On their way from renting out an air mattress to building a $60 billion-plus community-upending, rent-scrambling juggernaut, Airbnb’s founders presumably devoted zero effort to drawing the ultimate map of American culture.
We first noted this found-data tour de force when looking for a cheap room on our way to the life-changing Ashfall Fossil Beds in eastern Nebraska. It felt like every other result on Airbnb said something like “a good-natured Midwestern welcome” or “loaded with Midwestern charm.”
Nothing makes a data journalist’s heart skip a beat quite like the word “Midwest.” Outlining the precise boundaries of America’s vaguest region has long been a rite of passage for our kind, from Soo Oh at Vox to David Montgomery at CityLab to Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight.
You can see why: It’s a concrete geographic construct linked to an ephemeral cultural one.
In Airbnb, we’d stumbled on an ideal data set for drawing that elusive line between culture and geography. More importantly, once we’d looked at more than half a million Airbnb listings and built a database powerful enough to answer “Where is the Midwest?” we could use it to answer a much more difficult follow-up: “What is the Midwest?” What cultural touchstones make it different from the rest of the country? And why is the foremost of those touchstones a toothy, googly-eyed game fish?
First, we had to — once and for all — define the Midwest.
Airbnb makes this easy. There are 12 states with listings that mention “Midwest” to an unusual degree. They trace the outline of a relatively expansive region running from the foothills of the Appalachians to the fertile central Great Plains.
By this measure, Iowa is the most Midwestern state in the union, followed by Indiana and Wisconsin. Rural folks tended to be more likely to describe themselves as Midwestern than did their city-dwelling cousins, so states with large urban populations, such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, slipped farther down the rankings. (Most mentions of Midwest outside the 12 core states are to the effect of “I’m originally from the Midwest” or in reference to a local street or landmark with Midwest in the name.)
Detailed maps hint that folks in the hilly Appalachian strip of southeastern Ohio and the arid western steppe of Nebraska and the Dakotas might not consider themselves as Midwestern as their friends in the Corn Belt, but Airbnb does not have enough data to categorically exclude them. Of all the non-Midwestern states, Oklahoma comes closest to making the cut (even when we exclude mentions of Midwest City, an Oklahoma City suburb). But it’s only half as Midwestern as Ohio or South Dakota, and less than a fifth as Midwestern as Iowa.
With the outline of the Midwest firmly drawn, we can calculate the most Midwestern cultural artifacts. To meet our criteria, a word had to be mentioned in at least 300 listings. We counted each word only once per listing, grouped different word forms together, and removed place names and brand names (sorry Hy-Vee, you would have topped the list!). We axed anything that got more than a third of its listings nationwide from a single state, since those are local touchstones, not regional ones.
By this measure, the most Midwestern thing on Earth is the walleye, a drab but delicious freshwater fish whose primeval bulging eyes and snaggled teeth would look at home in one of those Nebraska fossil beds. It’s the state fish of both South Dakota and Minnesota, and at least six Midwestern towns have claimed to be the walleye capital of the world.
Marianne Huskey Fechter is one of the most accomplished women in pro fishing history, with an angler of the year award and a major tournament win under her belt. She built it all on long hours on the water — and boatloads of walleye, which she describes as a “beautiful fish.”
“They’re just amazing,” Fechter said. Though amazing can also mean amazingly reluctant to bite.
“That’s why those of us that do it love it so much,” she said. “It’s one of those things that you’re always trying to figure it out and, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re never going to. It’s an endless challenge.”
Fechter talks of the fish in almost mystical terms, describing the “nostalgia of the walleye” that has hooked generations of Midwesterners. “Once you catch your first walleye,” she said, “you’ll understand.”
“The story of my life is just chasing after walleye,” said Minnesota guide, tournament angler and walleye whisperer Tony Roach. “I grew up in a fishing family. I mean, I was literally bottle-fed in a boat while my dad was walleye fishing.”
“It’s really threaded into the fiber of a lot of people in the Midwest,” Roach said.
Throughout much of the region, the fish is a constant presence. Walleye lurk in tens of thousands of Midwestern lakes, and unlike warm-water fish such as bass, they can be readily caught even in the depths of a Midwestern winter.
Anyone can catch a walleye with a few bucks’ worth of basic gear, some practice and a little luck, Roach said, though that doesn’t stop some Midwesterners from dropping the equivalent of several years’ salary on boats, McMansion-grade ice-fishing trailers and sophisticated electronics designed to better target the finicky fish.
“It’s a big part of the economy,” Roach said.
Two of the next three most-Midwestern words, “Heartland” and “Lutheran,” seem like gimmes. One’s a synonym for Midwestern, and — in the minds of many — the other might as well be. “Conservatory” and “orchestra” seem odd, but Google Trends confirms that both are unusually popular in Midwestern states. If you think you know why, let us know!
Three others are probably artifacts of the sort of property- and hospitality-focused Midwestern English you’d expect from an Airbnb listing — “rehabbed” for renovated, “blacktop” for asphalt and “supper” for dinner.
Several other freshwater fish join walleye on the list, including bluegill and the bass varieties of smallmouth and largemouth. All three are plentiful throughout much of the country, but bluegill are often called bream in the South. And the Midwest is the largest area where the native ranges of largemouth and smallmouth bass overlap, meaning Airbnb hosts there have greater need to identify the species, rather than just calling them “bass.” Anglers in other parts of the country may also prefer to target trout or saltwater fish.
“Amish” may seem surprising, given their deep roots in Pennsylvania, but the Midwestern states of Indiana and Ohio have some of the country’s largest Amish populations, with smaller groups of the old-school Anabaptists spread throughout the Midwest Farm Belt.
Likewise “glacial” may remind you of icy mountain passes, not the relatively flat American Midwest, until you realize the Midwest got much of that flatness from the millennia-long Wisconsin Glaciation, which ground down its topography, enriched its soil and filled the Great Lakes.
It also may explain another one of the most Midwestern things on the planet: snowmobiles.
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