Memories and Nueske’s

Growing up in Illinois, it seemed as though our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, was almost as big a part of my life as my own state. I spent summers for nine years camping in the North Woods. Cousins of my mother’s had a cabin in Wisconsin, and we visited them. Vacations when my brother and I were very young (even before my camping days) often involved Wisconsin, both at “attractions,” including the Wisconsin Dells, and relaxing escapes to small lakeside cottages, where swimming and fishing were the big delights. Much later, my parents lived in Wisconsin for a few years, when my dad was sent there to help build up a small candy company (it was during this time that I discovered the joys of Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin). And I have always found something to draw me northward, from the Wisconsin State Fair to the House on the Rock to the places mentioned previously in this blog.

Food was also always part of the fun. Many folks may think first of cheese when they think of Wisconsin—after all, it is the dairy state, and it does create some absolutely sensational cheeses. A stop at the Mars Cheese Castle is a requirement. But many of us think just as frequently, and definitely as fondly, of the German influence so evident everywhere, including in the making of sausages and smoked meats. My dad loved dining out, and the famous German restaurants in Milwaukee were a big draw. I can still remember my first dinner at Mader’s—and I still have the cookbook dad got me on that visit. (We won’t talk about how long ago that was.)

On a recent drive across Wisconsin, as I neared Wittenberg, I turned my wheels toward one of the many German-influenced culinary delights the state offers: Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats. While Nueske’s is probably best known for their bacon, they make a wide range of smoked delights, some of which are only available at their handsome headquarters. Here, the original smokehouse, used by the first generations of Nueske’s nearly a century ago, has been kept as a memento of their history, because they smoke far too much meat these days for it to handle the demand. Still, it is a fairly small company, family owned and true to its heritage.

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In addition to an impressive array of meats inside, during the summer, there is a “mobile home” out front, a log cabin on a truck bed, that serves up great sandwiches and smoky baked beans for those who stop by.

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So while it’s not a “destination” in the sense that anyone would plan a trip there, it is definitely a great place to stop if you’re in the area.

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International Crane Foundation

Normally, when I get an issue of National Geographic, while I might be sent dreaming, I rarely have the opportunity to just jump in the car and follow up on a feature article. But then there was the issue where the lead article and cover photo were from the International Crane Foundation (ICF), which is in Wisconsin, just a few hours north of where I live. So the next weekend found me heading northward, to the only place in the world where you can see every species of crane there is.

I had seen the brolga (Australian crane) during my several visits Down Under. The African gray crowned crane was familiar from a number of zoos, but they’re so fabulous looking, it’s always fun seeing them.

African gray crowned cranes

African gray crowned cranes

I was familiar with sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, but seeing them up close was grand. Many of the cranes, however, were unfamiliar to me—the demoiselle crane, blue crans, wattled crane, hooded crane, black-necked crane, white-naped crane, saurus crane, and the African black crowned crane, rarer than his gray cousin.

Wattled crane

Wattled crane

Blue cranes

Blue cranes

There was a tremendous amount of information available, from guides, bird handlers, and displays. The visit ended up triggering other trips, to places where cranes nest or flyways that they stop during migration.

In addition to the cranes, the ICF has man acres of restored savannah, open wetland, and restored prairie, where one can hike for hours, admiring indigenous trees, flowers, and birds in the wild.

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

If you’re fortunate enough to be there in the spring, when eggs are hatching, you might get to witness the teaching of chicks to drink and eat. A crane will only hatch one egg, so the staff will rescue the unhatched egg, hatch it in an incubator, and then use a puppet to seem like a parent bird when teaching the chick basic life skills.

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

The ICF website includes photos, background, and information for visiting. https://www.savingcranes.org/

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Old World Wisconsin

If you’ve been following my blogs for any length of time, you’ll probably have noticed that I not only love history, I happily visit it—traveling to places that combine historic buildings with costumed interpreters who demonstrate what life was like in the past. I’ve posted on Michigan’s amazing Greenfield Village on my The World’s Fare blog, about Sovereign Hill on my Waltzing Australia blog, and on this blog, I’ve offered multiple posts on both Iowa’s Living History Farms and Chicagoland’s Kline Creek Farm. Now it’s time to look north, to delightful Old World Wisconsin (OWW).

Like most of the Midwest, Wisconsin’s history stretches back into the days of voyageurs, fur trappers, and explorers, but with serious settlement starting in the early 1800s, after the United States had come into existence. Wisconsin was heavily enough settled by 1848 to obtain statehood. As with most of the Midwest, settlers came in waves, first from New England and then from overseas, especially Germany and Scandinavia. This varied settlement was reflected in everything from the cuisine to the architecture.

As the state grew, rather than destroying log cabins or leveling antique towns, researchers began documenting the old buildings—and then bringing them here. So when you go to Old World Wisconsin, you don’t learn a general history of what a typical Dane or Yankee might have been like; they can tell you exactly who owned the home, where they were from, and what their lives were like.

Iron Stoves cooked food and heated homes.

Iron Stoves cooked food and heated homes.

In some cases, the original furnishings have been preserved. As would have been the case with early settlement, so too at OWW, buildings are clustered by nationality of original owners. You can visit settlements of Poles, Germans, Finns, Danes, Norwegians, and Yankees (New Englanders).

Even the bathtub was kept in the kitchen pantry, as water would be heated on the stove.

Even the bathtub (back right corner) was kept in the kitchen pantry, as water would be heated on the stove.

In addition, there are fields and farms where you can watch traditional types of farming or see early breeds of livestock. Aside from farming, exhibitions range from early forms of baseball to classes in a one-room schoolhouse, from cooking to a working blacksmith shop, and much more.

New England's influence is seen in the 1880s village. The red building is the blacksmith shop.

New England’s influence is seen in the 1880s village. The red building is the blacksmith shop.

Old World Wisconsin is not merely historic, it’s also beautiful, nestled amid forests and dotted with ponds. Even as I type this, I’m planning a return trip. OWW id located in Eagle, WI, west of Milwaukee. For more information, from directions to scheduled events, you can visit their website: http://oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org/

OWW-Cabin

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Advising Eater

Thanks to a recommendation from fellow food historian Rachel Laudan, when Eater needed an expert on corn for some videos they had in mind, they contacted me. Their main interest was in the very early history of corn—essentially stuff limited to chapter 1 of my book. But it was still great fun sharing tales with them—and then seeing my name at the end of the videos (which are very cleverly animated). No wealth coming from this, but a little recognition is greatly appreciated.

If you’re interested, here are the two videos that were the result:

 

 

 

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Tips for Grilling Sweet Corn

My book, Midwest Maize, has recipes for some historic dishes, but if you’re not looking for history and just want to enjoy some sweet corn on the grill this summer, here is a video with some suggestions that might help make your efforts on the grill more successful.

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Ray Bradbury and Carnegie Library

In July of last year, I posted about the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of libraries he built with the money he made, as a demonstration of his belief that education was vital to success. Iconic, award-winning American fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was among the millions who benefited from having a local Carnegie Library.

Born in Waukegan, IL, in 1920, Bradbury had started writing by the time he was eleven. He was an avid reader, and he spent much of his childhood at the Carnegie Library in Waukegan. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury once said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Bradbury’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Bradbury became incredibly famous, with awards ranging from the Pulitzer to an Oscar. His fans are legion.

Today, the Waukegan Carnegie Library is in disrepair, but efforts have begun to restore and renovate it, not just as a library, but as a memorial to Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc., has as its goal the creation of a “Theater of the mind,” where one can admire the restored library but also have a memorable “Ray Bradbury experience.”

At this stage, the library is not yet available for visitors, but the organization that is doing the renovation is hoping that they can interest both scholars and donors in contributing to their efforts to bring “Bradbury’s library” to life. To donate or to sign up for their email newsletter, visit http://www.bradburycarnegie.org/ (not just for project updates, but also for information on opportunities, such as tours of Bradbury’s Waukegan or presentations on Bradbury’s work). Of course, if you live nearby, if you’re a fan of Bradbury or Carnegie, they’d be glad to have you join the team.

 

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Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys

Life has always changed, but in the last 150 years, the rate of change has steadily increased. Where it once took at least hundreds and often thousands of years for noticeable changes to be witnessed in cultures, societies, or day-to-day life, today, the change seems to be monthly. There are points in time, however, at which there were sudden bursts of change, and the late 1800s represented such a period. In the last decades of the century, we saw the birth of everything from skyscrapers to popcorn poppers to automobiles to department stores. In the U.S., there was also a tremendous surge of people away from farming. Factory jobs offered income not reliant on fickle weather patterns, and big cities offered conveniences not found in the country. These benefits drew people in increasing numbers away from farms. The U.S. changed from a country where most people lived in rural areas and raised crops to a country where city dwellers vastly outnumbered their country cousins. There were also vast numbers who were looking for easy wealth, and they flooded to the world’s gold fields, whether in California, the Yukon Territory, or even in Australia, as noted in the work below. Whatever the draw—reliable income, urban delights, or “easy” wealth—people left the farms in droves during this period.

The following poem was written by a woman named Clara F. Berry during this dynamic period. Published in 1871, it reflects not only these trends but also the sense of loss felt by those who knew that the choices being made were not necessarily better choices, just different.

Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys
Clara F. Berry 1871

Come boys, I have something to tell you,
Come near, I would whisper it low,
You’re thinking of leaving the homestead,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The city has many attractions,
But think of the vices and sins,
When once in the vortex of fashion,
How soon the course downward begins.

You talk of the mines of Australia,
They’re wealthy in gold without doubt,
But sh! There is gold on the farm, boys,
If only you’d shovel it out.
The mercantile trade is a hazard,
The goods are first high and then low,
Best risk the old farm a while longer,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The great busy west has inducements,
And so has the business mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to start.
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousand or so,
And think of the frauds and deceptions,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The farm is the safest and surest,
The orchards are loaded today,
You’re free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Best stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow,
Remember you’ve nothing to risk boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

 

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