Radio station WDCB FM (90.9 in Chicagoland) invited me to talk about corn for their Sunday-morning show First Light. The interview actually lasted quite a bit longer than the 15 minutes that finally got broadcast, but I think it still gets across that corn is a very fun topic. (Though I was surprised the show’s charming host, Brian O’Keefe, left out the story about the invention of corn puffs.) If you have any interest in hearing what I shared, they’ve posted the broadcast on their website: https://www.wdcbfirstlight.org/news/2017/9/24/youll-see-corn-differently
Category Archives: Agriculture
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So said Romeo’s Juliet. Good thing—because names can be confusing, varied, colloquial, or misleading—as with corn salad. Of course, if you’ve read Midwest Maize, you already know that “corn” means “dominant cereal grain,” so you won’t be surprised by that revelation in this article. But interesting to see how things get named, and how they spread, and how a weed can become valued.
Valerianella locusta illustration by Thomé (1885) showing the plant, flower, and seed.
There is plant called
Which is not the same thing as a
Not the same thing at all.
Corn Salad also goes by Mache, Doucette and Raiponce …yes, that translates to Rapunzel!
Walter Crane illustration of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Was she so named because her hair grew like a weed?
Evidently, it’s called corn salad because it’s a weed in the corn – which is any grain back in England. People use to gather it in from the fields, and not actually grow it in their gardens. Ordinary people, that is.
Thomas Jefferson grew it in his gardens at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson – not ordinary
Louis XIV also grew it in his garden
Louis XIV – the Sun King – very NOT ordinary!
I’m really tired of KALE
So perhaps Corn…
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In April, when a speaking engagement necessitated a drive through western Michigan, I took the opportunity to visit Holland. While the Dutch settled a number of places in the U.S., the greater part of Dutch settlers in the mid-1800s headed for this part of Michigan. I was too early for the tulip festival, but there were still a few things I wanted to check out, including Windmill Island.
Windmill Island is the location of DeZwaan, the only Dutch-built windmill in the U.S. DeZwaan is 250 years old. It was originally built in the Netherlands, where it spent most of its existence grinding grain before being dismantled and brought to Holland, Michigan.
The handsome windmill is the centerpiece of a 36-acre park that is planted extravagantly with flowers (fortunately, many of them blooming in April).
The buildings are not numerous but are all constructed in Dutch style. These offer gifts and food for purchase and history to learn. But the main thing to do is stroll through the gardens and visit the windmill. As I crossed from the entrance to the Post House, I noticed a couple of very interesting trees. A sign identified them as Dawn Redwoods (and looking them up later confirmed this). I loved these odd, many-branched trees.
I wandered through gardens filled with daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, and headed for one of the classic Dutch drawbridges that makes it possible to cross over to the windmill.
I mentioned my interest in food history to one of the costumed interpreters at the windmill, and she excitedly said I had to meet Alisa. She phoned the front office and found that Alisa was in, and she headed over to the mill. Alisa is Alisa Crawford, the miller at the windmill. Alisa has the remarkable distinction of being the only Dutch-certified millers in the United States, and the only woman in the Dutch millers’ guild. We spent a fair bit of time talking about food history and Dutch history and her experiences and training.
Alisa is also the author of the authoritative book on the historic DeZwaan windmill. It’s a handsome book, and if I weren’t downsizing right now, I’d have bought it on the spot. (However, if you’re not downsizing, and you’d like to have a copy—it’s titled DeZwaan and the author is Alisa Crawford. Check it out. Some great food history in the book.)
Finally parting company with Alisa, I wandered over to the row of buildings were Delft china and Dutch cookies are for sale, and where one can wander through a recreation in miniature of the Island of Marken in the Zuidersee. Learned that Peter the Great lived in the Netherlands for a while, learning the ship-building trade, to take back home to Russia.
I ended my visit with a stop by the wonderful, old Amsterdam street organ. This once popular form of entertainment is something of a cross between a pipe organ and a player piano. A costumed interpreter came out to tell us (me and two other visitors) about the street organ: built in 1928, long used on the streets of Amsterdam, but given to Holland, Michigan after World War II, as thanks for American help during the war. We listened to it play, and I was astonished by how loud it was. But as the guide noted, it had to be heard over the crowds on a bustling city street. Delightful way to end my visit.
The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the thousands of books submitted, is still gratifying.
As noted in the post on the Washington Historical Society, a lot of Germans settled in this region. Actually, a lot of Germans settled all across the Midwest. But in Hermann, it was more than just a large number of Germans happening upon the area; it was planned as a German town by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. In 1836, land was bought and the town, which is sometimes called “Little Germany,” was founded. The town developed an important wine and grape culture, and before Prohibition, it was home to one of the largest wineries in the U.S.
I was on my own for the day, but Ralph had suggested that I might enjoy Hermann and had given me directions on how to get here, as well as a couple of recommendations for lunch. So that’s where I headed. It was too early in the spring for the tourist-oriented activities, such as costumed interpreters at the Hermann Farm. But it didn’t matter. It was a lovely and clearly German old town, with delightful shops, wonderful architecture, and a lot of history. The hilly countryside and nearby river added to the location’s charm, as did the myriad flowering trees. I drove around for a while, as Hermann sprawls a bit, but I eventually just parked the car and walked up and down the streets, enjoying the very European feel of the place.
I did eventually take Ralph’s advice about lunch, heading for the Wurst House, a store and restaurant whose owner is an award-winning sausage maker. The interior suggested that the Wurst House handles large crowds during the summer season, but I was one of only two dining there today. I ordered what was listed as the “German special,” which allowed me select two different brats from four on offer (I chose a mushroom with Swiss and a caramelized pear with gorgonzola), which were served on a bed of sauerkraut. I got to pick two sides, as well, and went with the broccoli and cauliflower salad and red cabbage. All was very good. The brats all have natural casings, so the texture was good, as well as the flavor. Before leaving, I found that they offered free samples at the back, and if I ever return, I’d probably go with the “Best of Show,” which was even better than the two brats I’d already had.
Then I headed across town to the historic Stone Hill Winery. Established in 1847, this is among the oldest wineries in the country and is the oldest in Missouri. The winery sits atop North America’s largest series of arched, underground cellars, which makes it noteworthy, but its wines get a lot of attention, too—and awards. Of particular interest is the Norton grape, a historic grape that, in the 1800s, produced internationally acclaimed red wines. The Norton, once feared to be extinct, is the state grape of Missouri—and the fact that a state has an official grape tells you something about their attitude toward wine. The small patch of Norton grapes discovered at Stone Hill were planted around the time of the Civil War. There are not enough Norton vines to make wine every year, I was told, but they had one available for sampling. So happily, I got to sample this historic wine—and it was very good. Big red, incredibly smooth. And in case you think this sounds like a good story and should be in a book, it is: The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine by Todd Kliman (2011).
Then it was time to head back to where I was staying, as I was giving a presentation that evening on the history of corn. Very attentive audience, which I guess is not surprising in a region where farming, food, and history are so appreciated.
One last stop in Washington was intended to simply highlight the focus on glorious local foods at one market but ended up being our lunch stop. Farm to You Market is owned by the Geisert family, who also own the organic, free-range, heritage hog farm down the road (which we passed).
Not too surprisingly, there are a few dandy pork products on the menu in the bright, tidy lunch room. I had been told often enough by experts that jowl bacon (better known in some circles by its Italian name: guanciale), and when I saw it on the menu, I had to try it. It was intense—richer than belly bacon. I actually had to take most of it home, it was so rich and fatty. But then that might be because it was a side order that I had in addition to the kobe beef burger that was my meal. Hard to imagine a better burger: kobe beef, cheddar cheese, freshly made bun, bacon, and organic lettuce and tomato. Yum.
It was fun to tour the store, as well, and see some of the fun local products—including Pinckney Bend whiskey. But lots of pork products, organic vegetables, baked goods, and locally produced sauces, jams, and soda pops. Great fun.
Among the things Ralph did to enrich my visit was arrange for a tour of the historic Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory. This place is 147 years old and has over the years produced the pipes smoked by a wide range of luminaries, including Generals Pershing and Macarthur, as well as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. It is not the only company in the U.S. making corncob pipes, but it is the largest and the oldest.
The company’s general manager, Phil Morgan, guided us through the rooms of the spacious, old factory, explaining the steps involved in producing the famous pipes—of which they produce roughly 800,000 per year.
Not just any corn can be used. The cob needs to be strong and rigid, and it needs to be the right size. There actually is a variety of corn called pipe corn, and the company grows their own. Worth noting is that, as with other operations that utilize corn, nothing is wasted. Once the corn is shelled, the kernels go to Pinckney Bend, for their Pipe Corn Whiskey. Then (and you already may have guessed this if you’ve read my book), the protein left after the starch is converted to alcohol is wonderfully rich and a great addition to feed for pigs. So an extremely efficient process.
The building is old, but many of the machines are new. Workers at the many stations cut the cobs, shape them, plug the open ends, add stems, and finish the pipes. I love watching things take shape in skilled hands, and the many veteran employees were clearly skilled. At each station, the corncobs looked more like pipes.
I don’t smoke, but those who do say that corncob pipes offer the coolest and sweetest smoking possible. If you want to read a bit more of the company’s history, or see how varied the finished pipes can be, here is their website: http://corncobpipe.com/