Category Archives: Agriculture

Food of the Enslaved: Kush

If you’ve read the book Midwest Maize, you’ll know that corn was vitally important to everyone in the United States, from first settlement up to the present. It became a major part of the culture throughout the original colonies. Traditions that developed early on were spread by later migration, with corn chowder following along as New Englanders crossed the continent, grits moving across the southern Midwest as Upland Southerners arrived, and cornbread of various types coming with everyone.

In the era when the American South was known as the Land of Cotton, there was actually more corn being grown than cotton. It was a huge part of everyone’s diet, but was relied on more heavily by the enslaved African American population. In this video, an African American culinary historian demonstrates the dish known as kush, and explains that the term is related to couscous—which means the word had migrated from Africa, along with the people who were making the dish. It is a simple, inexpensive dish, but it looks incredibly good and I can’t wait to try it—though I’ll probably use regular cornbread. Hope you enjoy the little trip to the 18th century.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Food, History, Language, Midwest Maize, Recipe, Video

Heirloom Popcorn

Shortly before my book came out, I was working at the Culinary Historians booth at a Whole Foods heirloom foods fair. There were a lot of interesting offerings, from vegetables and fruits to packets of seeds to fragrant flowers. In the booth next to the Culinary Historians booth there were people offering samples of a remarkable heirloom popcorn with tiny kernels. When there was a lag in the traffic, the women staffing that booth offered us some of the popcorn they were promoting. It was tiny but flavorful — living up to its name, Tiny but Mighty.

Then today, on YouTube, this video appeared among the suggestions for my viewing pleasure (interesting how they figure out what is likely to catch one’s attention). It was about that tiny popcorn. The video, however, showed more than the demo at Whole Foods, including that one seed gives you many stalks. This interested me because the plant from which corn originally developed, teosinte, while smaller than even this diminutive corn, likewise has many branches — and it pops. So more than just being an heirloom, this popcorn seems to be a real throw back to earlier varieties–much earlier. So it has now been added to my shopping list — but I thought I’d also share the video. Enjoy.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Video

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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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Travel

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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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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Forage Harvesting

In my book, I talk about the origin of the tower silo, how the word originated, and trench silos, which both predated and outlived tower silos. Just to give you a visual of that the creation of silage is like, as well as what is meant by a trench silo, here are the Peterson Farm Brothers handling forage harvesting (the creation of silage) on their Kansas farm.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Video

Interstate 80 Iowa

As you can no doubt imagine, I take corn very seriously. Wrote a whole book about it (Midwest Maize). I take Iowa seriously, as well — but like the Bible says, “A merry heart does good, like medicine,” so I’m sharing this video that a friend forwarded to me. It is an oversimplification — but not by much. 🙂

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Midwest, Midwest Maize