While this blog has grown to include anything about the Midwest, it still focuses primarily on history and food. Of course, the name of the blog does make it clear that corn/maize is where we started. As the author of the book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, I clearly have an interest in that iconic American grain. So I thought I’d share a video on making cornbread 200 years ago. Happily, this video also connects Midwest Maize with my newest work, Destination Heartland, because the historic cooking reenacted here takes place in St. Genevieve, MO, which is featured in the new book. If you, too, like food and history, you may find much to enjoy on this channel. Hope you enjoy this visit to the past.
Tag Archives: Missouri
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.
Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.
The day after my presentation in New Haven (at the wonderfully restored Old School), I was on my way, this time heading an hour west, to St. Louis—and another speaking engagement. Even when I only have a short amount of time in a place, I always try to see something local that is of interest, and on this trip, it was the Missouri History Museum. The front of the museum, as one approaches, is imposing and classical, but as one circles the building in search of parking, the new addition behind this older part of the building comes into view.
The Museum is in Forest Park, which was the location of the 1904 World’s Fair, so it is fitting that one wing in the old building had an exhibit of that fair. The fair celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. One is reminded by photographs and informational posts of what an astonishing feat it was to create the fairground: a river had to be rerouted, an extensive sewer system had to be build, and what was essentially an entire city had to be built. It took 10,000 laborers to construct it all.
A placard informed me that the fair featured “the most extensive representation of goods from the Eastern Hemisphere ever found at an international exposition.” There were more nations represented than at any previous World’s Fair. Everyone wanted to show the world what they had to offer, as the economy was becoming global. The largest exhibit was of the Philippines, covering 47 acres and with a thousand Filipinos on hand. Remarkable.
It was not a huge exhibit, but it was packed with information. I continued on, past Thomas Jefferson and into the main hall, where the Spirit of St. Louis hung overhead. Into a fascinating, temporary exhibit on Route 66, which was “main street through Missouri.” St. Louis was the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Then upstairs to the Anheuser-Busch Gallery, which highlights the remarkable and difficult early history of St. Louis. There were fires, cholera epidemics, floods, earthquakes (New Madrid Fault)—all of it even harder for the city’s pre-Civil War slave population. But there were also energy and success, and the city grew. Again, a remarkable amount of information packed quite attractively into the available space. It was a good reminder that everywhere has a rich past, and there is more to know than we will ever be able to take in.
Then across to the McDonnell Douglas Gallery, which covers St. Louis from 1904 to 2000, though with a concentration on the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Then, feeling wonderfully exhilarated by all I’d learned, but also weary from a busy day, I headed to my hotel, to put my feet up for a while before my presentation that evening. But a good day.
If the last few posts have made you think that this might be a region you’d like to add to your list of vacation escapes, you might be wondering where to stay. There are lots of options, including nice hotels and resorts. However, if you’d like something a little out of the way, I can recommend Aunt May’s Guesthouse. Charming, quiet, well equipped (from kitchen gadgets to outdoor BBQ to WiFi), and well located for touring the wine region. Non-smoking facility. http://www.auntmays.com/ It’s owned by my friends at Pinckney Bend Distillery, on a farm that has been in the family for a few generations.
Here are a couple of photos from my stay: living room and view out the front door. There are more images on the website.
As noted in the post on the Washington Historical Society, a lot of Germans settled in this region. Actually, a lot of Germans settled all across the Midwest. But in Hermann, it was more than just a large number of Germans happening upon the area; it was planned as a German town by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. In 1836, land was bought and the town, which is sometimes called “Little Germany,” was founded. The town developed an important wine and grape culture, and before Prohibition, it was home to one of the largest wineries in the U.S.
I was on my own for the day, but Ralph had suggested that I might enjoy Hermann and had given me directions on how to get here, as well as a couple of recommendations for lunch. So that’s where I headed. It was too early in the spring for the tourist-oriented activities, such as costumed interpreters at the Hermann Farm. But it didn’t matter. It was a lovely and clearly German old town, with delightful shops, wonderful architecture, and a lot of history. The hilly countryside and nearby river added to the location’s charm, as did the myriad flowering trees. I drove around for a while, as Hermann sprawls a bit, but I eventually just parked the car and walked up and down the streets, enjoying the very European feel of the place.
I did eventually take Ralph’s advice about lunch, heading for the Wurst House, a store and restaurant whose owner is an award-winning sausage maker. The interior suggested that the Wurst House handles large crowds during the summer season, but I was one of only two dining there today. I ordered what was listed as the “German special,” which allowed me select two different brats from four on offer (I chose a mushroom with Swiss and a caramelized pear with gorgonzola), which were served on a bed of sauerkraut. I got to pick two sides, as well, and went with the broccoli and cauliflower salad and red cabbage. All was very good. The brats all have natural casings, so the texture was good, as well as the flavor. Before leaving, I found that they offered free samples at the back, and if I ever return, I’d probably go with the “Best of Show,” which was even better than the two brats I’d already had.
Then I headed across town to the historic Stone Hill Winery. Established in 1847, this is among the oldest wineries in the country and is the oldest in Missouri. The winery sits atop North America’s largest series of arched, underground cellars, which makes it noteworthy, but its wines get a lot of attention, too—and awards. Of particular interest is the Norton grape, a historic grape that, in the 1800s, produced internationally acclaimed red wines. The Norton, once feared to be extinct, is the state grape of Missouri—and the fact that a state has an official grape tells you something about their attitude toward wine. The small patch of Norton grapes discovered at Stone Hill were planted around the time of the Civil War. There are not enough Norton vines to make wine every year, I was told, but they had one available for sampling. So happily, I got to sample this historic wine—and it was very good. Big red, incredibly smooth. And in case you think this sounds like a good story and should be in a book, it is: The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine by Todd Kliman (2011).
Then it was time to head back to where I was staying, as I was giving a presentation that evening on the history of corn. Very attentive audience, which I guess is not surprising in a region where farming, food, and history are so appreciated.
One last stop in Washington was intended to simply highlight the focus on glorious local foods at one market but ended up being our lunch stop. Farm to You Market is owned by the Geisert family, who also own the organic, free-range, heritage hog farm down the road (which we passed).
Not too surprisingly, there are a few dandy pork products on the menu in the bright, tidy lunch room. I had been told often enough by experts that if I ever ran across heritage-breed jowl bacon (better known in some circles by its Italian name: guanciale), it’s worth trying. So when I saw it on the menu, I had to order it. It was intense—richer than belly bacon. I actually had to take most of it home, it was so rich and fatty. But then that might be because it was a side order that I had in addition to the kobe beef burger that was my meal. Hard to imagine a better burger: kobe beef, cheddar cheese, freshly made bun, bacon, and organic lettuce and tomato. Yum.
It was fun to tour the store, as well, and see some of the fun local products—including Pinckney Bend whiskey. But lots of pork products, organic vegetables, baked goods, and locally produced sauces, jams, and soda pops. Great fun.
One item at the Washington Historical Society Museum caught my attention because it was familiar. In a display highlighting the service of a local hero, an Army Air Corps bomber pilot from World War II, they had a Short Snorter. It was only the second one I’d ever seen, the other one having been my father’s.
My dad was also in the Army Air Corps (ancestor of the Air Force) during World War II, and it was the fliers who created these mementos of their time in the service. To make a short snorter, you tape together paper money from every country in which you serve, and then have your friends and fellow fliers sign it. The bills/notes are rolled tightly and kept in one’s pocket, to be handy when another friend was made and needed to sign.
According to the museum display, the owner of the shortest short snorter had to buy a round of drinks when the opportunity arose. My dad’s short snorter is at least twice as long as the one in the museum, which leads me to believe that he rarely had to buy. (And knowing my dad, who loved people and could make friends with anyone, I can imagine the delight with which he added to his short snorter.)
Anyway, I was delighted to see this reminder of my father. It was also nice to see that someone else really had participated in this charming tradition.
Next place we visited was the Washington Historical Society Museum. I like small-town museums, but this exceeded expectations—partly because it was such a beautifully and lovingly organized collection and partly because Washington had a history that surpassed my expectation. The region became part of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase and, once settlers began to come, trade on the Missouri River made it prosperous.
The museum highlighted the role the river played in local and national history, local businesses over two centuries, decorative arts, plants and animals, involvement in the Civil War and two World Wars, and more.
The area was largely settled by Germans, so German influence was much in evidence. Two elements of German culture in particular, revealed by impressive displays, fascinated me. The first was the display on the Turn Verein in Washington. I looked these words up, and Turn is from the German Turnen, which means “practice gymnastics” and Verein means “club or union.” So gymnastics club. Old films ran of precision teams doing synchronized exercises. Photos and displays showed equipment and members, and info cards explained a bit of the history. Founded in 1859, the Washington Turn Verein took a break during the Civil War, but then started up again. This was not a local movement, but rather an international phenomenon. From 1878 to 1897, Washington, MO, was the Turn Verein Headquarters for the United States.
Then, upstairs, we browsed through antiques, photographic equipment, Native American artifacts, and other local historic items. The largest exhibit, however, was of Franz Schwarzer and his zithers. There was a monitor with a video available—a video which, in fact, had been written and produced by Ralph, my guide for this visit. It revealed a remarkable climb by Schwarzer from local artisan to the best zither maker in the world, with a gold medal from the international competition in Austria. During his very productive career, Schwarzer made approximately 11,000 zithers!
Astonishing to realize that this relatively small town (about 14,000 residents) was at one time the focus of national and international attention. The world is always so much more interesting than one expects.
And if you’re interested in more info on Washington, the Historical Society website is very good.
Among the things Ralph did to enrich my visit was arrange for a tour of the historic Missouri Meerschaum corncob pipe factory. This place is 147 years old and has over the years produced the pipes smoked by a wide range of luminaries, including Generals Pershing and Macarthur, as well as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. It is not the only company in the U.S. making corncob pipes, but it is the largest and the oldest.
The company’s general manager, Phil Morgan, guided us through the rooms of the spacious, old factory, explaining the steps involved in producing the famous pipes—of which they produce roughly 800,000 per year.
Not just any corn can be used. The cob needs to be strong and rigid, and it needs to be the right size. There actually is a variety of corn called pipe corn, and the company grows their own. Worth noting is that, as with other operations that utilize corn, nothing is wasted. Once the corn is shelled, the kernels go to Pinckney Bend, for their Pipe Corn Whiskey. Then (and you already may have guessed this if you’ve read my book), the protein left after the starch is converted to alcohol is wonderfully rich and a great addition to feed for pigs. So an extremely efficient process.
The building is old, but many of the machines are new. Workers at the many stations cut the cobs, shape them, plug the open ends, add stems, and finish the pipes. I love watching things take shape in skilled hands, and the many veteran employees were clearly skilled. At each station, the corncobs looked more like pipes.
I don’t smoke, but those who do say that corncob pipes offer the coolest and sweetest smoking possible. If you want to read a bit more of the company’s history, or see how varied the finished pipes can be, here is their website: http://corncobpipe.com/
Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about having heard from a distiller in New Haven, Missouri. Ralph Haynes of Pinckney Bend Distillery had left an enthusiastic review on Amazon of my book, Midwest Maize, and had then contacted me about my book having encouraged him and his partners in their pursuit of whiskeys made from heirloom corn, which are recreating the tastes of the 1800s. (Three bottles of this heirloom corn are shown above, with the type of corn identified on the bottom label. The Wapsie Valley was my favorite.) At the time, he suggested I come down to New Haven, to check out the whiskey and to enjoy some of the very picturesque area—and maybe even do a presentation about corn.
Last year, it seemed unlikely that I’d get there, but when a conference appeared on my calendar that was taking me about that far south, though a bit to the east (Louisville, KY, to be exact – more on this on my The World’s Fare blog), I thought I might come home by way of Missouri. Ralph’s wife, who managed the local library district, arranged for the offered presentation opportunity, so I got to do my “How Corn Changed Itself and Then Changed Everything Else” talk for a most appreciative local crowd.
The distillery is just a few yards from the Missouri River, at the end of a street of historic buildings and just off the Lewis and Clark Trail. So I was delighted with the location, even without having a distillery close at hand. And within the distillery, in addition to gleaming stills and colorful heirloom corn varieties, there were maps and tales of the meandering Missouri River and steamboats that were sunk by the river’s snags and bends. (In the photo below, the river feature called Pinckney Bend is in the center, and you can see that, even when the river changed its course, it still “bent” at this spot.)
There were also a lot of antiques related to corn growing and processing, including shellers and jabbers, which I talk about in my book, so I was really having fun. Plus the modern equipment is remarkably handsome. They have two stills, one slightly larger than the other. The one below is the smaller of the two stills.
Of course, I did get to try some of the elegant whiskeys produced by Pinckney Bend, as well as their gin, and I toured their facility. But Ralph had also planned a few other things for me to see, both with him and on my own. So it was a lovely few days of exploring—as you’ll see over the next few posts.