Tag Archives: Iowa

Heirloom Popcorn

Shortly before my book came out, I was working at the Culinary Historians booth at a Whole Foods heirloom foods fair. There were a lot of interesting offerings, from vegetables and fruits to packets of seeds to fragrant flowers. In the booth next to the Culinary Historians booth there were people offering samples of a remarkable heirloom popcorn with tiny kernels. When there was a lag in the traffic, the women staffing that booth offered us some of the popcorn they were promoting. It was tiny but flavorful — living up to its name, Tiny but Mighty.

Then today, on YouTube, this video appeared among the suggestions for my viewing pleasure (interesting how they figure out what is likely to catch one’s attention). It was about that tiny popcorn. The video, however, showed more than the demo at Whole Foods, including that one seed gives you many stalks. This interested me because the plant from which corn originally developed, teosinte, while smaller than even this diminutive corn, likewise has many branches — and it pops. So more than just being an heirloom, this popcorn seems to be a real throw back to earlier varieties–much earlier. So it has now been added to my shopping list — but I thought I’d also share the video. Enjoy.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Video

Interstate 80 Iowa

As you can no doubt imagine, I take corn very seriously. Wrote a whole book about it (Midwest Maize). I take Iowa seriously, as well — but like the Bible says, “A merry heart does good, like medicine,” so I’m sharing this video that a friend forwarded to me. It is an oversimplification — but not by much. 🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Midwest, Midwest Maize

Herbert Hoover Museum – Part 2

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, president Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration. Again, Hoover refused to take a salary—he wanted to be a volunteer among volunteers. He didn’t want to ration food, so instead, he encouraged people to raise food in their neighborhoods. He introduced Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday, to reduce the amount of food consumed locally, so more could be sent to our soldiers and those of our Allies. His motto, “Food will win the war,” got everyone on board with the plans. Cookbooks were created, and corn became a key part of making those Wheatless Wednesdays as tasty as they were. Within a year of starting the program, Hoover had doubled the amount of food being shipped to Europe—but without rationing and without any heavy bureaucracy.

When the war ended, Hoover was placed in charge of the American Relief Administration. He organized shipments of food to the starving millions in Central Europe. He was Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. It was during Coolidge’s presidency that Hoover spearheaded efforts that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He became one of the most admired men Washington. Then, in 1927, his fame reached new heights because of his extraordinary service assisting the victims of the Mississippi River Flood. So when Coolidge declined to run again for office, Hoover was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate (though he considered himself a Progressive, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt). He won by a landslide.

Columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that he thought Hoover, given the chance, could “purify capitalism of its …commercialism, its waste, and its squalor.” Continue reading

Leave a comment

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

Herbert Hoover Museum – Part 1

Continuing across the miles of Iowa highway, I passed a sign for a town called What Cheer. That made me smile. Town names can be so evocative of hopes and expectations, as well as of local histories. Pulled off at the exit for West Branch and headed for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

IA-HHoover-Museum-B

I entered the museum knowing little about Hoover beyond his having lost an election to FDR. I left the museum a fan. What a remarkable life, and what a remarkable man.

Hoover, the son of a blacksmith, was born here in West Branch, in a tiny, two-room cabin, in 1874. His father died in 1880 and his mother in 1884, leaving him an orphan at age 10. (In later years, when asked about the past, Hoover would comment, “As gentle are the memories of those days, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sickness was greater and death came sooner.”)

Bert (as Hoover was known in his childhood) was put on a train, alone, and sent to an uncle in Oregon. A local teacher, recognizing the young Hoover’s remarkable intelligence, too an interest in him, introducing him to great literature. By age 17, Bert became the youngest freshman at Stanford University, where he trained as a geologist.

In 1897, he headed to Australia, as a geologist and mining engineer. Australia, in fact, offered the one other fact I knew about Hoover: I was told during my first trip Down Under that Hoover saved the koala. When he returned to the U.S., he got the importation of koala fur outlawed, and that saved these iconic marsupials from being wiped out. (I told one of the docents this, and she was delighted to learn that someone somewhere in the world was still talking about Hoover.) Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Food, History, Midwest, Travel

Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 3

One of the things I discovered at the museum that fascinated me was a description of surveying and how the surveying chain was used. I’d seen the surveying chain Cathy’s grandfather had used, back in the late 1800s. I had seen surveying chains in exhibits in many museums and books. After all, George Washington had been a surveyor. I knew from history that, while people had been doing various types of surveying for millennia, surveying was evolving rapidly in the mid-1700s. But this was the first time I’d seen that chain defined and explained.

As they do today, surveyors in the mid-1800s used compasses and levels, but the chain was a key part of their equipment. Each chain was made up straight links, with each link being 7.92 inches in length. Twenty-five links equaled a rod. One hundred links equaled one full chain (though surveyors often carried half-chains, to cut down on weight). One full chain was 66 feet, or four rods.

Eighty chains equal one mile (5,280 feet or 320 rods). Reading that, everything else I knew about the settling of the territories fell into place. One mile was a key measurement. The Land Ordinance of 1785 divided the new territories using a grid. One square mile was a section, and 36 sections equaled one township. A township was six miles on each side. Land was sold by the section (one square mile is 640 acres), or, for those who couldn’t manage a farm that large, one-half or one-quarter section. Flying over the Midwest even today, one can still discern the mathematical precision of the initial surveys that divided the territories up into townships and sections—the grid is still there.

The thing that amazes me is not that they came up with this plan, but that people actually walked around with these chains and marked out the entire center section of the United States. It is daunting now simply to drive across the vast plains, but to tackle them on foot, to measure the land one chain at a time, and to document it so well that we still recognize those townships is really stunning. We may have cooler tools today, but we do not have more astonishing accomplishments.

Photos and more info on surveying and map-making in 1800s can be found on this website: http://www.oshermaps.org/exhibitions/american-treasures/iv-nineteenth-century-surveying

Leave a comment

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

Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 2

Here are a few of the items that captured my interest in the Iowa history and agriculture sections of the museum.

The pioneer farmer on the Iowa prairie faced the task of the first plowing of the virgin ground—called “breaking prairie.”

Iowa was obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was originally labeled as part of Northwest Territory, and then it was a section of the sprawling Michigan Territory. Then, in 1836, borders were redrawn, and it was considered part of the Wisconsin Territory. Then, in 1838, by act of Congress, it became the Iowa Territory. A territory needed a population of at least 60,000 to apply for statehood. In 1846, Iowa became the 29th state.

I was tickled by a quote from the diary of an early (1840s) Iowan woman named Kitturah Belknap. “Now my name is out as a good cook so am alright as good cooking makes good friends.”

Corn was essentially grown for the purpose of raising livestock—in Iowa, especially hogs.

Barrel making for Iowa’s grain shipments was a major industry in the area’s early days.

In a display on milling (which didn’t appear until towns began to grow, as you needed a fairly good customer base to justify going to the trouble of bringing in mill stones), I saw a book titled The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide, by Oliver Evans, published in Philadelphia in 1821. The thing that struck me about that was the idea of someone buying a book to learn milling. Milling struck me as the sort of thing one would learn as an apprentice—but perhaps not in the territories.

Grain dust is highly flammable (so yet another danger of storing grain). There was a model in the museum of a grain elevator that once stood in Council Bluffs, IA, that held 2.1 million bushels of grain. On April 20, 1982, a spark ignited the dust during a loading operation. The whole building was soon engulfed in flames, and moments later, it exploded, hurling concrete and burning wood up to a mile away. And this was not a flimsy building. It isn’t evident from the model, but the walls were six inches thick, concrete reinforced with steel rods. But the central building vanished. Five people were killed and another 22 were hospitalized.

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

Model of Council Bluffs Grain Elevator

Leave a comment

Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Travel

Iowa State Historical Museum, Part 1

Not far from the capitol was the impressive State Historical Museum. Learning more of the agricultural history of the region was my main objective, but I’ve always been interested in Native American history and culture, so I spent a fair bit of time in these exhibits, as well as in those of the region’s natural history.

IA-History-Museum-B

Here are a few insights I gleaned from the Native American section of the museum.

I’d seen the Grass Dance at many powwows, but learned here that it originated with the Omaha and was passed along to the Sioux—so essentially a Midwestern dance—which makes sense, given that the Midwest was largely grassland.

An excerpt from The Autobiography of a Fox (Mesquakie) Indian Woman, by Truman Michelson, explained that Indian girls had dolls so that they could practice on a small scale the clothes making and beading skills they would need when they were older.

Francis LaFlesche, an Omaha, was the first Native American ethnologist. He worked for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1800s and wrote dozens of books, many of which can still be purchased. A quote from him related that, “The White people speak of this country at this period as a ‘wilderness,’ as though it was an empty tract without human interest or history. To us Indians it was clearly defined than as it is today; we knew the boundaries of our friends and those of our foes.”

I’ll include more in a second post—but these will just be highlights. There is a lot more to see and learn. For more information, including hours, you can visit the museum’s website: http://www.iowahistory.org/museum/index.html

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Midwest, Travel