Tag Archives: Iowa

At the Iowa State Fair

I have for several years followed a British YouTube cooking show called “Sorted.” It’s good fun and offers some imaginative recipes. But every once in a while, they wander off to show us something outside the kitchen — usually around London, but sometimes in the U.S. This video was published on Oct. 14–which was just two days before my newest book was released–Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs — a book that looks at the history of pigs, as well as current trends in raising and consuming pork. The book covers about 12,000 years, but it has a fair bit about the culture of Iowa–and the Iowa State Fair, the destination for the Sorted crew in this video. And I was happy to see that they feature some of the special dishes mentioned in the book, including the Iowa Pork Chop, the Pork Chop on a Stick, and the Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. (The book even includes a recipe for this last item.) So I was delighted at both the timing and the content of the video, as it makes it possible to share a bit of the noisy joy of a state fair — and a look at Iowa’s pork culture. (And a bit of Iowa’s corn culture, as well — which features in my book Midwest Maize. Iowa is # 1 in both corn production and pig raising.)

So here are the four Sorted lads enjoying a bit of Midwestern hospitality and food at the Iowa State Fair.

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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.

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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. 🙂

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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Back Across Iowa

I departed Nebraska on a lovely, cool morning. It always surprises me how much the temperature can vary in one day—55˚ in the morning and 95˚ but early afternoon.

After crossing the Iowa border, I pulled in to a Rest Area, as Jane had recommended. Her advice was good—they had an amazing array of documents, magazines, maps, and brochures about the state. What a splendid research for return visits.

The highway stretched across a gently undulating, green region of handsome farms. There is something about the sight of that gray, concrete ribbon stretched seemingly endlessly toward the horizon that always charms me.

After three hours, I pulled into a McDonald’s. I realize this stop possesses no snob appeal, but you really can’t beat a McDonald’s on a long road trip: right on the highway, bathrooms are always clean, and the coffee is good. I sometimes think people who rail against McDonald’s are simply folks who are bitter that they didn’t think of the idea first. One of my favorite “factoids” is that McDonald’s has created more millionaires than any other economic entity in history, most of them minorities. And they’re easy and reliable.

Continuing on, I passed a sign indicating that a few miles to my left was Winterset, birthplace of Marion Robert Morrison, better known as iconic movie hero John Wayne. I had too far to go and too many other stops already planned to make this detour, but I noted it for a possible future visit.

In Des Moines, my main goal was the Iowa State Historical Museum, but the state capitol was nearby, so I stopped to photograph the handsome, domed building.

State Capitol, Des Moines, Iowa

State Capitol, Des Moines, Iowa

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Barns Old and New

I didn’t realize it until I returned home and went through my photographs, but despite being made of aluminum, rather than wood, Cathy’s barn looked remarkably like the 1900s barn at the Living History Farms in Iowa. (See the January 14 post.)

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A paper placemat from a restaurant visited a little later in my trip made it clear why. There are a substantial number of different barn styles, and about sixteen of the most common were pictured on that placemat. The style of a barn reflects one or more of several possible influences, such as where it was built (terrain and weather often dictating what is practical), the background or ethnicity of the family that built it, when it was built, what it would house, and materials available.

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Both the barn in Iowa and here in Arapahoe were Western Prairie Barns (top row, center, in the photo above of the mentioned—and saved— placemat). This was a particularly common style on the western and southwestern prairies. Farmers and ranchers had plenty of space for storing hay and grain for livestock, and the barns were big enough to house the livestock, too, if that became necessary. This style of barn was traditionally constructed of wood and was built throughout the 1800s, as agriculture moved westward. It was interesting to see the old style reproduced in a newer material.

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