled in Toledo, Ohio. (Smucker’s is based in Orrville, Ohio.) From Knoxville to Toledo is essentially a straight shot north on I-75 for 450 miles -- the distance from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Knoxville is sorry to lose the flower of baking flours: fair enough. But White Lily isn’t leaving for a distant, unknown galaxy. There is a there there, just a tankful or two up the Interstate.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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