No –not pigs that talk — just me talking about pigs, and about my book Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. A while back, Brian O’Keefe at WDCB radio in Wheaton, IL, talked to me about my corn book. Happily, he thought that went well enough to warrant a discussion of my new book. So here’s the interview.
Category Archives: Food
My first experience of Fred Harvey’s work was as a child, driving with my family across Illinois. Every now and again, the highway is crossed by an oasis, a structure that bridges the highway and offers gasoline, restrooms, and food. Today, the food is an array of fast-food places, but when I was young, the entire dining area was a Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey’s restaurants were nice places, with white tablecloths and good food. In the 1950s, people who weren’t even traveling would go to the oases to eat at Fred Harvey restaurants.
By the time I was experiencing them, the restaurants were run by Harvey’s sons, as Harvey had died in 1901. But Fred Harvey was famous, not only in his day, but long afterwards. He was the man who invented the restaurant chain, but more than that, he was the man who tamed the wild west.
During the Civil War, Harvey, who had experience in the restaurant business, had witnessed the importance of railways but also saw that feeding travelers was a real problem. (This was before trains had dining cars.) He came up with the idea of creating and running restaurants in train depots, starting with the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, which connected Kansas (Atchison and Topeka) with the rapidly opening West. He brought in fine china and imported linens, as well as good cooks, but the juicy steaks the menu featured were not the key element of his operation. He brought in hundreds of Harvey Girls to serve in the restaurants. Knowing of the serious shortage of females on the frontier (and at this time, Kansas was still the frontier), many single women were eager for the opportunity the restaurants afforded. Uniforms (iconic outfits with black dresses and starched white aprons), accommodations, and transportation were all supplied, as well as a salary. Contracts simply required the girls to work for one year before leaving to accept a marriage proposal. Starting in Topeka in 1876, by 1891, Harvey had 15 locations.
The restaurants and their efficient, well-trained servers became so much a part of Western culture that they became the subject of a 1946 movie titled (not too surprisingly) The Harvey Girls, starring (among others) Judy Garland. The movie’s best-known song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” won an Academy Award.
Here’s a trailer for the movie, just to give you an idea how big Fred Harvey’s idea was.
If you want to know more and happen to be in Kansas, there is a National Fred Harvey Museum in Leavenworth. Alternatively, you could pick up Stephen Fried’s book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time (Bantam; 2010).
But it is a remarkable bit of history.
Driving through the Flint Hills, I was again delighted by their beauty. As I drove, I was reminded of an observation, stated in a variety of ways: that Europe may have more years than the U.S., but the U.S. has more miles. Crossing so much of the Midwest, I have been vividly aware of how true that is.
Today, I was heading to another historic town: Council Grove. I was definitely not going to have enough time here, as I had to keep going (promises made sometimes drive schedules). I would not have a chance to visit a number of museums and historic buildings that sounded interesting, but I was determined to visit Hays House Restaurant, the oldest continuously operational restaurant west of the Mississippi. But antiquity isn’t the only thing remarkable about Hays House. The builder, Seth Hays, was Daniel Boone’s great-grandson and Kit Carson’s cousin—so a little bit of extra history there. When Hays arrived here in 1847, he was also the first white settler of Council Grove. He had been sent to trade with the Kansa Indians (also known as the Kaw—the people for whom Kansas was named). He soon found himself also handling steadily increasing traffic along the Santa Fe Trail, on which Council Groves sits.
Hays initially built a log cabin and trading post, but by 1856, he needed to expand, as the numbers traveling on the Santa Fe Trail had grown so much. That’s when he built the restaurant that still bears his name. Then, in 1867, after 20 years in the log cabin, Hays built a brick house for himself, which today houses the museum of the Morris County Historical Society. In addition to the restaurant, Hays also started a newspaper for the town and opened the first bank.
Council Grove is as charming as one might hope. I drove through, admiring the layers of history evident in the tidy little town. I parked near Hays House and walked around a bit, discovering a few other places to add to my “next time” list, and then headed for the restaurant. It was too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, but there were still a few folks in the place. I asked the waitress what the fastest thing was I could order. She said biscuits and gravy. While I have a particular fondness for my own sausage gravy, this dish is usually reliably tasty just about everywhere, so I said yes, plus coffee. Still a long drive ahead. Enjoyed my late breakfast, and was delighted when the waitress offered me a large, lidded cup of iced water for the hours ahead on the road. Then I had to leave.
Definitely need to get back here sometime, to explore further. But I had an appointment in Kansas City, so I had to keep on moving.
Below are photos of the front of the restaurant, on the town’s main street, the National Historic Marker for the Santa Fe Trail, and an interior shot that reveals a bit of the older wood from which the building was built. Somehow, perhaps because I grew up with stories of Daniel Boone and the Santa Fe Trail, it seemed every bit as remarkable to be here as it did to visit much older places in Asia and Europe, to which I did not have quite so strong a cultural connection.
To a greater extent than possibly any other Midwestern state, African Americans were a key element of early Kansas history. Prior to the Civil War, the people settling Kansas wanted to create a free state, where African Americans could be safe. Neighboring slave state, Missouri, was just as determined in their efforts to spread slavery to the new state. This led to armed conflict even before the Civil War, and the state became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
But Kansas was a safe, or at least safer, place for African Americans, both those escaping slavery and those already free, and after the Civil War, there was a major influx. A number of all-African American towns were created, of which Nicodemus is the only one remaining. The famous Buffalo Soldiers were brought together at Fort Leavenworth, KS, to form the 9th and 10th Cavalry. It was the Native Americans who called the African American cavalry troops Buffalo Soldiers, though the reason is not certain. Some say it is because of the similarity of their hair to the curly coats of the American buffalo (aka bison), some say it was because of the buffalo robes they wore in the winter, and others that it was because they fought as fiercely as a wounded buffalo. Whatever the real reason for the name, the Buffalo soldiers established a reputation as being among the best troops in the West.
Knowing this history of Kansas and African Americans, I had arranged to visit The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM) while in Wichita. This museum is a relatively recent project, but the building that houses it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1917, the Calvary Baptist Church became a cornerstone of the city’s African American community. When it ceased to operate as a church, it was seen as the ideal location for commemorating the history of African Americans in Kansas and across the U.S.
Because I was doing some actual research in town (working on a new book—so stay tuned), I had been offered a guide. I had the great good fortune to spend my time at the museum with Dr. Lona Reeves, who was delightful, knowledgeable, and happy to share from her vast store of insights and experience.
We started on the ground floor, which is mostly reserved for events. However, the walls are hung with artwork by contemporary African American artist, and at the back of the room, there are displays of objects—mostly wooden carvings—from Africa. Then we headed to the second floor, where photographs and biographies are hung all the way around the perimeter, recounting people and events of significance, largely but not only from Kansas.
Because of the move of so many African Americans to Kansas, among those biographies there was a remarkable range of famous people who were born in or moved to or lived in Kansas at some point. Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American to win an Oscar, was born in Wichita. George Washington Carver moved to Kansas at age 13. Photographer and first African American Hollywood director Gordon Parks was born in Kansas, as was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Famously associated with Harlem, Langston Hughes lived in Lawrence, KS, for many years. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, KS. It was lovely seeing so many “firsts” and remarkable accomplishments memorialized.
There were a fair number of things that were new to me. I learned that Ronald Waters helped stage the first successful sit-in—which was done in Wichita well before the more famous one that occurred in North Carolina. (The down side of remoteness is that heroic actions may not get noticed by major media.) Buffalo soldier Ruben Waller was born into slavery, gained his freedom, had a successful military career, and lived to 105. Oscar Micheaux, the first African American movie maker, produced a movie in answer to the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” One of my favorite surprises (being primarily a food historian) was Junius Groves, who was an agricultural scientist and entrepreneur who was once known as “the potato king of the world,” and who became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the U.S.
At one spot, Lona Reeves pointed to a photo and told me the man pictured was a relative. It was Bass Reeves. I was happy to be able to tell her that I knew who Bass Reeves was, thanks to The History Guy on YouTube. Dr. Reeves was delighted to learn that there was a video recounting this history. Here’s the video I had seen—relating the tale of this real-life Lone Ranger. (And also making it clear that a lot of cowboys were African American.)
After my tour, I met with Ted Ayres, who told me about the Kansas African American History Trail project that he coordinates. Hoping to get more people, including African Americans, interested in this history, museums and historic sites on the “trail” issue “passports,” which get stamped each time you visit a new location. Like so many people who want to reach a larger audience, they have turned to the Internet, and here is a video (the first of two) to introduce people to the idea of the History Trail.
Vastly more could be shared—but I figure I need to leave something for you to discover on your own. But now I have my History Trail passport with the first stamp on it.
If you’ve read my book Midwest Maize, you’ll know that there was a massive oyster craze in the Midwest during the mid-1800s. (And if you haven’t read it, know that there really is a connection between oysters and corn at this time.)
Anyway, once canning existed and began to become more widely available (even though cans were being cut and assembled by hand), thanks to the country’s extensive train networks, luxuries from the East Coast began to flood into the Heartland. People who had nothing else in common shared the passion for oysters, and oyster bars popped up in both large and small towns. Here is the evidence of this craze from Old Cowtown Museum.
The name alone should make you want to go. Wichita. How many stories of cattlemen and trail rides and early railroads haunted our childhoods, all anchored in Wichita? The history is still accessible, but there is so much more than that.
If you’re arriving from the north, as I was, you’ll notice that the vegetation has changed. It’s more southern. However, the clear air and bright, open spaces, as well as a fair bit of the architecture, are reminiscent of the southwest. In other words, for me, it felt like a holiday even before I started exploring.
The old Chisholm Trail, now renamed Douglas Street, connects the charming, mostly brick Historic Old Town with the one-time rowdy Historic Delano District (pronounced De-LAY-no). Delano, originally a separate town, is the part of Wichita where the Chisholm Trail entered town and cowboys stopped to party—and for many years, older Wichita tried to keep its distance from the more rough-and-tumble Delano. But today, both Old Town and Delano are attractive and loaded with historic buildings, new coffee shops, and good restaurants. I drove the length of Douglas a couple of times, to get a sense of how the two districts were alike and different, and to see what each offered.
Because Wichita gave the world both Pizza Hut and White Castle, you might think the food scene would be disappointing. It wasn’t. Farm-to-table is alive and well, and there is considerable ethnic diversity. A short stay meant I couldn’t try much, but I had a couple of very good meals and saw a lot of places I’d try if (when) I return. Public at the Brickyard is a brick-walled basement establishment in the Historic Old Town end of town. With farms and purveyors named with each ingredient (Creekstone Farms 1/2 pound steak burger, Alma Creamery aged cheddar, Serenity Farm green tomato relish, caramelized onions, crispy lettuce, Bagatelle Bakery sesame-seed bun), it was not a surprise that the burger was far from ordinary. Another night, I opted for a nice bowl of pho at My Tho, a small Vietnamese spot (cash only). Of course, proximity to both the Southwest and Kansas City meant there were lots of well-established Mexican restaurants and BBQ joints, as well. So plenty of options.
But while good food was a nice bonus, I was in town for history. Speaking of the Chisholm Trail, one of the many remarkable things I learned was that Jesse Chisholm, the half Scottish-half Cherokee man who blazed the trail, was illiterate but spoke 14 Indian languages. As a result, he was often called the prairie ambassador, as he could talk to almost any group. A trader, guide, and interpreter, he was valuable to both locals and the government. Though the Chisholm Trail became famous for the cattle drives that moved along it, Chisholm actually created the trail to trade goods with the Plains Indians across Kansas and Texas and into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
But that’s just a drop of what I learned in town. There are a lot of museums in Wichita, ranging from modest to impressive—and among the ones I saw, there were some surprises. For example, how did a city once nicknamed Cowtown end up as the Aviation Capital of the World? In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about Wichita, but I’ll also include some of the things I learned and experienced. It was a short stay, but it was remarkably full.
Here is a photo I took that I hoped would capture a bit of the dichotomy of Wichita. It is not just Old Town vs. Delano. It is also a bright, modern city still vividly aware of and involved in its history. The statue, which stands at the junction of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas Rivers, is called Keeper of the Plains.
I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.
Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.
Here’s Destin’s video.