Category Archives: Thoughts

Memories and Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

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.

Crust

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.

Filling

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.

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Filed under Food, Recipe, Thoughts

New Book Ready for Pre-Order

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.

University of Illinois Press

Amazon

Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.

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Filed under Food, Geography, History, Midwest, Recipe, Thoughts, Travel

Giants in the Earth

It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.

It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.

The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.

Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)

The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.

As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.

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Filed under Culture, History, Literature, Midwest, Thoughts

Advertising Frustrations

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.

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Filed under Agriculture, Farming, Food, pigs, pork, Thoughts

Why I Love Farmers

Having traveled around much of the Midwest, interviewing farmers for my food history books and articles, I have come to admire and love them. I also love the values they represent. In my book Midwest Maize, I included a story about one Nebraska farmer who shared with me how she benefited from the openness and generosity of other farmers. She also related that  it was common for people in the area helped each other out, and suggested one reason why. It is part of the ethos, of course, but looking after each other is, in remote areas, a way to survive.

Relying on each other makes one kinder and more grateful. I’m sure there is also an element of farming itself, doing something that is “real” and that so clearly benefits others, contributes to the strength and character of the people who farm. So when this video popped up, while I was touched, I was not really surprised at the kindness and solidarity expressed.

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, Midwest, Thoughts, Video

A Bit of Derecho History

It’s always interesting when you learn about something that suddenly pops up again. Last summer, while traveling through Minnesota, I visited the Forest History Center, where I learned about something called a “blowdown.” It was explained that a blowdown is a derecho that hits a heavily forested area, because it blows down all the trees. This led to my looking up derecho, which comes from the Spanish for “straight,” because it is a high wind that blows straight, rather than swirling, as with a tornado.

The display at the Forest History Center showed stunning photos from a blowdown that hit northern Minnesota, moved across the Boundary Waters and swept into Canada in 1999. This one storm flattened nearly 500,000 acres of trees. The display noted that this area was greater than the area destroyed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

That storm, however, was far from alone. There was a blowdown in the Adirondacks in 1995, when a derecho leveled 150,000 acres of forest, but the so-called Big Blowdown in the Adirondacks was in 1950, when a derecho flattened 800,000 acres of timber.

So when the term “derecho” popped up on the news, I was ready to be horrified. What surprised me, as I looked into it more, is that I hadn’t heard more about this phenomenon before, because these storms have occurred with some frequency in the U.S. I wondered if it was because they were so often in less populated areas, or whether it might be because they were generally a surprise, rather than offering the long, dramatic build-up we usually see for a hurricane.

The storm was first described and given its name in 1877 by Dr. Gustavus Detlef Hinricks, a professor at the University of Iowa and founder of Iowa’s first weather service, following the appearance of this type of storm in Iowa in that year.

The thing that strikes me is how resilient both forests and humans are. Because all the blown-down forests have grown back and cities and towns have been rebuilt, and hence we are surprised by the new destruction, because both nature and humans have forgotten. And yet I have also been reminded of that resilience, as videos start to pop up with efforts well under way to rebuild after this most recent storm.

Praying that all those affected by this most recent derecho recover quickly. Simply knowing that a phenomenon is natural and even relatively common does not make it any less horrifying.

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Filed under Geography, History, Language, Thoughts, Uncategorized

More on the Storm

Perhaps it is because I have developed a deep affection for Iowa over the several years that I’ve been writing about Midwestern agriculture. Or maybe it’s because I was actually in the part of Iowa hardest hit by the storm only five weeks before the storm, so it feels like a friend that has been attacked.

Once again, it is good to remember that the storm wasn’t just the wind speed and statistics. It hit individuals. Here is another video that just popped up of a young man stuck inside his place of business when the storm hit–and until the place of business vanished.

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Filed under Geography, Midwest, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Video

Heritage Radio Talks Heartland

The great food radio organization, Heritage Radio Network, is putting together a delightful new series titled “Eat Your Heartland Out.” This series of podcasts will include interviews with a wide range of experts on topics related to the food, culture, and history of the Greater Midwest. Happily, they invited me to comment on the diversity and abundance of the Midwest, which is one of my favorite themes.

If you’re interested to hear not only what I have to say but also what a couple of other experts think, the link is below. Note that, in this introductory entry, we’re kind of all over the place, as far as time frame. I’m mostly talking 1800s, but Lucy Long talks about Green Bean Casserole, which didn’t come along until 1955. So pretty diverse approaches.

Enjoy. https://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/welcome-to-the-heartland-an-introduction-to-midwestern-foodways/

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Beck’s “Why I Farm” Series

Beck’s Hybrids is a seed company that serves much of the Midwest, plus Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve seen their signs at the sides of fields as I’ve driven around the Midwest, doing research for various books. But it was on YouTube that I really came to love them. A few years ago, they started a series of videos titled “Why I Farm,” featuring farmers in the region they cover—they actually sent someone out on the road to do interviews and record images—and the videos are wonderful. They are remarkably well made, with beautiful images and heartwarming stories of families who have been on the land for many generations, making sure the rest of us have enough to eat. Thought I’d share a couple here, but then you can just go to YouTube, search for Why I Farm, and see some of the others. I’m grateful to Beck’s for their having made these videos. We need to know farmers and appreciate them. And for what it’s worth, my experience with farmers as I’ve traveled around the region matches what is shown in these videos—solid, hard-working, loving, generous, open, creative, smart, God-fearing people who see themselves as stewards of the land and cherish what they do. Perhaps it is my own experience with farmers that makes these videos resonate. But I’m hoping they’ll appeal to others, as well.

Of the two I picked, the first one is very short, just to get you started—you can pick longer ones if you enjoy these as much as I do. The second one I included because it’s fun—a seventh-generation farm family that also makes great music, in this case, a song they wrote as response to the Why I Farm project. Because farmers can do a lot more than till the soil. Oh—and all the photos they show in the music video are from the family of those who are singing. Because they are real farmers.

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Video

Topeka Stop

I’d stopped in Topeka en route to Wichita at the urging of a friend who grew up nearby. I had not originally planned on this stop, but my friend said two things were absolutely worth seeing: the Kansas Museum of History and the Kansas State Capitol. So I wedged another half day into to my driving plan—and I was pleased that I did. I definitely agree that my friend’s choices were outstanding.

The museum was first. What seemed like a relatively small temporary exhibit took a surprising amount of time, as it offered a remarkable amount of history. For each of the 105 counties of Kansas, there was a story of a significant event or person, as well as some background on the county. For example, the death in 1872 of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, probably influenced the naming of the counties of Horace, Greeley, and Tribune—primarily because he was a noted abolitionist, which was an important cause in Kansas.

That was a fun bit of information, but most of the counties were represented by historic firsts, remarkable discoveries, or important events. For example, Sumner county gave women the vote in 1887. Soon thereafter, the Quaker town of Argonia in Sumner County elected Susanna Madora Salter the first woman mayor in the United States.

Dr. Brewster Higley, who lived in Smith County, was probably a good doctor, but he is best known for a poem he published in 1872 titled “My Western Home.” Friend Daniel Kelley set the poem to music, and it became widely known as “Home on the Range,” now the state song of Kansas.

Chautauqua County’s Alfred Fairfax, who escaped slavery, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to Kansas, and became the first African American elected to the Kansas legislature.

Lots of other stories, of rough-and-tumble towns, of striking oil, of poets and inn keepers, of Native Americans and African Americans were good reminders that there is almost nowhere you can go that doesn’t have some bit of interesting and even significant history.

And all that was before I even made it into the main part of the museum. And what a great museum it was. Big, impressive displays—such as a full-size tipi, full-size covered wagon, and an actual engine and a few cars from the famed Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe train line—make this museum not only educational but, along with all the stuff that can be touched or explored, also very kid friendly. The narrative moves from Native American to early Spanish and French explorers and trappers, to the waves of pioneers that swept in during the mid-1800s, through the Civil War, up to the present. Here’s a photo of just one of the many displays that help connect visitors to the past.

Bison

Exploring the museum one encounters a remarkable number of familiar names: Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower, Fred Harvey, Carrie Nation, plus all those associated with Wichita, from Clyde Cessna to Pizza Hut. Legendary lawmen included “Bat” Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickock. Exhilarating seeing how much “American history” is really “Kansas history.”

I could say more—I have pages of notes—but I’ll leave something for you to discover. To either see more about the museum, or possibly to even plan your own visit, here is their website. https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-museum-of-history/19578 Impressive place.

The capitol building is splendid—a great, domed edifice that makes it clear that it is to be taken seriously. However, the visit here was primarily to see the famous murals by John Steuart Curry, most notably the once-controversial painting of abolitionist John Brown. I enjoyed touring the impressive capitol building. Then it was time to head for Wichita, which fortunately turned out to be so wonderful that I didn’t feel bad about having only one day in Topeka. Still much more to see in Kansas than I fit in this trip. There needs to be a next time.

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Filed under History, Midwest, Thoughts, Travel