Category Archives: Food

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

More of Michigan

Michigan has a surprising number of connections to the story of corn, but it is also a fun place to explore for other discoveries, old and new.

Long before Midwest Maize existed as either a book or a blog, The World’s Fare is where I posted, in addition to food history and recipes, various and sundry explorations and wanderings all over the world—from Mongolia to Morocco and even Michigan. These previous posts on great discoveries in Michigan, historical and culinary, are linked to at the end of this post. But here are a few more places I’ve stopped. (And those posts are why the title is “more of Michigan.”)

A couple of destinations were connected to my research for my book, Midwest Maize. Not too surprisingly, I wanted to visit the birthplace of corn flakes: the Sanitarium created by Dr. John Kellogg in Battle Creek, MI. I knew that the Sanitarium was hugely popular in its day, but even knowing that, I was surprised by its grandeur. Still, it doesn’t really suggest the impact Dr. Kellogg had on the world and how it eats breakfast, but his focus on cold cereal, aided by an economic downturn, convinced much of the world to switch from hot, cooked breakfasts of meat and eggs to a bowl of crispy flakes with milk.

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Not quite as universally recognizable in the world of culture-changers is Chelsea Milling in Chelsea, MI, but this is where Mabel White Holmes, who would become the family-run business’s third president, created the first prepared baking mix products in the U.S. – the now familiar Jiffy Mix line. It was the corn muffins, quite naturally, that drew me to the plant, where I learned that today, during the fall and winter busy season, Chelsea turns out roughly 1.5 million boxes of corn muffin mix per day. Just one more example of why it’s a good thing the Midwest grows a lot of corn. (And note: they do offer free tours.)

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Not connected to my book research, but definitely connected to food and a favored destination most of the times I crossed Michigan is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. I’ve enjoyed the deli, the bakery, the creamery, and the coffee roastery, which are all part of Zingerman’s sprawling universe of exceptional food, but the place I saw most often was Zingerman’s Roadhouse, where the fried green tomatoes and ancho beef chuck chili bordered on addictions, though I did enjoy several other splendid dishes over the years (grits are amazing, and anything from their smokehouse is worthwhile).

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Finally, I think it’s always worthwhile to hunt up venerable, family-run businesses in small, old towns anywhere I travel. To that end, I have on a number of occasions pulled off the highway at Three Oaks, MI, to visit Drier’s Meat Market. Drier’s, a National Historic Site that still has a Drier behind the counter, might be said to have somewhat oblique connection to corn: corn was and is fed to pigs, and pigs are a major part of what they work with at Drier’s. Beautiful hams and sausages are produced according to old, family recipes and are smoked in the century-old smokers on site. If you never try anything else, the ham salad is worth the detour.

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And here are the promised past posts:

Exploring history at absolutely remarkable Greenfield Village: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/michigans-greenfield-village/

Enjoying nature and the culinary scene in Traverse City: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/traverse-city/

Dining at historic stagecoach stops in Michigan and California: https://worldsfare.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/stagecoach-stopovers/

So if you find yourself driving across the Midwest—or anywhere else—do get off the highway occasionally. There are some wonderful things to see, wherever you’re going.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

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

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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Filed under Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Food, History, Video

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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Filed under Corn, Food, Uncategorized, Video

Printers Row Lit Fest

This weekend—June 11 and 12, 2016—is the annual Printers Row Lit Fest, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Millions of books will be on display and for sale, both old and new, plus there will be authors and celebrities on hand, giving talks, signing books, and enjoying what looks to be a beautiful weekend (sunny and 90 degrees).

Also on hand are a wide range of writers groups and literary associations. Among the many organizations represented at the event will be the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (booth 217, not far from the food and dining tent). This organization celebrates and promotes the culinary traditions of the Heartland. I’ll be at their booth on Saturday, from noon to 2pm, signing copies of my book—but possibly more important is that Catherine Lambrecht, founder of the organization (as well as being a founding member of Chicago’s top foodie chat site, LTHforum.com), will be on hand all weekend, sharing about the organization’s goals and some of its projects (including giving awards at state fairs in the Midwest for heirloom recipes). So definitely come and learn more about the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance—and if you’re there while I’m there, stop by and say “hello.”

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance but might not have the chance to come to the Lit Fest, you can learn more at their website. http://www.greatermidwestfoodways.com/ But do hope to see some of you at the fair.

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Filed under Food, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Uncategorized