Category Archives: Thoughts

New Book Coming

While this blog is titled Midwest Maize, after my first book of food history, it will have to do for future food history and Midwest-oriented books, as I can’t quite imagine starting a new blog with every book.

Which is why I’m using it to introduce my next book: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. The book won’t be out for a couple of months, but it is already on Amazon, with a few reviews and the option of pre-ordering. So in case you thought I might have stopped studying after I wrote about corn, I didn’t.

Pigs were once known as cornfields on legs, because the easiest way to get pigs to market was to feed it to pigs and then let the pigs walk to market. So the connection between pigs and corn in the Midwest dates to the earliest settlement of the region. However, the history of humans and pigs dates back a lot longer than that–current estimate is 12,000 years of association. So there are a lot of tales of pigs through history, from the Celts inventing bacon to the Etruscans leading herds by playing trumpets. But the book isn’t all history. There are visits to farms and interviews with experts ranging from swine technicians to butchers and chefs to waste management specialists. There are some iconic regional recipes. And there are lot of the kinds of fun facts that make food history so enthralling.

On top of entertaining folks, I’m hoping this book will contribute to closing the gap between what people think about food and how it actually gets to us. There are a tremendous number of really good, decent, dedicated people working very hard to make sure you don’t starve. Come and meet a few of them in my books.

You can check it out here: Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Literature, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Thoughts

2017 Eric Hoffer Award

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 thousands of books submitted, is still gratifying.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Language, Literature, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Recipe, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Memories and Nueske’s

Growing up in Illinois, it seemed as though our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, was almost as big a part of my life as my own state. I spent summers for nine years camping in the North Woods. Cousins of my mother’s had a cabin in Wisconsin, and we visited them. Vacations when my brother and I were very young (even before my camping days) often involved Wisconsin, both at “attractions,” including the Wisconsin Dells, and relaxing escapes to small lakeside cottages, where swimming and fishing were the big delights. Much later, my parents lived in Wisconsin for a few years, when my dad was sent there to help build up a small candy company (it was during this time that I discovered the joys of Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin). And I have always found something to draw me northward, from the Wisconsin State Fair to the House on the Rock to the places mentioned previously in this blog.

Food was also always part of the fun. Many folks may think first of cheese when they think of Wisconsin—after all, it is the dairy state, and it does create some absolutely sensational cheeses. A stop at the Mars Cheese Castle is a requirement. But many of us think just as frequently, and definitely as fondly, of the German influence so evident everywhere, including in the making of sausages and smoked meats. My dad loved dining out, and the famous German restaurants in Milwaukee were a big draw. I can still remember my first dinner at Mader’s—and I still have the cookbook dad got me on that visit. (We won’t talk about how long ago that was.)

On a recent drive across Wisconsin, as I neared Wittenberg, I turned my wheels toward one of the many German-influenced culinary delights the state offers: Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats. While Nueske’s is probably best known for their bacon, they make a wide range of smoked delights, some of which are only available at their handsome headquarters. Here, the original smokehouse, used by the first generations of Nueske’s nearly a century ago, has been kept as a memento of their history, because they smoke far too much meat these days for it to handle the demand. Still, it is a fairly small company, family owned and true to its heritage.

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In addition to an impressive array of meats inside, during the summer, there is a “mobile home” out front, a log cabin on a truck bed, that serves up great sandwiches and smoky baked beans for those who stop by.

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So while it’s not a “destination” in the sense that anyone would plan a trip there, it is definitely a great place to stop if you’re in the area.

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International Crane Foundation

Normally, when I get an issue of National Geographic, while I might be sent dreaming, I rarely have the opportunity to just jump in the car and follow up on a feature article. But then there was the issue where the lead article and cover photo were from the International Crane Foundation (ICF), which is in Wisconsin, just a few hours north of where I live. So the next weekend found me heading northward, to the only place in the world where you can see every species of crane there is.

I had seen the brolga (Australian crane) during my several visits Down Under. The African gray crowned crane was familiar from a number of zoos, but they’re so fabulous looking, it’s always fun seeing them.

African gray crowned cranes

African gray crowned cranes

I was familiar with sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, but seeing them up close was grand. Many of the cranes, however, were unfamiliar to me—the demoiselle crane, blue crans, wattled crane, hooded crane, black-necked crane, white-naped crane, saurus crane, and the African black crowned crane, rarer than his gray cousin.

Wattled crane

Wattled crane

Blue cranes

Blue cranes

There was a tremendous amount of information available, from guides, bird handlers, and displays. The visit ended up triggering other trips, to places where cranes nest or flyways that they stop during migration.

In addition to the cranes, the ICF has man acres of restored savannah, open wetland, and restored prairie, where one can hike for hours, admiring indigenous trees, flowers, and birds in the wild.

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

If you’re fortunate enough to be there in the spring, when eggs are hatching, you might get to witness the teaching of chicks to drink and eat. A crane will only hatch one egg, so the staff will rescue the unhatched egg, hatch it in an incubator, and then use a puppet to seem like a parent bird when teaching the chick basic life skills.

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

The ICF website includes photos, background, and information for visiting. https://www.savingcranes.org/

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Ray Bradbury and Carnegie Library

In July of last year, I posted about the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of libraries he built with the money he made, as a demonstration of his belief that education was vital to success. Iconic, award-winning American fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was among the millions who benefited from having a local Carnegie Library.

Born in Waukegan, IL, in 1920, Bradbury had started writing by the time he was eleven. He was an avid reader, and he spent much of his childhood at the Carnegie Library in Waukegan. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury once said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Bradbury’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Bradbury became incredibly famous, with awards ranging from the Pulitzer to an Oscar. His fans are legion.

Today, the Waukegan Carnegie Library is in disrepair, but efforts have begun to restore and renovate it, not just as a library, but as a memorial to Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc., has as its goal the creation of a “Theater of the mind,” where one can admire the restored library but also have a memorable “Ray Bradbury experience.”

At this stage, the library is not yet available for visitors, but the organization that is doing the renovation is hoping that they can interest both scholars and donors in contributing to their efforts to bring “Bradbury’s library” to life. To donate or to sign up for their email newsletter, visit http://www.bradburycarnegie.org/ (not just for project updates, but also for information on opportunities, such as tours of Bradbury’s Waukegan or presentations on Bradbury’s work). Of course, if you live nearby, if you’re a fan of Bradbury or Carnegie, they’d be glad to have you join the team.

 

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November on the Farm

As grass dies in the fields, farm animals become increasingly reliant on food provided by farmers. Of course, that’s looking at larger farm operations. Throughout history and around the world, for those who live in colder climates, the two most common solutions were bring the animals into the house with the family, to stay warm, or slaughter animals as winter approaches, so you don’t have to worry about feeding them.

In places where resources do not permit the gathering in of fodder for livestock, animals die in harsh winters. This was true when North America was first being settled (because the 1600s were still part of the Little Ice Age), and it is true today in countries that rely entirely on grazing their animals. When I was traveling in Mongolia, I learned that during a particularly harsh winter (known as a zud), the domesticated animals die of starvation by the thousands and even millions, as they can’t get through the ice and snow to any remnants of grass. Of course, this means people die of starvation, too. So having something to feed animals when pastures are not available is vital to survival.

In this video, the Peterson Farm Brothers talk about feeding their cattle. One of the things they use is distillers grains. In making both whiskey and biofuel, only the starch in the corn is used, and all the protein and fat is left behind. It’s an ideal way to boost the protein content of animal feed—and also keeps it from being dumped into landfill. Just one more example of how efficient most modern operations are.

Hope you enjoy “Life of a Farmer” for November.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Thoughts, Video

Back to Bloomington, Illinois

As I noted in a much earlier post, the McLean County History Museum in Bloomington, IL, is where I started the serious research for my book. Happily, the folks at the museum were pleased with how the book turned out, and they invited me to come down and give the presentation I’d worked up to share with audiences just how amazing the story of corn is, its impact on history, and how many aspects of our lives it touches every day.

Among those reached by the museum’s promotional efforts were Herb and Pamala Eaton, owners of the Eaton Studio and Gallery in Bloomington. Herb and Pamala forwarded a note to me through the museum, inviting me to visit their gallery, to talk about corn. Herb is an artist and poet, and while his artwork covers a range of subjects, one of his favorite things to paint and sculpt is corn. So the Eatons figured we’d have a few things to talk about.

We enjoyed iced tea flavored with mint from their garden and sat amid art projects while talking about the golden grain—a customer who came in joining in the discussion. While Herb’s interest in corn is primarily visual—how it dances in the wind, the soft gold of the silks, the green of the fields—he was remarkably knowledgeable about corn’s impact in the Midwest, so we did have a lovely chat.

I must say that, while the photos included on the Eaton Studio and Gallery website give a good overview of Herb Eaton’s work, it doesn’t include my favorite pieces of corn art. So you may just have to visit Bloomington, if you want to see everything—and want to meet Herb and Pamala, which is definitely worthwhile.

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