In my book Destination Heartland I have several “food notes,” one of them about Bierocks and Runzas. I knew they were introduced by Russian-Germans—and I knew they were good. But this episode of Tasting History with Max Miller, Max goes into the background of how those Russian Germans ended up in Kansas and Nebraska. He also teaches you how to make Bierocks. Good fun.
Category Archives: Food
While this blog has grown to include anything about the Midwest, it still focuses primarily on history and food. Of course, the name of the blog does make it clear that corn/maize is where we started. As the author of the book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, I clearly have an interest in that iconic American grain. So I thought I’d share a video on making cornbread 200 years ago. Happily, this video also connects Midwest Maize with my newest work, Destination Heartland, because the historic cooking reenacted here takes place in St. Genevieve, MO, which is featured in the new book. If you, too, like food and history, you may find much to enjoy on this channel. Hope you enjoy this visit to the past.
Much of the fun of travel is discovering new foods. I’ve explored much of the planet and sampled a wide range of specialties, but I have also discovered that one need not go far to find new things. And I’m not referring here to ethnic restaurants (though I love those) but rather to local specialties that are cherished in towns, states, or regions, and that are cornerstones of life, though often hardly found outside their home bases.
One such specialty is South Dakota’s chislic. Chislic is an iconic food, particularly in the southeast corner of the state, especially around Freeman, home of an annual chislic festival. In 2018, chislic was named the “official nosh” of South Dakota. The dish is attributed to German/Russian immigrants who arrived in SD in the 1870s.
The “nosh” designation is because chislic is not a main course. It is essentially bar food. Meat on a stick might sound like shish kabob, but in this case, the meat is in half-inch cubes. Of course, order enough, and it can be a full meal. But mostly, it’s a snack.
Knowing this meant I had to plan to not only try chislic, but try it multiple times—and most especially, in Freeman, at a place almost iconically associated with the dish—Meridian Corner. This popular and attractive restaurant sits alone amid sprawling fields at the corner of Hwy 18 and Hwy 81, They serve full dinners and are known for their steaks, but a lot of folks who stop there are searching for chislic—because here, it is completely traditional, with roots going back to the 1870s. Many places (even Meridian Corner) experiment with other ingredients, but traditional chislic is lamb or mutton, so that’s what I ordered. Small cubes of meat threaded on skewers, deep fried (though some places grill them) and served with soda crackers and garlic salt.
Not as iconic as chislic, but also offered at Meridian Corner, is Fleisch Kuchele, a meat-filled pastry that somewhat resembles a Cornish pasty. So I settled down with one order of mutton chislic, one of lamb chislic, and one of Fleisch Kuchele. Enjoyed it all.
This would not be my last chislic while in South Dakota. I was headed for Sioux Falls, for a couple of days of exploring, and I made a point of looking up a newer spot: Urban Chislic. In this trendy venue, in addition to multiple meat options (lamb, of course, but also beef, chicken, pork, fish, venison, and bison. The meat is still cut in small cubes, but here, it is fried un-skewered and served in a bowl, along with one’s choice of dipping sauce (Thai chili, kung pao, buffalo, ranch, and half a dozen hot, hotter and hottest options). That said, the menu does carry “The 1870,” which is on skewers with saltines and garlic salt. But I’d had that in Freeman, so here, I got lamb and opted for garlic parmesan dip. Very tasty.
So if you get to South Dakota, while there is the usual variety of local and ethnic options, do try to find chislic for at least one eating opportunity. There’s a reason it’s still around after 150 years.
The original White Fence Farm, in Romeoville, IL, essentially has two start dates. In the 1920s, Jack Peabody, who raised horses nearby, opened the restaurant to entertain out-of-town guests. No doubt due to the fact that there weren’t a lot of options in the area, the restaurant already had a substantial fan following by 1926, when Route 66 was opened, bringing ever more visitors to the farm. It was even reviewed by Duncan Hines, who popularized the concept of writing about food for travelers.
Then, in 1954, the farm was sold to Robert Hastert, Sr., and it remains in the Hastert family to the present. This is when the switch was made from burgers to chicken (chicken was still pretty much a luxury in the 1920s, hence the appeal of the promise of a chicken in every pot during the 1928 presidential race).
Today, it is a combination of history and reputation that bring people to the farm, whether the history of the area, the restaurant, or Route 66. In time, other White Fence Farm locations were opened, but the location in Romeoville is the original. And white fences still set off the farm from the surrounding green fields.
In addition to history, the fried chicken is the big draw here—but eating is not all there is to do. In the summer, there is an outdoor petting zoo, and year ‘round, the inside is filled with antiques, including vintage cars (remembering the Route 66 days), the Peabody collection of Currier and Ives prints, and examples of a wide range of once-common items, primarily dating to the early 1900s, from grandfather clocks to washing machines, toys to farm equipment. So a fun place to wander.
But if you do want to eat, the fried chicken is iconic. It has a crisp crust, rather than the heavy breading one generally expects (and nothing wrong with good breading, it’s just different), and meals are served with classic, old-time staples such as three-bean salad, pickled beets, coleslaw, and corn fritters. The spread in the photo shows “only” four pieces of chicken, because I was dining alone.
This may not be what is known as “destination dining,” but it’s a charming place that offers a fun bit of local history, whether you’re simply enjoying a day in the country, are a fan of Route 66, or are simply visiting the area for other historic sites (such as Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville or several excellent historic options in nearby Joliet).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.