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 hundreds of books submitted, is still gratifying.
Category Archives: Food
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/
Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about having heard from a distiller in New Haven, Missouri. Ralph Haynes of Pinckney Bend Distillery had left an enthusiastic review on Amazon of my book, Midwest Maize, and had then contacted me about my book having encouraged him and his partners in their pursuit of whiskeys made from heirloom corn, which are recreating the tastes of the 1800s. (Three bottles of this heirloom corn are shown above, with the type of corn identified on the bottom label. The Wapsie Valley was my favorite.) At the time, he suggested I come down to New Haven, to check out the whiskey and to enjoy some of the very picturesque area—and maybe even do a presentation about corn.
Last year, it seemed unlikely that I’d get there, but when a conference appeared on my calendar that was taking me about that far south, though a bit to the east (Louisville, KY, to be exist – more on this on my The World’s Fare blog), I thought I might come home by way of Missouri. Ralph’s wife, who managed the local library district, arranged for the offered presentation opportunity, so I got to do my “How Corn Changed Itself and Then Changed Everything Else” talk for a most appreciative local crowd.
The distillery is just a few yards from the Missouri River, at the end of a street of historic buildings and just off the Lewis and Clark Trail. So I was delighted with the location, even without having a distillery close at hand. And within the distillery, in addition to gleaming stills and colorful heirloom corn varieties, there were maps and tales of the meandering Missouri River and steamboats that were sunk by the river’s snags and bends. (In the photo below, the river feature called Pinckney Bend is in the center, and you can see that, even when the river changed its course, it still “bent” at this spot.)
There were also a lot of antiques related to corn growing and processing, including shellers and jabbers, which I talk about in my book, so I was really having fun. Plus the modern equipment is remarkably handsome. They have two stills, one slightly larger than the other. The one below is the smaller of the two stills.
Of course, I did get to try some of the elegant whiskeys produced by Pinckney Bend, as well as their gin, and I toured their facility. But Ralph had also planned a few other things for me to see, both with him and on my own. So it was a lovely few days of exploring—as you’ll see over the next few posts.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.