Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

The Storm

Last week, a massive, fast-moving wind storm known as a derecho swept across the Midwest, destroying property and crops in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Winds exceeding 100 mph ripped up trees and tore off roofs in both rural and urban settings. The news stories give the statistics, can tell you where the storm hit, and give general details, but it’s important to remember that this involves people. My brother, who lives in Chicago, took this photo of the trees that came down and blocked his street (and cut in half cars parked along the streets). The derecho actually became a tornado in this section of Rogers Park and became a waterspout when it hit the lake, a block to the east.
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The video below examines the impact on one farm in Iowa — the farm of an enthusiastic youngster who is determined to not let it get him down, even though the financial loss will be horrendous. The video begins with his plans for his home, but by about 5.40, the storm kicks in. The thing that might not be clear for those not familiar with farming: even if farmers manage to harvest some of their corn (because not all was destroyed), the destruction of so many of the grain bins means there is no place to store the grain, which creates big problems for farmers–and for everyone who relies on that grain.

Important to remember that things can change in a few minutes. Be grateful for every good day. My sympathy to all affected by the storms, in town and out in the country.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, Geography, Midwest, Uncategorized, Video

Shrimp de Jonghe

In March, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Library about Midwestern food. I was happy to oblige, because this is a topic that is dear to my heart but also something about which there are many misconceptions.

The ethnic makeup of the Midwest is stunningly varied. In the 1800s in particular, people flooded in from dozens of countries, bringing interesting foods and traditions. From pasties in Michigan to bratwurst in Wisconsin, Italian beef in Chicago to barbecue in Missouri. Then there are the indigenous foods, such as wild rice, pecans, common beans, and, of course, maize/corn.

In addition to these are the foods created by imaginative chefs, who were already multiplying in the 1800s. One fabulous dish that few realize is actually a local classic is Shrimp de Jonghe. The restaurant at Chicago’s De Jonghe’s Hotel was fabulously popular from the 1890s to the 1920s. The De Jonghe family had emigrated from Belgium in 1891, and it was Henri de Jonghe who was credited with the shrimp dish that continues to appear on menus both in and far from the city of its birth. (Though it is likely that the hotel’s chef, Emile Zehr, had a hand in developing the dish.) It surprises many when they learn that this lovely, garlicky dish arose in the Heartland.

Also worth noting is that it gives some idea how remarkably transportation had improved by the late 1800s. Because shrimp are extremely perishable. They die when taken out of the water and decay quickly once dead. It wasn’t until the invention of refrigerated train cars that it was possible to speed this delicate creature to distant markets. Today, U.S. is both the largest producer of shrimp and the largest consumer. Americans love shrimp, downing hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Of aquatic comestibles, only canned tuna outranks shrimp in quantities consumed in the U.S. The recipe below offers you the opportunity to be among those who are elevating those statistics.

Shrimp de Jonghe
1-1/4 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 Tbs. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs. shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, checking first to make sure one of the shelves is in the center.

Butter a shallow, 1-quart baking dish—or, if you have them, several individual-sized baking dishes.

Blanch the shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain them in a colander. Run them under cold water until cool (to stop cooking).

Soften the butter with a fork. Beat in the garlic, shallots, and salt. When thoroughly blended, add the remaining ingredients (except the shrimp) and blend well. (If you make a large amount of this–say double or triple the recipe–you could do all this in a food processor.)

If the shrimp have not dried sufficiently in the colander, pat dry. Then, arrange the shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish or dishes. Dot/spread the butter-and-crumb mixture over the shrimp, making sure that all shrimp have at least some of the mixture on it.

Bake until shrimp are fully cooked and the topping has become lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

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Filed under Food, History, Midwest, Recipe, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Culture, Food, Geography, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Bored Soldiers and Empty Shells

One advantage of having speaking engagements all over Illinois is that I often get to explore the lovingly created local history museums that commemorate the lives and people of a town or county. A couple of months ago, I was booked by the Putnam County Historical Society for a gathering to be held at the county’s museum in Hennepin, Illinois. Most of these museums include, among other things, displays about the local population’s involvement in the various wars in which the U.S. has fought. I’ve seen a fair number of uniforms, souvenirs, and memorials, but in Hennepin, I saw a display of something I hadn’t seen before: trench art.

Trench art is defined as “objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare.” The term is most commonly associated with World War I, since that is the war that is best known for its use of trenches. While actual combat is horrifying, a lot of wartime is spent waiting for something to happen. When soldiers had nothing else to do, some of them started making things out of whatever they could find, with the most commonly available material being the brass of empty shell casings. The tools soldiers had to work with might be nothing more than a bent nail, and yet the work they produced was often suprisingly beautiful. Here is part of the display of trench art from the museum in Hennepin. A remarkable reminder of how beauty can be salvaged from even the worst situations.
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And a closer look.
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A Surprising Museum in Ohio

Serendipity: the finding of valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Travel just seems to multiply the likelihood of experiencing serendipity.

In Ohio doing some research, driving toward the hotel, I saw a sign that read “Welcome Center and Fulton County Museum, 1 Mile.” This place wasn’t on my radar at all. However, I was leaving the next morning and had nothing else planned while there, so I thought I’d give this place a try.

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What a surprise. This was not a huge museum, but it more than made up in splendid detail, insightful presentation, and brilliant planning what it lacked in size. And who knew so much interesting stuff happened in Fulton County, Ohio?

There are a couple of possible approaches to viewing the museum. You can read absolutely everything, which was what I chose to do. Alternatively, you can accept their invitation to see how history repeats itself and focus on periods that are in some way similar to the one in which you were born or in which you currently live. I thought this approach was immensely clever, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

The museum starts in the area’s pre-history and moves up through the centuries. One way they handle the abundance of artifacts is, under a primary display, there are drawers and drawers of additional items labeled by time period.

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Signs are abundant, making it possible to really fit together the pieces of Fulton County’s history–which includes a remarkable range of events and people who operated at the national level, from the show promoter who helped Buffalo Bill to race-car driver Barney Oldfield, plus of course involvement in such key elements of U.S. history as the Civil War and industrial progress.

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The museum only took us about 2 hours to view–so this isn’t a place you’d likely plan an entire vacation around. However, if you happen to find yourself on the Ohio Turnpike near Hwy 108, you might consider stopping.

Of course, the other lesson is, when you see a sign telling you there is something of interest a mile ahead, you might want to check it out.

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Filed under Culture, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

“Smarter Every Day” Looks at Grain Bins

I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.

Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.

Here’s Destin’s video.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Video

Don’t Worry about Roundup

As the author of a book on corn, I get a lot of questions about Roundup. The press and a few renegade lawyers have done their best to vilify this product. But talk to farmers—especially those who have grown up around the product (we’ve been using it for nearly half a century, so that is most farmers)—and you’ll find out that none of them are experiencing health problems. Plus it has no negative impact on the environment (which other products often do). It is, in fact, tremendously safe. One of my favorite little factoids comes from Forbes Magazine: “The acute toxicity of glyphosate is lower than that of table salt.”

So throw out your table salt and keep eating corn ground with Roundup.

If you’re interested, here is the full article from Forbes—written by a cancer epidemiologist—a person whose job is studying and knowing what can hurt you.
The Guardian’s Scare Piece On Glyphosate And Cancer Is Designed To Fuel A Tsunami of Lawsuits.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Midwest Maize Meets Mexican Hogs

There are times that it is difficult to decide where a post goes. This blog focuses on the Midwest–the people, the history, the places–and The World’s Fare focuses on my adventures, primarily culinary, around the world. But I just posted a recipe on The World’s Fare that includes both corn and pork, mainstays of Midwestern agriculture and cuisine–but the recipe is one I found in Mexico. It is Pozole Rojo, a delightful, hearty soup that brings together these two cornerstones of both Midwestern and Mexican life. So definitely the fare of another land, but still related to the Midwest. Therefore, I posted it there and am just linking to it here. (Though Brazilian cornstarch cookies are on this site–so clearly not always easy to draw those lines.)

Anyway, for the recipe, click this link–Pozole Rojo--and enjoy a delightful soup that brings together a couple of world culinary icons.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, Food, Recipe, Uncategorized