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Eating the Past: Nebraska football runzas

Cornish pasty on a plate with a salad and sliced pickles.

Hello, this is Tammy Proctor. College football season is upon us, no more so than in the state we are featuring today, Nebraska. The big red machine, or the University of Nebraska's football fans, need fuel for the games, for tailgating and for traveling distances to torture their opponents with red gear and loud cheers.

The food of choice for Nebraska fans is the humble runza, a food many outside of the state have never eaten. So today, I am talking about runzas, immigrants and fast food.

Runzas may be unknown by their Nebraska moniker, but lots of people have tasted foods similar to these- pierogis, bierocks, kolaches, cornish pasties, calzones. So the simplest description of a runza is that it is a bread stuffed with savory filling, in this case, ground beef, cabbage, onions and cheese, in its basic form, of course, variations have arisen, leading to different stuffings, different yeasted doughs and different shapes.

I want to talk about the traditional runza, served at the restaurant chain of the same name, which is a rectangular stuffed meat sandwich.

First, the history of these delicacies, most food histories agree that the bun is a version of a bierock, carried to the United States by Volga Germans. This group was ethnically German but they lived in the Russian empire, and many migrated to the United States in the late 19th century. A number of them settled in the mid-west and plains, bringing their tasty stuffed breads with them.

Bierocks are the kinds of foods that were portable, easily eaten for lunch during a workday, and filling enough for anyone doing manual labor. They were also pretty easy to make.

Bierocks were common in immigrant homes in Kansas and Nebraska, but it was an enterprising woman named Sally Brening Everett who opened a food stand in Lincoln in 1949 and sold bierocks, using a family recipe under the name "Runzas". Her food stand of the same name, "Runza", now is one of the larger fast food restaurant chains in Nebraska, with locations in cities and towns through the state.

Runza still sells freshly prepared pocket meat sandwiches alongside other staple of mid-west eating-french fries, onion rings, burgers and soft-serve ice cream. You can even get runzas shipped to you anywhere in the United States. Attend any University of Nebraska football game and you will not be able to avoid seeing and smelling runzas being consumed.

Like many immigrant foods, runzas rely on easily obtainable staple foods that can stretch to feed large, hungry families. Most of the recipes call for a basic yeasted bread, ground beef, sliced cabbage and onions, caraway seeds and dill pickle juice. The dough is flattened into circles or squares, stuffed and sealed, then baked.

I have placed a recipe on the Eating the Past website, but you might consider looking up variations, as there are many!

As you eat your runza, think about tall grass prairies, sand hill cranes, and Nebraska football.

Volga German Runza

(Heather Arndt Anderson Bierocks recipe)

Makes 10

MAKE THE DOUGH Bloom 2¼ tsp active dry yeast for 10 minutes in ¼ cup lukewarm
water. Scald ½ cup milk (bring to barely a simmer—180 F on a thermometer), then set
aside and add ⅓ cup butter, 1 tbsp sugar, and 2 tsp salt. Stir until melted and combined,
then cool until lukewarm. In a large bowl, combine the yeast and milk mixtures. Beat in 2
eggs, then slowly add in the 4–4½ cups white all-purpose flour, mixing until you’ve
formed a soft dough. Turn out on a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until
smooth and elastic. Turn dough into a buttered bowl and lightly cover with plastic wrap.
Set in a warm, draft-free spot for around an hour to 90 minutes or until doubled in size.

Meanwhile ...

PREPARE THE FILLING In a large pan, evenly brown 1 pound of ground beef over medium
heat, then add 1 cup of diced onion and 4 cups of shredded cabbage. Saute for 5
minutes. Add 1 tsp of caraway seeds, two garlic cloves (minced), and a ¼ cup of
chopped fresh dill. Cook 10–15 more minutes, until cabbage is tender. Stir in 2-3 tbsp of
dill pickle brine (or water) to deglaze the pan. Season to taste. Cover and remove from

ASSEMBLE THE BIEROCKS After the dough has risen, punch it down, and let it rest for 10
minutes. Divide dough into 10 balls. Roll each into a circle, about ⅛ inch in thickness. Scoop
¾ cup of filling onto a dough circle, then tightly pull up the edges, pinching to seal. Place,
seam side down, onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Repeat for the rest, leaving 2
inches of space in between each bierock. Loosely cover bierocks with a kitchen towel and
leave in a warm, draft-free spot for 20 minutes. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. When
the bierocks are nice and puffy, gently brush with melted butter. Bake for 20–25 minutes.
Cool slightly before serving. They’re great with German potato salad (or French
fries), various pickles, and beer.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.