Category Archives: Culture

Burlington, Iowa

I love meeting new people and sharing information, so having a career that involves going places to give presentations delights me, even when the speaking engagement is only a few miles away. However, I increasingly get invited to speak places I’ve never visited before, and this has offered the delightful opportunity of exploring locations that I didn’t know about previously, seeing new things and learning wonderful bits of history.

To me, the name “Burlington” was pretty much only familiar from the Burlington and Northern Railroad. But I’d never been there—until I was invited to speak at the local college. What a delightful town this turned out to be. It’s on a bend in the Mississippi River (which never ceases to amaze me with its impressive size), hills rising up from the water’s edge, offering a downtown and residential area filled with wonderful 19th-century buildings.

The site was chosen by Zebulon Pike in 1805 as a good site for a government fort (those high hills offer remarkable views over the river). Burlington was settled in 1833, and from 1837-1838, it was the capital of the sprawling Wisconsin Territory. Then, until 1840, it was the capital of the Iowa Territory.

There is a 29-block area known as Heritage Hill that is home to Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate houses. This area is also home to Snake Alley, named by Ripley’s Believe it or Not as the crookedest street in the world (even more so than San Francisco’s better-known Lombard Street). The reason it is so crooked is that, when the town was settled, people traveled on horseback, and in icy weather, you wouldn’t want to try to take a horse straight down a slippery street. The sharp turns on Snake Alley made it possible to get down the hill more safely.

Snake Alley

I had a lot of fun at my speaking engagement, meeting a wide range of charming, interested people. But I was equally happy that I had the next morning free to explore the historic district and riverfront. I stopped at the Heritage Museum, and as is so often the case in these very old towns, it was remarkably good. Then it was time to drive home. But what a lovely discovery.

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Another Farmer

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.

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Giants in the Earth

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.

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Corn to Whiskey

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.

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Wilmot Stage Stop

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.

Wilmot Stage Stop
30646 113th Street
Wilmot, WI 53192
http://www.wilmotstagestop.com/

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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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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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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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