Tips for Grilling Sweet Corn

My book, Midwest Maize, has recipes for some historic dishes, but if you’re not looking for history and just want to enjoy some sweet corn on the grill this summer, here is a video with some suggestions that might help make your efforts on the grill more successful.

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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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Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys

Life has always changed, but in the last 150 years, the rate of change has steadily increased. Where it once took at least hundreds and often thousands of years for noticeable changes to be witnessed in cultures, societies, or day-to-day life, today, the change seems to be monthly. There are points in time, however, at which there were sudden bursts of change, and the late 1800s represented such a period. In the last decades of the century, we saw the birth of everything from skyscrapers to popcorn poppers to automobiles to department stores. In the U.S., there was also a tremendous surge of people away from farming. Factory jobs offered income not reliant on fickle weather patterns, and big cities offered conveniences not found in the country. These benefits drew people in increasing numbers away from farms. The U.S. changed from a country where most people lived in rural areas and raised crops to a country where city dwellers vastly outnumbered their country cousins. There were also vast numbers who were looking for easy wealth, and they flooded to the world’s gold fields, whether in California, the Yukon Territory, or even in Australia, as noted in the work below. Whatever the draw—reliable income, urban delights, or “easy” wealth—people left the farms in droves during this period.

The following poem was written by a woman named Clara F. Berry during this dynamic period. Published in 1871, it reflects not only these trends but also the sense of loss felt by those who knew that the choices being made were not necessarily better choices, just different.

Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys
Clara F. Berry 1871

Come boys, I have something to tell you,
Come near, I would whisper it low,
You’re thinking of leaving the homestead,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.
The city has many attractions,
But think of the vices and sins,
When once in the vortex of fashion,
How soon the course downward begins.

You talk of the mines of Australia,
They’re wealthy in gold without doubt,
But sh! There is gold on the farm, boys,
If only you’d shovel it out.
The mercantile trade is a hazard,
The goods are first high and then low,
Best risk the old farm a while longer,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The great busy west has inducements,
And so has the business mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to start.
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousand or so,
And think of the frauds and deceptions,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

The farm is the safest and surest,
The orchards are loaded today,
You’re free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Best stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow,
Remember you’ve nothing to risk boys,
Don’t be in a hurry to go.

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Literature

Printers Row Lit Fest

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.

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Cornbread in the 1700s

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Jas. Townsend and Son, where cooking from the 18th century is explained and demonstrated. Having done a bit of Revolutionary War-era re-enacting myself, I am particularly attracted to this information, though my work as a food historian reinforces this interest.

In this episode, James Townsend demonstrates an early form of cornbread, from the oldest known American cookbook, but Amelia Simmons. I have a reproduction of this cookbook, and reading it makes me really appreciate the work that goes into translating early recipes into practical instructions, as Townsend does. I can recommend pretty much any of his videos, as they show a whole range of cooking from the 1700s, from soldiers’ fare to party food. Some of the recipes I plan on trying, others, I simply marvel at.

But here, to start, is the Amelia Simmons approach to making cornbread.

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And the Nation’s Top Brandy Market Is…

Wisconsin.

Who’d have imagined? Well, probably folks in Wisconsin, but it was certainly a surprise to most of us at this weekend’s Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (GMFA) conference on Wisconsin Supper Clubs.

And how much brandy are we talking about? Wisconsin consumes one third of all the brandy produced in the United States. According to one source, that’s roughly 650,000 cases of domestic brandy per year.

Top drink, sometimes half-jokingly suggested as a candidate for official state cocktail, is a brandy old fashioned. (They mentioned that if you simply order an old fashioned, without specifying preferred liquor, you’ll automatically get the brandy version.) In the number two spot is the brandy Alexander. But a toddy or a simple snifter with good brandy are not ruled out.

These drinks are all staples of Wisconsin’s multitudes of supper clubs, where locals and tourists gather for good food and a friendly evening of conversation—and brandy.

Another interesting fact that was shared is that supper clubs (usually places out in the country) did well because Wisconsin had more paved rural roads than any other state, so supper clubs and American car culture grew together.

Supper clubs are family owned and food, which is generally locally sourced and seasonal, is made from scratch. Menus can be ambitious, but certain elements are immutable: Friday-night fish fry and Saturday prime rib topping that list.

We also learned that broasted chicken was invented in Beloit, Wisconsin. There is a machine called a broaster, and broasting is a proprietary technology that cooks chicken very quickly, while minimizing the amount of oil to which the chicken is exposed.

While supper clubs are not clubs now, they did require membership during Prohibition.

So much more to share, but perhaps I should leave that to those who were presenters:

Mary Bergin, journalist, syndicated columnist, and author of The Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook.

Teresa Allen, culinary historian and author of The Flavor of Wisconsin.

Dave Hoekstra, award-winning Chicago journalist and radio personality, and author of The Supper Club Book (which strays outside of Wisconsin).

Holly De Ruyter, documentary filmmaker and creator of the charming film, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club.

As for the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, it is an organization that has as its goal the study and preservation of foodways found across a far-too-often ignored region—the American Heartland. GMFA supports research, hosts heirloom recipe contests at state fairs, and puts on conferences.

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Pinckney Bend

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.

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Filed under Corn, Culture, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel