Swiss Cheese Salad

Monroe, Wisconsin, attracted me for several reasons. There is a museum that celebrates cheesemaking (the delightful and informative National Historic Cheesemaking Center). It is home to the oldest cheese shop in a state that is practically defined by cheese (Baumgartner, which sits on the town square). And it is the location of what is likely the last Swiss Turner Hall in the U.S.

Turner Halls were/are community centers in German-speaking communities. The halls generally include meeting rooms, event spaces, and somewhere to eat and drink, but the real focus was gymnastics—because Turner means gymnast in German (or, more precisely, a member of a Turnverein, or gymnastics club).

Monroe is at the heart of Green County, which was settled by Swiss immigrants and still has a largely Swiss population. There are cheese makers scattered about the countryside and an annual event at the Cheesemaking Center where cheesemakers hand-craft cheese using the antique equipment. So cheese is common, and of course styles from Switzerland dominate.

Monroe is sometimes called “the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States.” It was because of this claim to fame that, in the Ratskeller Restaurant at the Turner Hall, while all the Swiss specialties on the menu looked good to me, I was particularly attracted to the Swiss Cheese Pie. (That said, as good as the pie was, I now want to go back and try two or three other specialties on the menu.)

Not too surprisingly, I eventually found myself in possession of a nice chunk of Wisconsin Swiss Cheese. Lovely stuff. When I had consumed all but the last quarter pound, I came up with an idea that I thought was worth trying: Swiss Cheese Salad. I chopped the cheese into fairly fine dice, chopped a couple of tablespoons of sweet onion (or just a little less diced onion than you have diced cheese), combined the two, and added enough mayo to hold it together. It was great.

As I enjoyed it, it occurred to me that it was unlikely I was the only person who had ever had such a flash of inspiration. I did a search for Swiss Cheese Salad and learned that, indeed, I was not the first person to come up with the idea. However, my version was much simpler than the other versions I found, which means it is more likely that I’ll make it again. But definitely try it. Very tasty. However, as a food historian, it also reminded me how hard it can be to identify the origins of some dishes—because some food ideas occurred to multiple people in multiple locations.

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Why I Love Farmers

Having traveled around much of the Midwest, interviewing farmers for my food history books and articles, I have come to admire and love them. I also love the values they represent. In my book Midwest Maize, I included a story about one Nebraska farmer who shared with me how she benefited from the openness and generosity of other farmers. She also related that  it was common for people in the area helped each other out, and suggested one reason why. It is part of the ethos, of course, but looking after each other is, in remote areas, a way to survive.

Relying on each other makes one kinder and more grateful. I’m sure there is also an element of farming itself, doing something that is “real” and that so clearly benefits others, contributes to the strength and character of the people who farm. So when this video popped up, while I was touched, I was not really surprised at the kindness and solidarity expressed.

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A Bit of Derecho History

It’s always interesting when you learn about something that suddenly pops up again. Last summer, while traveling through Minnesota, I visited the Forest History Center, where I learned about something called a “blowdown.” It was explained that a blowdown is a derecho that hits a heavily forested area, because it blows down all the trees. This led to my looking up derecho, which comes from the Spanish for “straight,” because it is a high wind that blows straight, rather than swirling, as with a tornado.

The display at the Forest History Center showed stunning photos from a blowdown that hit northern Minnesota, moved across the Boundary Waters and swept into Canada in 1999. This one storm flattened nearly 500,000 acres of trees. The display noted that this area was greater than the area destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

That storm, however, was far from alone. There was a blowdown in the Adirondacks in 1995, when a derecho leveled 150,000 acres of forest, but the so-called Big Blowdown in the Adirondacks was in 1950, when a derecho flattened 800,000 acres of timber.

So when the term “derecho” popped up on the news, I was ready to be horrified. What surprised me, as I looked into it more, is that I hadn’t heard more about this phenomenon before, because these storms have occurred with some frequency in the U.S. I wondered if it was because they were so often in less populated areas, or whether it might be because they were generally a surprise, rather than offering the long, dramatic build-up we usually see for a hurricane.

The storm was first described and given its name in 1877 by Dr. Gustavus Detlef Hinricks, a professor at the University of Iowa and founder of Iowa’s first weather service, following the appearance of this type of storm in Iowa in that year.

The thing that strikes me is how resilient both forests and humans are. Because all the blown-down forests have grown back and cities and towns have been rebuilt, and hence we are surprised by the new destruction, because both nature and humans have forgotten. And yet I have also been reminded of that resilience, as videos start to pop up with efforts well under way to rebuild after this most recent storm.

Praying that all those affected by this most recent derecho recover quickly. Simply knowing that a phenomenon is natural and even relatively common does not make it any less horrifying.

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More on the Storm

Perhaps it is because I have developed a deep affection for Iowa over the several years that I’ve been writing about Midwestern agriculture. Or maybe it’s because I was actually in the part of Iowa hardest hit by the storm only five weeks before the storm, so it feels like a friend that has been attacked.

Once again, it is good to remember that the storm wasn’t just the wind speed and statistics. It hit individuals. Here is another video that just popped up of a young man stuck inside his place of business when the storm hit–and until the place of business vanished.

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The Storm

Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
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The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.

Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.

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Shrimp de Jonghe

In March, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Library about Midwestern food. I was happy to oblige, because this is a topic that is dear to my heart but also something about which there are many misconceptions.

The ethnic makeup of the Midwest is stunningly varied. In the 1800s in particular, people flooded in from dozens of countries, bringing interesting foods and traditions. From pasties in Michigan to bratwurst in Wisconsin, Italian beef in Chicago to barbecue in Missouri. Then there are the indigenous foods, such as wild rice, pecans, common beans, and, of course, maize/corn.

In addition to these are the foods created by imaginative chefs, who were already multiplying in the 1800s. One fabulous dish that few realize is actually a local classic is Shrimp de Jonghe. The restaurant at Chicago’s De Jonghe’s Hotel was fabulously popular from the 1890s to the 1920s. The De Jonghe family had emigrated from Belgium in 1891, and it was Henri de Jonghe who was credited with the shrimp dish that continues to appear on menus both in and far from the city of its birth. (Though it is likely that the hotel’s chef, Emile Zehr, had a hand in developing the dish.) It surprises many when they learn that this lovely, garlicky dish arose in the Heartland.

Also worth noting is that it gives some idea how remarkably transportation had improved by the late 1800s. Because shrimp are extremely perishable. They die when taken out of the water and decay quickly once dead. It wasn’t until the invention of refrigerated train cars that it was possible to speed this delicate creature to distant markets. Today, U.S. is both the largest producer of shrimp and the largest consumer. Americans love shrimp, downing hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Of aquatic comestibles, only canned tuna outranks shrimp in quantities consumed in the U.S. The recipe below offers you the opportunity to be among those who are elevating those statistics.

Shrimp de Jonghe
1-1/4 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 Tbs. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs. shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, checking first to make sure one of the shelves is in the center.

Butter a shallow, 1-quart baking dish—or, if you have them, several individual-sized baking dishes.

Blanch the shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain them in a colander. Run them under cold water until cool (to stop cooking).

Soften the butter with a fork. Beat in the garlic, shallots, and salt. When thoroughly blended, add the remaining ingredients (except the shrimp) and blend well. (If you make a large amount of this–say double or triple the recipe–you could do all this in a food processor.)

If the shrimp have not dried sufficiently in the colander, pat dry. Then, arrange the shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish or dishes. Dot/spread the butter-and-crumb mixture over the shrimp, making sure that all shrimp have at least some of the mixture on it.

Bake until shrimp are fully cooked and the topping has become lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

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Heritage Radio Talks Heartland

The great food radio organization, Heritage Radio Network, is putting together a delightful new series titled “Eat Your Heartland Out.” This series of podcasts will include interviews with a wide range of experts on topics related to the food, culture, and history of the Greater Midwest. Happily, they invited me to comment on the diversity and abundance of the Midwest, which is one of my favorite themes.

If you’re interested to hear not only what I have to say but also what a couple of other experts think, the link is below. Note that, in this introductory entry, we’re kind of all over the place, as far as time frame. I’m mostly talking 1800s, but Lucy Long talks about Green Bean Casserole, which didn’t come along until 1955. So pretty diverse approaches.

Enjoy. https://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/welcome-to-the-heartland-an-introduction-to-midwestern-foodways/

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Still Charming: Historic Long Grove

 

When I was a youngster, my family often drove out into what was still the countryside—farmland, orchards, and such. These outings occasionally involved the 20-mile drive to Long Grove. It was a town where just about all the stores sold antiques, and so it was a place my mom loved to visit. I loved the look of the place even then, before I understood the village’s significance.

The Village of Long Grove was settled in the 1840s. Though the first settler was from New England, those that followed were almost entirely German. (Worth noting: in the 1800s, the Germany we know today did not exist. The term “German” referred to people groups who shared Germanic ethnicity, language, and culture. There were Germans living in Russia, in Poland, in Austria, but also in many small principalities, kingdoms, and duchies, such as Bavaria, Hesse, Prussia, Baden, and Saxe-Coburg, home of Victoria’s Prince Albert.) Even today, with considerably more diversity, it’s still a very German town.

But the point of the story is that it is still very much as it was. When it started, the town was remarkably far from other settlements, but as suburbs spread outward from Chicago, farms and old buildings were vanishing. However, in Long Grove, the residents decided to preserve both the old buildings and the feel of the town—no neon, lots of trees, gardens and open spaces, one-lane road, original covered bridge—which, along with its venerable buildings, earned it the designation of first historic district in Illinois.

The reason I thought it would be good to post about Long Grove now is that two years of road construction on all the access roads that lead to the village are finally at an end, and people can get to the town.

The things being sold in the stores are different from what I saw when I was younger—but then part of that is because what constitutes an antique has changed. The old cider press is gone, but the building that once housed it still stands. In fact, most of the original buildings still stand. It is a town of independent businesses, and there are craft stores and gifts shops, places to buy chocolate and olive oil, galleries, a winery, and a few restaurants. And, happy to say, the Village Tavern is still in business—a place that remained part of my life long after mom’s antique shopping had ended. Opened in 1847, the Village Tavern of Long Grove is the oldest restaurant in Illinois.

The food at the Village Tavern is the kind of classic, fresh, made-from-scratch cuisine one would expect from a small-town restaurant, though with a lot more options than would have been available in 1847. Mary Ann Ullrich, who, with her husband, has been the owner since 1962 (only the fourth owner in 170 years), notes that they work to keep the feeling old-fashioned and historic, but they also know that customers want variety and interest. She relates that the fried fish is hand breaded using a recipe that was given to them by the previous owner—so historic in its own right. Though the restaurant is known for hand-cut steaks and hefty burgers, they have now added gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Guacamole and Buffalo wings are among the offered appetizers. So holding on to the past and, at the same time, accommodating changes in demand.

Ullrich points out that the village is something of an island in suburbia, a quiet crossroads away from the rush of modern life. She relates that the covered bridge was recently added to the National Historic Register, which saved it from being scrapped when a truck driver damaged it. Instead of being scrapped, the bridge has been repaired, and the roof will go back on this spring. She also shares that when repairs and an expansion were needed on the restaurant, they used wood from old barns that had been torn down and architectural elements from other buildings, which enabled them to keep the antique look throughout the restaurant.

So, it’s a great time to get back to Long Grove. Updates are being made, now that the completion of road construction has residents feeling hopeful about being accessible again. However, if you plan to visit, be aware that Long Grove is famous for its festivals (the three biggest being Strawberries, Chocolate, and Apples) and concerts, so check before going if you’re looking for a quiet day in the country. Crowds can be surprisingly large on special weekends. Of course, if you like festivals, these are great ones. But whenever you go, do give yourself some time to wander around town and enjoy the ambience, the shops, the antiquity. It’s a lovely step back in time.

For more information on Long Grove, you can visit http://longgrove.org/ and for the Village Tavern, see http://www.villagetavernoflonggrove.com/

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Pursuing Midwestern History

I haven’t posted in a while because I’m wildly busy working on a new book. This one is about the astonishing history of the Midwest and all the places one can “visit” — from living-history venues to museums, large and small, to many other historic sites. I’m having great fun driving around the region, enjoying the remarkably beautiful forests of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and vistas across (and fish from) the Great Lakes. I’ve been exploring charming historic inns in Ohio and Illinois, fabulous museums in Nebraska and Kansas, forts in North Dakota and Michigan, reenactments in Indiana, French settlements in Missouri, German farms in Iowa, archaeological digs in South Dakota–though in reality, every state has a fabulous array of all of these things. Older states may have a few more places to visit (and a few more people to support those places), but there is no state that is not a delight. This is a remarkable region with a history far more important than most people realize. So I’m loving getting to both “see” and write about it.

But you don’t necessarily have to go far to visit a bit of Midwestern history. Historical societies in the region actually started up in the 1800s, and most towns or counties (depending on population density) have both societies and museums to display a society’s work. Within half an hour of my home, there are a dozen historical societies, housed in a wide range of buildings (from an entire town square, with church and schoolhouse, to a warehouse to a few large old homes). Just do an Internet search with the name of your town or county and the words “historical society” or possibly “museum”–and then go relive your home’s past, or possibly learn about a place you’ve just arrived. Bigger cities have bigger museums and state capitals usually have museums that cover the whole state. Everybody has history.

Here as an example: This is the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton, IL. This museum offers a charming collection that traces details of local history, from farming to fashion, in a beautiful building that itself reflects the period in which it was built (1890)–and which also has a fascinating history (it was the first public library in Wheaton and one of the first libraries in Illinois to adopt the Dewey decimal system for cataloguing books).
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The Still Mighty Mississippi

Often, when speaking of the Mississippi River, people think only of the southern part of the river (if they think of it at all). However, the Mississippi starts in Minnesota and half of the states it touches are in the Midwest. Even the name came from a northern people—it’s an Ojibwa word for “Big River.” I think a lot of people also think of the Mississippi as something from our past—especially if they have read Mark Twain. But it is a remarkable part of the world today. Because of its importance, past and present, I thought you might enjoy this video trip down the river, from its peaceful source to it’s often unruly mouth, 2,348 miles farther south.

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