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: Midwest Maize
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.
This weekend—June 11 and 12, 2016—is the annual Printers Row Lit Fest, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Millions of books will be on display and for sale, both old and new, plus there will be authors and celebrities on hand, giving talks, signing books, and enjoying what looks to be a beautiful weekend (sunny and 90 degrees).
Also on hand are a wide range of writers groups and literary associations. Among the many organizations represented at the event will be the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (booth 217, not far from the food and dining tent). This organization celebrates and promotes the culinary traditions of the Heartland. I’ll be at their booth on Saturday, from noon to 2pm, signing copies of my book—but possibly more important is that Catherine Lambrecht, founder of the organization (as well as being a founding member of Chicago’s top foodie chat site, LTHforum.com), will be on hand all weekend, sharing about the organization’s goals and some of its projects (including giving awards at state fairs in the Midwest for heirloom recipes). So definitely come and learn more about the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance—and if you’re there while I’m there, stop by and say “hello.”
If you’re interested in knowing more about the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance but might not have the chance to come to the Lit Fest, you can learn more at their website. http://www.greatermidwestfoodways.com/ But do hope to see some of you at the fair.
One of the loveliest aspects of being a writer is the people with whom my work connects me. Most often, this is people I’m interviewing for books and articles, but occasionally, it’s people who approach me because they have enjoyed my writing. Such was the case with Ralph of Pinckney Bend Distillery.
Pinckney Bend crafts whiskey in the style of the 1800s, using heirloom corn, to make it as much like the historic drink as possible. After reading my book, Midwest Maize, which addresses the historic creation of whiskey from corn, Ralph contacted me to let me know he’d read and liked my book and to tell me about their efforts to recreate that sense of history. I love that there is someone who loves history enough to go to this extra effort—to not simply use old methods to produce the product but even growing old types of corn to make certain they’re being historically accurate.
I haven’t yet made it down to Missouri, to visit Pinckney Bend or sample their whiskey, but it has certainly been added to my travel plans for the coming year. I’ve done a bit of re-enacting (American Revolution), regularly visit places that recreate history, such as Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village, and been to a few historic banquets (Elizabethan England, Napoleonic France, and a few visits to the American Civil War), and there is a special joy in tasting something that connects you to an important period of history. At least there is if you love history, and I do.
If you’re interested in knowing more, about the place and the product, here’s a link to the history of Pinckney Bend (good Lewis & Clark story, among other tales), and you can explore their products from there.
In my book, I talk about the origin of the tower silo, how the word originated, and trench silos, which both predated and outlived tower silos. Just to give you a visual of that the creation of silage is like, as well as what is meant by a trench silo, here are the Peterson Farm Brothers handling forage harvesting (the creation of silage) on their Kansas farm.