Category Archives: Thoughts

Glenview Naval Air Station Museum

A couple of weeks ago, I sought out a place I’d learned about online but had never seen before: the Glenview Naval Air Station Museum. Hadn’t seen it before and almost didn’t find it while looking for it. Having spent years admiring the activity that occurred at the Glenview Naval Air Station, I had expected something more impressive, but what I found was a tiny cubbyhole that was all but hidden at the back of an otherwise unremarkable parking lot, next to Chuck’s Auto Repair. It seemed rather underwhelming, and almost insulting, for the once might military base.

However, I soon learned that, while it seems unprepossessing, it’s absolutely worth a visit—and maybe a little more attention than it has received. (Visitors are the life blood of every museum.) Because here, it’s the history that makes it big, not the building. A lone docent, Irving, long-retired airplane mechanic, was a wonderful combination of enthusiastic about the tale and indignant about how overlooked the museum has become, and shared an endless flow of stories. The tiny space wouldn’t take much time to study, but try to allow yourself at least an hour, as there is a wonderful 40-minute movie (narrated by Bill Kurtis) about the importance of Chicago and Lake Michigan during World War II. Because before there was Top Gun, there was Glenview Naval Air Station.

Lake Michigan, being virtually an inland sea, would become the training ground for the thousands of pilots —because where else could you train flyers to land on aircraft carriers without any chance of a German or Japanese submarine attack. (And in case you always wondered how Navy Pier got its name—now you know.) The film also covers salvage efforts to save the hundred planes that ended up at the bottom of the lake, where the ongoing threat is being consumed by zebra mussels. (Because there is no real museum here, the salvaged planes all end up in Kalamazoo, Pensacola, or D.C.) But the film was stunning to be reminded just how much of the nation’s military might passed through this area. Really remarkable. Also a fair number of interesting and worthwhile artifacts in the museum itself. Absolutely worth a visit. And if you know anyone with a few extra million dollars, they could certainly use a real museum. Open on Saturday and Sunday, 1-4.

https://www.facebook.com/Naval-Air-Station-Glenview-Museum-139960772688126/

And in case you can’t get to the museum but would still like to see the movie, it is available on DVD—and buying it helps fund the museum. https://www.heroesondeck.com/

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Filed under History, Midwest, Thoughts

The Pioneers by David McCullough

I know enough history and geography to have understood that settling the Midwest could not have been easy. However, reading David McCullough’s book The Pioneers, about the first settlers in Ohio, really brought home not only how hard it was but also how remarkable the people were who were involved in this endeavor. As noted on the book’s cover, it was this period that “brought the American Ideal West.” Even before the U.S. Constitution was finished, the plans for what would become the American Heartland had a document guaranteeing religious liberty and banning slavery.

The book introduces us to people few remember but who played almost unimaginably important roles in not simply expanding westward but in creating what the U.S. would become.

Granted, there were difficulties—not just those of trying to build homes in a dauntingly inhospitable wilderness, but also those of conflicts, from the cultural conflicts with Native Americans to Aaron Burr plotting to split the country. But the triumphs were greater—starting with the plan for the new territory.

The Northwest Territory—so called because it was north of the Ohio River (the only relatively easy way to travel west) and west of the original colonies—was ceded to the U.S. after the Revolution by the British, who had taken it from the French. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the document that established that the creation of states was intended, but also set forth the three priorities of those who were working toward settlement of the area: freedom of religion, absolutely no slavery, and an emphasis on education for everyone.

The Northwest Ordinance would have a tremendous impact on the nation’s future. McCullough notes that it has been compared in importance to the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

However, it is the individuals who make the story riveting. Heroes from the American Revolution, visionaries, builders, explorers, wives, children, doctors, traitors, troublemakers—a remarkable cast of characters populate this history. The hardships were numerous and included floods, plagues, earthquakes, economic depression, the War of 1812 (when the British thought they could retake “their” colonies), and the fact that the Little Ice Age (which ended in the mid-1800s) made winters snowier and colder than what we experience today.

A description of one of the key people in the successful settlement of what would become Marietta, Ohio, pretty well established what the pioneers were like—and why they succeeded. “Like so many born and raised on a New England farm in the eighteenth century and who served in the Revolutionary War, Rufus Putnam had known hard work and hardships, great sorrow and seemingly insurmountable obstacles most of his life. It was what was to be expected, just as one was expected to measure up.”

I could go on for much longer—so much to love and so much to learn. We are fortunate that most of these people kept diaries or wrote long letters (John and Abigail Adams were not alone in this tradition), leaving so many details. And we are fortunate that Mr. McCullough has gathered the stories into this book. As important as the Founding Fathers were, without a lot of other brave, visionary folks, the American ideal might never have made its way west.

If you have any love of history, I recommend this book to you.

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Filed under Culture, Geography, History, Literature, Midwest, Thoughts

Indian Mounds

Traveling around the Midwest, one encounters a surprising number of Indian Mounds—ancient earthworks created by people actually identified as Mound Builders. This is not a single group, but rather a cultural trend among early Native American people who, for various reasons, created a wide range of mounds, from the pyramid-like Monks Mound at Cahokia to a range of animal effigy mounds to simple hills to mark events or burial sites.

I had always thought it was really lucky that so many of these mounds still existed in the region. However, I’m currently reading David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Pioneers, and he makes it clear that it was not luck. It, in fact, reflects the remarkable foresight and wide education and interests of those who built the nation, and particularly those who established the first settlements in what would become the Midwest—at the end of the American Revolution, a region then known as the Northwest Territory.

McCullough’s immensely worthwhile book is not about the Mound Builders (they had vanished centuries and even millennia before Europeans ever caught sight of the Americas)—but it does give us insight into why so many mounds remain.

McCullough details the reactions of both those making the first foray into the land so recently won from the British and those back East to whom they reported. The leader of the first party of settlers, Rufus Putnam, made careful maps of what he called the “Ancient Works.” There was much excitement focused on these mounds and earthworks. When Thomas Jefferson heard of them, he expressed his enthusiasm for studying them further. Putnam, after careful study, wrote about how perfect the work was, and he set aside the land on which mounds were found as parks and areas of study, not open to settlement or alteration.

I guess it is not entirely surprising, given the tremendous insight people at the time had of what was worth building and what was worth saving—insight demonstrated in the Declaration of Independence and in new Constitution being developed at the time of this exploration. What a remarkable period of time—and what a blessing that they had the foresight to protect both our freedoms and the antiquities they encountered. Only half way through the book and so looking forward to the rest of it.

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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