Category Archives: History

Short Snorter

One item at the Washington Historical Society Museum caught my attention because it was familiar. In a display highlighting the service of a local hero, an Army Air Corps bomber pilot from World War II, they had a Short Snorter. It was only the second one I’d ever seen, the other one having been my father’s.

My dad was also in the Army Air Corps (ancestor of the Air Force) during World War II, and it was the fliers who created these mementos of their time in the service. To make a short snorter, you tape together paper money from every country in which you serve, and then have your friends and fellow fliers sign it. The bills/notes are rolled tightly and kept in one’s pocket, to be handy when another friend was made and needed to sign.

According to the museum display, the owner of the shortest short snorter had to buy a round of drinks when the opportunity arose. My dad’s short snorter is at least twice as long as the one in the museum, which leads me to believe that he rarely had to buy. (And knowing my dad, who loved people and could make friends with anyone, I can imagine the delight with which he added to his short snorter.)

Anyway, I was delighted to see this reminder of my father. It was also nice to see that someone else really had participated in this charming tradition.

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Washington History Society Museum

Next place we visited was the Washington Historical Society Museum. I like small-town museums, but this exceeded expectations—partly because it was such a beautifully and lovingly organized collection and partly because Washington had a history that surpassed my expectation. The region became part of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase and, once settlers began to come, trade on the Missouri River made it prosperous.

The museum highlighted the role the river played in local and national history, local businesses over two centuries, decorative arts, plants and animals, involvement in the Civil War and two World Wars, and more.

The area was largely settled by Germans, so German influence was much in evidence. Two elements of German culture in particular, revealed by impressive displays, fascinated me. The first was the display on the Turn Verein in Washington. I looked these words up, and Turn is from the German Turnen, which means “practice gymnastics” and Verein means “club or union.” So gymnastics club. Old films ran of precision teams doing synchronized exercises. Photos and displays showed equipment and members, and info cards explained a bit of the history. Founded in 1859, the Washington Turn Verein took a break during the Civil War, but then started up again. This was not a local movement, but rather an international phenomenon. From 1878 to 1897, Washington, MO, was the Turn Verein Headquarters for the United States.

Indian Clubs used in gymnastic routines, with photos of gymnasts behind the case.

Then, upstairs, we browsed through antiques, photographic equipment, Native American artifacts, and other local historic items. The largest exhibit, however, was of Franz Schwarzer and his zithers. There was a monitor with a video available—a video which, in fact, had been written and produced by Ralph, my guide for this visit. It revealed a remarkable climb by Schwarzer from local artisan to the best zither maker in the world, with a gold medal from the international competition in Austria. During his very productive career, Schwarzer made approximately 11,000 zithers!

One of the zithers made by Franz Schwarzer.

Astonishing to realize that this relatively small town (about 14,000 residents) was at one time the focus of national and international attention. The world is always so much more interesting than one expects.

And if you’re interested in more info on Washington, the Historical Society website is very good.

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Missouri Meerschaum Corncob Pipes

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/

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest

Visiting Pinckney Bend Distillery

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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

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