Category Archives: Food

Memories and Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

I live in Illinois, where the state dessert is pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is almost upon us. So I have two good reasons to talk about that tasty orange dessert.

As I child, I assumed my mom’s pumpkin pie was the only form of pumpkin pie. The first time I had a “normal” pie, the classic custard version. I thought that it somehow hadn’t turned out right. I figured my hosts must be horrified, but I had been raised to believe if you couldn’t say anything nice, you just smiled and said nothing. It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t right—though in time I learned that this “failed” pie was what most people expected. All these years, I had been eating something quite different, something more ethereal, and, in my opinion, more wonderful. I had been eating pumpkin chiffon pie. And as glorious as the light, airy pumpkin chiffon filling was, the crust was also remarkable—a rich, crisp, buttery crust made with crushed vanilla wafers.

I have since learned to enjoy the type of pumpkin pie I once thought to be failed, but as an adult, the first time I hosted Thanksgiving, I of course had to create mom’s pie. (And it’s still my favorite.) Happily, mom was more than pleased to pass along the details. And now, as mom, age 95, approaches her last Thanksgiving, I am pleased to share the details with you, to carry on her legacy of this delightful pie.

This makes one 9-inch pie.

Crust

1-1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (roughly 35 vanilla wafers)

1/4 cup sugar

6 tablespoons melted butter

Combine the crumbs, sugar, and melted butter until well blended. Press into your pie tin, spreading evenly, though a tiny bit thicker where the sides turn upward from the pan bottom. Bake in a 350˚ oven for 10 minutes. Cool completely before adding filling.

Note: To make crumbs, you can either spin the cookies in your food processor or you can just put them in a large, sealable plastic bag and roll over them with a rolling pin until fine crumbs are formed.

Filling

1 tablespoon gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

3 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar, divided in half

1-1/4 cups canned or cooked pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)

1/2 cup milk

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger

Whipped cream as garnish

Put gelatin in cold water to soak. Set aside. Beat the 3 egg yolks slightly, then stir in 1/2-cup sugar, pumpkin, milk, salt, and spices. Place this mixture, over boiling water in the top of a double boiler, cooking and stirring until thick. Then add in the soaked gelatin stirring until dissolved. Remove from heat. Put in fridge to chill. When mixture begins to set, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gradually stir in 1/2-cup sugar, and then fold beaten eggs whites into the pumpkin mixture. Fill the prepared crumb crust, and chill pie for several hours to set. Serve with whipped cream.

Note: Because this filling is not cooked, you will want to get fresh, high-quality eggs, or, if you’re concerned about eating raw eggs, you can look for pasteurized eggs.

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New Book Ready for Pre-Order

Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).

This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!

Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.

University of Illinois Press

Amazon

Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.

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Walnut Cheese

If you’re always on the lookout for something, you’re likely to find it. For me, history, beauty, and food are among the things for which I am generally on the lookout. As a result, I usually find one or more of these things. For example, when I was invited to speak a while back in Will County, I noticed that they had a display of locally produced foods. I bought some of their cheese, all made in Walnut, Illinois. I looked up Walnut, found where it was located, and next time I had a speaking engagement in that general direction, I sought them out.

Walnut Cheese’s chalet

One might expect to see this in Wisconsin, but there it was in Central Illinois—a Swiss chalet, with a cow perched on the balcony. The founder was, in fact, Swiss, so this was a touch of home at one time. Inside, it looked even more Swiss, with handsome wood décor and cow bells hanging overhead. And lots of cheese. Happily, they had plenty of the yummy blue cheese that I’d picked up in Will County, and I bought more of that, as well as some Havarti. I also tried some of their less conventional cheeses, including a lovely sharp cheddar with cherries.

Lots of charm–and cheese–inside the chalet.

Granted, this is not a staggering, mind-blowing cheese pavilion like Mars Cheese Castle in Wisconsin, but it’s a lovely surprise in a place I didn’t think to look for a chalet or a selection of cheeses. It was another reminder that there are fun things to be discovered everywhere. And even a little adventure is a good thing.

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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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A New Use for Cornstarch: Scrambled Eggs

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.

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Advertising Frustrations

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.

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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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The Storm

Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
storm3.jpg
The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.

Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.

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Shrimp de Jonghe

In March, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Library about Midwestern food. I was happy to oblige, because this is a topic that is dear to my heart but also something about which there are many misconceptions.

The ethnic makeup of the Midwest is stunningly varied. In the 1800s in particular, people flooded in from dozens of countries, bringing interesting foods and traditions. From pasties in Michigan to bratwurst in Wisconsin, Italian beef in Chicago to barbecue in Missouri. Then there are the indigenous foods, such as wild rice, pecans, common beans, and, of course, maize/corn.

In addition to these are the foods created by imaginative chefs, who were already multiplying in the 1800s. One fabulous dish that few realize is actually a local classic is Shrimp de Jonghe. The restaurant at Chicago’s De Jonghe’s Hotel was fabulously popular from the 1890s to the 1920s. The De Jonghe family had emigrated from Belgium in 1891, and it was Henri de Jonghe who was credited with the shrimp dish that continues to appear on menus both in and far from the city of its birth. (Though it is likely that the hotel’s chef, Emile Zehr, had a hand in developing the dish.) It surprises many when they learn that this lovely, garlicky dish arose in the Heartland.

Also worth noting is that it gives some idea how remarkably transportation had improved by the late 1800s. Because shrimp are extremely perishable. They die when taken out of the water and decay quickly once dead. It wasn’t until the invention of refrigerated train cars that it was possible to speed this delicate creature to distant markets. Today, U.S. is both the largest producer of shrimp and the largest consumer. Americans love shrimp, downing hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Of aquatic comestibles, only canned tuna outranks shrimp in quantities consumed in the U.S. The recipe below offers you the opportunity to be among those who are elevating those statistics.

Shrimp de Jonghe
1-1/4 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 Tbs. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs. shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, checking first to make sure one of the shelves is in the center.

Butter a shallow, 1-quart baking dish—or, if you have them, several individual-sized baking dishes.

Blanch the shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain them in a colander. Run them under cold water until cool (to stop cooking).

Soften the butter with a fork. Beat in the garlic, shallots, and salt. When thoroughly blended, add the remaining ingredients (except the shrimp) and blend well. (If you make a large amount of this–say double or triple the recipe–you could do all this in a food processor.)

If the shrimp have not dried sufficiently in the colander, pat dry. Then, arrange the shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish or dishes. Dot/spread the butter-and-crumb mixture over the shrimp, making sure that all shrimp have at least some of the mixture on it.

Bake until shrimp are fully cooked and the topping has become lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

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