While this blog covers a wide range of topics related to the Midwest, from culture and history to food and fun, I do seem to keep being drawn back to farmers–largely because my experience of farmers (both in person and via Internet) has been so different from what a lot of people (non-farmers that is) expect. They are generally educated, often multi-talented, warm, wonderful, enthusiastic, and they rejoice in their ability to grow things and feed people. If you go back through my posts, you’ll find plenty of evidence of this. But I’ve just come across a new farmer who adds a new dimension — cute, bouncy, young. This video is more than a year old and a more recent one relates that Nebraska farmer Laura is now nearing the end of her business degree. But in case you need more proof that farmers are not homely old hayseeds, here it is.
It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.
It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.
The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.
Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)
The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.
As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.
You may know, especially if you’ve heard me speak or read my books Midwest Maize or Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, that getting corn to market was most commonly handled one of two ways. It could be fed to pigs, which could then walk to market. (This led to pigs being referred to as “cornfields on legs.”) Or it could be converted to whiskey. Of course, in addition to getting the corn to market, albeit in an altered state, the advantage of both of these approaches was that it gave those growing the corn both meat and drink.
For those who might be interested in how corn got converted to whiskey back in the 1700s, here’s a video from Townsends demonstrating the entire process. What was being created on farms of the time would not generally be elegant, aged whiskey, but rather a strong, clear, “white” whiskey. So not necessarily good whiskey, but it got the job done.
Who knew cornstarch could make your eggs better? Well, apparently a few folks knew it, because this is now a thing. I just ran across this today, and because this blog has corn/maize in the title, I thought it would be a good place to pass this tip along. I’m hungry and now need to go make this.
I find that advertising is a pretty good barometer of how little most consumers know about some things. Like food.
Of course, advertising rarely does anything to help inform consumers. In fact, the claims being made often contribute to confusion.
One example is the demonizing of by-products. Whether it’s food for our dogs and cats or what is being fed to chickens, by-products are always held up as things you don’t want. Bone meal and fat (by-products) are held up as evil additions to whatever animal food is under discussion. But do you know what these animals eat naturally?
Chickens, for example, are omnivores. That means they eat plants and meat. The only way to have a chicken that has never eaten bone or blood is to make sure you never eat a free-range chicken. There are dozens of examples of chickens catching and eating things on the Internet, but this video has long been a favorite.
So bones, fat, blood, and whatever the mouse ate that day are all part of what that chicken is digesting.
I have no problem with chickens being raised on vegetarian feed—this accomplishes different things than the more natural, free-range omnivore diet, including more consistent taste and, in some cases, a certain degree of safety. Or, in the case of egg-laying chickens, eggs from chickens on vegetarian diets have less cholesterol. So there is a difference—but not the difference implied by the ads.
I do want to emphasize that ads that say by-products are not used in a specific product are true—those products truly do not use by-products. It’s the subtle implication that by-products are evil that is problematic.
Same with dog food and cat food. While we’re not raising these animals for consistency of flavor, we are still urged by advertisers to avoid by-products. The word “by-products” simply refers to things other than meat, such as bone meal and fat. Omnivores and carnivores that live outdoors are eating “by-products” all the time.
The nutrients in such by-products as bone meal (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus) are vital to the animals eating the food and have to be replaced with supplements —which is a major reason that feed without by-products costs more. You can’t just take out the by-products and not add back what they provide.
Ultimately, it is the choice of the consumer which to buy, but do know that using by-products is not some evil plot. It’s just a really good way to reduce waste (because you have to throw out all the by-products if you don’t use them) and to reduce costs (not having to purchase the nutrients elsewhere). But it’s good to make choices from a position of knowledge rather than being led by advertisers.
Just a couple more examples advertising that annoys me.
Ham and pork ads almost always now say “no hormones added.” This is true—but unlike by-products, it does not represent a difference in anything. No pork products have added hormones. Pigs have never been given hormones. A pig grows at a stunning rate of speed without any help. A newborn piglet will put on 150 pounds and reach sexual maturity, ready to breed, in just five months. There is no reason in the world to go to the expense and trouble of trying to speed that up by using hormones. I do understand that advertisers mention hormones because they know that’s a hot-button issue with consumers—but you can relax about pork. None of it has hormones.
And final pet peeve (today): ads that make it look like our food is being raised in industrial complexes of some sort. Today, more than 80% of all crops are grown on family farms (the USDA keeps track of this sort of thing). Some of those are big farms (when so few people are willing to do the hard work of farming, the people who are still doing it have to take up the slack). But they are still family owned and family worked. So if you’re eating, thank a farmer.
I love history. I love food. And I’m particularly pleased when the two come together. Among the wonderful, historic venues in which I’ve dined, I have found former stage coach stops to be good, reliable fun. In 2014, a year before I started the Midwest Maize blog, I posted in The World’s Fare (one of my other two blogs) about a couple of stage coach stops I had enjoyed, one in Michigan and one in California. But I have now found a historic stage coach stop closer to home: The Wilmot Stage Stop in southern Wisconsin.
Built in 1848, this is the oldest tap and dining room in Wisconsin. It was a place where those traveling by stage coach between Galena, IL, and Kenosha, WI, could stop during a long trip for a meal, entertainment, and a room for the night. As you can see from this early photo, the exterior still looks much as it did when the Stage Stop opened more than 150 years ago.
The food is hearty steakhouse fare, with its Wisconsin heritage reflected in abundant butter, sour cream, and brandy (WI being the top consumer of brandy in the U.S.).
Dinners come with rolls, butter, salads with house-made dressings, and a baked potato with a stunning amount of butter, plus sour cream. Steaks are cooked on a broad grill that is open to the dining room. Lobsters can be added to any meal, and one watches a steady stream of those emerge from the kitchen. (This is a popular place for special celebrations, so many lobsters are ordered.)
When your meal is done, you can climb the steep, wooden stairs to the second and third floors, which have been turned into a museum. Tours of the museum are offered Thursday through Sunday. The second floor was for dancing and billiards, and an old piano and vintage billiard tables with ivory balls are among the reminders of the entertainment offered. The third floor is where the overnight accommodations were located, and small rooms are furnished as they were during the heyday of the stagecoach.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be meeting friends from further north, to introduce them to this fun, historic spot. Looking forward to re-immersing myself in the past at the Wilmot Stage Stop.
Oh—and worth noting, should you visit: the door that faces the street is the original front door, used back when a stagecoach pulled up in front. Today, however, that door is locked, and the current entrance is on the back side of the building, facing the parking lot.
Roughly six years ago (February 18, 2015, to be exact) I posted about how dangerous farmings is—second only to coal mining. In that post, I focused on the dangers faced in grain bins filled with corn. If you’re not familiar with what can happen, you might want to go back and read/watch that post. For those who are already aware of the dangers, here is an encouraging video about training volunteer firefighters in farming communities to rescue people who have become trapped. Because if no one rescues you, you die. This video was created by the MN Millennial Farmer, whom I’ve featured here in the past. Hope this makes you a little more appreciative of what goes into getting you your corn chips. And hope the project it represents saves a lot of lives.
The Peterson brothers created a video a few years back that when viral – Farmer Style. As a result, I interviewed Greg Peterson, the oldest of the three brothers, for my book, Midwest Maize, because it reflected the attitude of younger farmers—the folks who will be feeding us in the future.
Then, in my book, Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, I feature the National FFA, which is an organization that offers great opportunities to students, both in rural areas and cities.
So when the Peterson brothers came out with a new video that, if shared, will benefit the National FFA—supported by Pioneer, which also gets a mention in Midwest Maize book—I could hardly fail to respond to the offer. So here is the video. If you choose to share it, future generations will benefit.
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.
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.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection