Category Archives: Food

Recalling food favorites of the good old (and not so old) days…

Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly (or both, come to think of it) knows I really like food.

The other day, I got to thinking about the many different kinds of food I’ve had over the years, from childhood on, that I’ll not likely be able to enjoy again.

What brought on the introspection was starting off my meal at an area buffet restaurant with cottage cheese and pickled beets. Granted, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid. And while pickled beets and cottage cheese are available in just about every grocery store in the country, it was the cottage cheese that prompted memories of my favorite kind when I was a little kid growing up out on the farm.

In those days, we had our own cow, a placid Guernsey my sisters had named Daisy. My dad milked her twice a day in a stall in the barn, sitting a three-legged milking stool, occasionally expertly aiming a shot of fresh milk from Daisy’s udder to one of the barn cats that crowded around waiting for a treat. When he was done milking, Dad would take the bucket of fresh milk in the house and down the basement to run it through the separator that separated (most of) the cream from the milk.

My family used Daisy’s milk for a number of things, from morning cereal to coffee cream (the real thing!) to ingredients for baking and cooking. That milk was also manufactured into two other products that we really enjoyed, meaning now we’re getting back to the cottage cheese part of the story.

Cottage cheese container

Sort of, kind of the containers we’d get from Aunt Bess filled with homemade cottage cheese.

My mother would occasionally take a large container or two of Daisy’s milk over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who was one of the many aunts and uncles I had out in that neighborhood who were of absolutely no blood relation to me at all. But they were all like family, especially Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim. Aunt Bess would then somehow magically transform the milk my mother took to her into cottage cheese, which we were invited to go back and pick up a few days later. She always packaged in in two tall aluminum containers, and it tasted wonderful.

It’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever have the chance to taste Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese again, in this lifetime at least. Nor will I ever be able to taste the butter my grandmother made from Daisy’s cream. I remember her making it with an electric churn, and then working out the buttermilk and the salt in using a wooden paddle in a large wooden bowl. My dad loved buttermilk, but I was never able to acquire a taste for it, although using it in pancakes, banana nut muffins, and the like is a really good idea. The taste of my grandmother’s homemade butter is another thing I’m probably never going to be able to enjoy again.

A couple more of my grandmother’s foods I’ll likely never see again are her molasses cookies (my dad would sometimes crumble up a couple in a bowl and have them for breakfast with some of Daisy’s milk) and her homemade bread, which my grandfather didn’t particularly care for. My grandfather, instead, loved sliced commercial bakery bread delivered by the Peter Wheat Bread man. That, however, was fine with me because that meant more of grandma’s amazing homemade bread for me.

Cookstove

Grandma’s cookstove looked something like this, and it dominated her farmhouse kitchen.

Grandma’s baking was all done in her huge black and white porcelain wood-fired cook stove that dominated her kitchen. She had a modern propane-fueled range, too, but she favored her cookstove for baking. How, I once asked her, did she regulate the temperature to get the right results? “Well,” she said, “you just stick your hand in the oven and when it’s the right heat, then you do your baking.”

When I was really little, we still butchered our own pork and beef, using hogs and steers my dad had carefully picked out and fed especially for the purpose. After butchering, we’d get the occasional covered bowl of pickled heart or pickled tongue from grandma that made really great sandwiches. Those are things you just don’t see in the grocery store these days, at least not around these parts.

During those long ago summers, my family seemed to attend a never-ending series of picnics, each of which featured a wonderful potluck dinner or supper. My mother’s specialty for these occasions was her baked fried chicken, which was outstanding. She made it by first dredging the chicken parts in seasoned flour and then frying it in her big cast aluminum Pan-American frying pan. Then she finished it by baking it in the oven. It came out nearly falling off the bone, cooked through, moist and tasting wonderful. That kind of chicken used to be available at the Amana Colonies out in Iowa, but in recent years it’s been dropped in favor of regular fried chicken—a culinary loss to the Midwest.

At our annual family reunion in August, along with my mother’s chicken, we enjoyed a huge selection of desserts, some of which I’ll likely never taste again such as wonderberry pie and ground cherry pie. Both wonderberries and ground cherries are relatively labor-intensive to grow and as they are considered heirloom plants these days, are not easily available at your local garden center. But back in that day and age, they were found in lots of farm gardens. My grandmother had a ground cherry patch outside her back door. They always reminded me of tiny yellow cherries growing inside Japanese lanterns.

In the early spring each year, the Wheatland United Presbyterian Church just down the road from our farm held their annual pancake supper, put on by the young farming families. It was their major fundraiser for the year, and was extremely popular, drawing visitors from far and wide. One of the major draws was the sausage they served with their pancakes. It was whole hog sausage, made from a couple entire hogs, which were donated by a congregation member and made by the volunteer sausage committee members. For my taste, it was seasoned perfectly with just the right amount of salt, pepper and—most importantly—sage, because you can’t have decent breakfast sausage without sage.

Scrapple & egg

About the only thing better for breakfast than fried mush and eggs is scrapple and eggs. Our neighbor Sam’s homemade scrapple was a true gourmet treat of my childhood.

Enjoying that quality of sausage ever again is unlikely, as is the scrapple our neighbor Sam made after we moved into town. He called it by another of its Pennsylvania Dutch names, pon haus, and it was wonderful. You can buy canned scrapple these days, but it resembles scrapple about as much as Spam resembles ham. If you can wait, it’s really best to make a special trip east to Pennsylvania Dutch country in Pennsylvania or Delaware and either buy it at a farmers’ market or at a small country diner. But however you are able to get hold of some these days, it won’t hold a candle to the taste of Sam’s pon haus.

Image result for watermelon ahead sign

On our summer Kansas trips during my childhood we’d keep a sharp eye out for a sign advertising a roadside watermelon stand, where an ice cold slice could be had for 15 or 20 cents, welcome relief in those pre-air conditioned auto days.

Some of the foods I enjoyed in my younger life tasted good, I suspect, just because of the situation I was in when eating them. Ice cold watermelon at the picnic table of a roadside stand on the dusty Kansas prairie during a hot summer trip to visit relatives; fresh lobster boiled while we watched at a picnic table at a roadside stand along the Connecticut shore; Yorkshire pudding and roast beef in a Yorkshire, England restaurant; a fountain-mixed root beer at the soda fountain in Oswego’s Main Cafe on a hot 1959 summer afternoon; and a 2” thick slice of raspberry pie at a country diner during the Kansas wheat harvest all left wonderful memories of those times and places.

I recall asking my grandmother one time whether she’d ever like to go back to visit “the gold old days” of her younger life. After thinking for a moment, she ventured “Maybe for supper.” She explained that she missed the canned roast beef they used to put up when she was a youngster and a young married woman in the days before home freezers. She said the taste and texture of the meat, tender and moist, was simply not available any more.

So I seem to come by my food nostalgia naturally; it’s apparently embedded in my DNA. Some of those eating experiences are gone forever—Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese—but there’s an outside chance that I may someday still get a chance to enjoy a good scrapple breakfast again or maybe even a slice of wonderberry pie. A person can certainly hope…

 

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Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

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Trying to stay one step ahead of destruction in the Machine Age

When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Čapek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother, Josef, he had human-shaped machines in mind that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.

Image result for tobor captain video

65 years later, Tobot doesn’t look nearly as frightening as he did to my 7 year-old self.

Today, millions of robots are quietly and industriously going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of SF literature or the robots we grew up watching on TV and in the movies. I recall being scared to death of the Tobot character (“robot” spelled backwards) when I watched “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” as a little kid. Robbie the robot in “Forbidden Planet” was a good-natured mechanical man, as was Robot, the combination nanny and straight man on “Lost in Space.”

But instead of humanoid machines mingling in modern society, these days robotic carts deliver parts from storage to machine in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of trucks and autos these days; and deep space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years over the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth. Robots even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.

In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things—or make even bigger profits without all those pesky union contracts to deal with.

On the plus side, machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever could move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.

No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that rock-moving lever noted above. Or it could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.

The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations right up through the present was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.

Image result for Ben Hur chariot race

No wheels, no Ben-Hur chariot race. Bummer.

But far from being simply a troublemaker, the wheel has also, over the course of history, been the greatest labor saving device ever invented, and may well have led to the invention of civilization. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes, and other great capitals of the ancient world. And something as simple as a wheelbarrow lighten the workload on generation after generation of workers.

When put to work properly and with some innovation, wheels made manufacturing possible on large scales for the first time.

The water wheel was probably invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became not only possible but practical.

Gears and pulleys—also wheels—allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down and then round and round to saw trees into lumber.

At some time or other, an inventive person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. A trip hammer is lifted by a cam—basically a bulge—attached to a shaft turned by waterpower. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly rising and falling hammer? Let us count the ways.

Image result for water powered trip hammer

Water-powered trip hammers made work from blacksmithing to dye making much easier.

In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stocks could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.

Water powered hammers were also useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate the tiresome process of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron to flatten or weld or shape them, making workers more productive.

In addition, falling or flowing water could also power all manner of other complicated machine assemblages from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to those sawmill blades mentioned above.

Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first wave of settlement in the 1830s. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merritt Clark, Levi Gorton and the others found likely sites along the county’s creeks and rivers and built their dams and mills.

1900 (abt) Parker Mills

Levi Gorton built the gristmill on the riverbank just north of Oswego at left, and Nathaniel Rising added the sawmill in the right foreground, while George Parker added a furniture factory wing to the sawmill.

Gristmills were usually the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their com, barley, oats, and wheat into flour. But sawmills were almost as quickly built, and lumber for homes for the county’s growing population was soon available.

All manner of water-powered factories followed, and even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was soon sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale later in the warm months of the year.

The steam engine—which also relies on wheels to operate—gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low or high water levels, and they don’t freeze up in the winter.

Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engines installed aboard boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.

Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network is bringing people together as nothing else ever has. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.

Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote new dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom of civilization before it destroys both.

 

 

 

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So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Spring planting a tradition around these parts for millennia

Spring planting is about ready to begin once again on the Illinois prairie, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago.

The first American pioneer farmers arrived here in the Fox River Valley area in the late 1820s. But the region’s Native People had already been farming for thousands of years by the time those first settlers arrived.

Most experts previously believed that agriculture in what is now the continental U.S. was imported from Mexico, along with the trinity of subtropical crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. What is now accepted, after decades of archaeological work, is that the eastern United States is one of about ten regions in the world to become independent centers of agricultural origin.

The initial four plants known to have been domesticated by those earliest, pre-maize prehistoric farmers were goosefoot, sunflowers, marsh elder, and squash. Several other species of plants were subsequently added to the list of domesticated wild plants.

After 200 BCE when maize—corn—from Mexico was introduced into what is now the eastern United States, the Native People of the present-day United States and Canada soon stopped growing domesticated varieties of native plants, switching to an agricultural economy based on growing fields of maize complimented by beans and squash. As that evolution took place, the cultivation of domesticated native plants declined until it was almost wholly abandoned, and the domesticated native plants quickly reverted to their wild forms.

Cultivating Crops

Native People began cultivating and modifying native plants thousands of years ago.

Horticulture intensified in the Woodland period, and most Native American populations began living in villages near their fields. In about AD 800, corn and beans reached the Mississippi Valley, and by about AD 1000, the Mississippian culture that relied on corn, beans, and squash was established in Alabama.

Squash of the Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana variety is considered to be one of the first domesticated native plants in the Eastern Woodland region, having been found in use here some 7,000 years ago. However, it doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly domesticated until around 3,000 years ago.

That earliest variety of squash was originally raised for its edible seeds, and used for small containers (gourds) when dried. Squash with edible flesh came quite a bit later.

Other edible native plants domesticated by the region’s Native People included little barley, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers.

These edible plants are often divided by those studying the subject into “oily” and “starchy” categories. Oily edible seeds are produced by sunflowers and sumpweeds, while erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive Japanese cousin) and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starchy. Maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that produce grains that may be ground to make flour, are also starches.

So how have we discovered all this new information? According to the most recent findings by archaeologists, humans were already collecting native edible plants by 6,000. Then Native People discovered by could modify them by selective breeding and cultivation. Archaeologists confirmed that process in the 1970s when they began noticing significant differences in seeds, burned and otherwise, collected in Native Peoples’ village sites, especially when those seeds were compared to their counterparts still growing in the wild. When carefully studied, the seeds collected in village sites were not only larger, but they were also easier to separate from their shells, husks, or chaff. It was those comparisons that led archaeologists to conclude ancient farmers had begun manipulating the genetics of wild plants by selective breeding much longer ago than previously thought.

One of the major regions where these successful efforts at ancient agriculture flourished is right here in the middle Mississippi River Valley, stretching from Memphis in the south to St. Louis in the north in a belt roughly 300 miles on either side of the river in the current states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

So far, the oldest-known archaeological site in the United States where ancient people have been found to be purposefully growing—rather than gathering—food is the Phillips Spring site in Missouri. At Phillips Spring, dating from 3,000 BCE, Archaeologists have found large numbers of walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, grapes, elderberries, ragweed, bottle gourd, and the seeds of a gourd that produces edible seeds that is the ancestor of pumpkins and most squashes. The gourd seeds found at the site were significantly larger than the wild variety, leading archaeologists to determine the plants’ genetics had been purposefully manipulated by native farmers who selected, planted, and then carefully tended the seeds that produced ever larger and more nutritious seeds. And eventually, continual genetic manipulation led to the gourds producing edible flesh as well.

Marsh elder is one of the many native plants ancient Native People domesticated for use as food before the introduction of maize–corn–an import from Mexico.

By 1800 BCE, Native People considered part of the Late Archaic cultural tradition in our region of the United States were cultivating a number of different plants. At the Riverton Site near downstate Palestine, IL in Crawford County, archaeologists have excavated one of best-known sites that illustrate the ancient people’s cultivation and domestication of native plants. At the Riverton Site, 10 dwelling houses have been excavated and studied, suggesting a village with a population of between 50 and 100 people. The fire hearths and storage pits excavated turned out to include a large number of plant remains. Among those remains were large numbers of seeds goosefoot, also called lamb’s quarters that the scientists determined came from cultivated and domesticated plants. They reached this conclusion because some of the seeds had husks only a third as thick as the plants’ wild varieties, making them much easier to process into food after harvesting.

As the years passed into the Middle Woodland cultural tradition, gardeners continued to cultivate and improve squash and gourds as Archaic Indians had done, but they also domesticated several other native plants that are considered to be weeds today. Building on their knowledge of Illinois’ native plants, Middle Woodland people began to establish gardens of goosefoot, marsh elder, little barley, maygrass, and other varieties of squash. Each autumn, they saved seeds from the best of the plants growing in their fields and then planted them when spring rolled around again. Eventually, these Native People became increasingly committed to particular plots of land and created a way of life organized around both wild and domesticated plants.

But change, in the form of maize, was just over the horizon. Strangely enough, though, as well as we know maize—we’ve been cultivating it around these parts for many hundreds of years now—we know very little about its origin. Many of those trying to figure out where it came from have fingered a grass named teosinte as the ancestor of modern corn. But there’s a fairly serious problem: Teosinte does not have a cob. This has led some of those looking into the mystery to suggest corn’s ancestor was some other wild grass that has now disappeared entirely.

Researchers Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, suggest in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica that: “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

One problem is, however, that this “wild form” of corn has never been found in either the historical or archaeological record.

Another significant problems is there is no evidence that the early peoples of the Americas ever used or harvested teosinte. Finally, it has been theorized for a long time now that the Maya of Central and South America had cultivated and crossbred teosinte into maize. But no evidence has ever been discovered of this, either.

About all archaeologists and plant scientists have been able to nail down is that maize quickly became the most important staple grain in ancient Mexico. Ziz maize suddenly appeared about 4800 BCE on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco, Mexico, for instance. But there are no known wild specie of it in that area, suggesting it was imported, even at that early date, from somewhere else. After its abrupt appearance, the cultivation and genetic enhancement of maize became the focus of ancient American farmers.

But while maize quickly became the most important food grain for ancient peoples beans weren’t far behind. According to most current evidence, beans were originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala—the same areas where Zia maize was developed. The really neat thing about the beans those ancient farmers crossbred and improved so long ago is that beans’ proteins naturally complement the proteins in maize. Beans, it turns out, produce the acids lysine and tryptophan that nicely complement the amino acid zein from maize.

So with the invention of corn and beans, two of the legs of the Native Peoples’ Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—were in place where they joined the third leg that had already been undergoing genetic breeding for thousands of years.

2017 planting corn in Illinois

In another month and a half, area farmers will once again be looking to start planting corn and beans–just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Although it’s pretty obvious the methods they’ll be using this year have undergone some changes.

It took a while, but gradually maize and its complimentary beans spread north into the Mississippi River Valley, where its cultivation quickly displaced growing the region’s domesticated crops. Corn, beans, and native squash and other gourds caused the abandonment of the old, locally developed, strains of little barley, lambsquarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers, and the reversion of the cultivated strains of those plants to their native states.

Now, many centuries after corn and beans made their way north of their native Mexico and Central America, they still make up the bulk of the fields farmers in the Fox Valley plant. Granted, today’s soybeans are a strain developed in Asia, where they were being grown as long ago as 7000 BCE. It has always seemed ironic to me that our modern soybeans were developed by the descendants of some of the same people who crossed the land bridge to North America tens of thousands of years ago to become the people who also invented corn. All of which is nice historic and prehistoric symmetry, don’t you think?

 

 

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Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Eight

So we got to Polson, Montana just fine, although we had to drive through some mid-September snow to get there. Although it was cloudy, rainy, snowy, and rainy again as we forged north from Salt Lake City, it was a pretty drive. We crossed the Continental Divide twice along the route north, and again my mind kept straying back to Lewis and Clark who were the first Americans to penetrate this vast, distant wilderness.

2017 9-15 Flathead Lake

Even on a cloudy day, the view coming down out of the mountains to Flathead Lake at Polson, Montana is a pretty sight.

Bob and his wife live on a small ranch just outside Polson, with mountains for a dramatic backdrop. A friend of mine suggested it is a ranchette, but I’ve always figured ranchettes were western hobby farms. George W. Bush’s ‘ranch’ was a hobby farm—a ranchette. Bob’s place is a small working ranch, where the deer and the yaks play in the pasture.

As Bob observed the night we got there, I’m his oldest friend and he’s mine. We met when we were six years old the first day of classes at Church School out in rural Wheatland Township. There were five kids in our first grade class, Bob and I, and two other boys, Gene and Ricky, and one girl, Diane. Bob’s farm was just up the road about a mile from my parents’ farm, with Church School about the same distance south of our farm.

Bob and Roger

The author (left) and his good buddy Bob out on the farm with two friendly dogs. Note the box of Sugar Frosted Flakes kept ready to hand.

Bob and I and Diane eventually went through all 12 grades together. But we didn’t know what the future would hold for those of us going to that one-room country school.

We loved watching TV and fooling around on our walks home from school in the afternoon. When “The Adventures of Superman” hit the television airwaves, we were enthralled, with the episode where Superman creates a diamond out of a lump of coal by super-squeezing it making a particular impression. On our way home one day we found a lump of coal alongside the road—a not unlikely occurrence in the days when most of the farmhouses in our neighborhood had coal-fired furnaces. We figured that if Superman could make a diamond by squeezing a lump of coal, maybe we could do the same thing. We knew we weren’t super-strong, so we found as many big rocks as we could and piled them carefully on top of the chunk of coal and then proceeded to check it every day when we walked home—we figured we could really use the profits from selling a diamond. But alas, the coal stayed coal and no diamond ever appeared.

Jim & Pidge

Hal Roach Studios made three Jim and Pidge movies staring Jimmy Rogers and Noah Beery Jr. in the early 1940s. They later became serialized staples on kids’ TV shows like “Captain Video and His Video Rangers.”

We were also big fans of Captain Video (and his Video Rangers), and watched his show religiously, especially enjoying the short cowboy movies and serials that were part of the program. One of our favorites was the Jim and Pidge series, with Bob always wanting to be Jim, meaning I had to be content with being Pidge.

In one of those films, there was a bit about a rancher raising Brahma bulls that immediately caught our eye—because Bob’s dad had one of the evil-tempered creatures out in their cattle yard. After seeing that the bulls would supposedly chase anything that was red, we had to try it out, which we did with a red bandana. Not sure if it was the color or just the fact we were inside his fence, but we found out Brahma bulls do not like pieces of cloth waived at them. Fortunately, we were pretty fast on our feet (you accelerate pretty quickly with a thousand pounds of bad mood with blood in its eye chasing you) and the fence was easy to climb.

After high school, I stayed around our hometown of Oswego, while Bob and his wife moved west, first to Colorado and then to Montana, where he worked for power companies and actually became one of those cowboys portrayed by Jim and Pidge.

He spent many summers for a couple decades inspecting high-tension lines through mountain areas of those two states on horseback. He had to visually inspect each tower or pole and keep a diary of the condition of the tower and the lines to make sure there were no situations that might cause wildfires. If he found repairs that had to be done, he’d call it in by radio and they’d send a helicopter and repair crew out to the site because the lines he checked were inaccessible by motor vehicle. He said it was sort of lonely, just him, his horse, his packhorse, and his dog dozens of miles from nowhere. But added that the solitude and the scenery were great.

After he retired he took up another career as a horse buyer, trainer and transporter. For a while he specialized in breaking wild horses to ride, but was also hired to train horses for both riding and driving. He got a job with a consortium of drug companies working on various equine disease vaccines and was responsible for buying horses for their trials, training them to stand quietly while blood samples were drawn or they were vaccinated or other tests were done. Then he arranged their sales to good homes after the trials were complete. He said he considered doing one more stint with the equine drug companies, but noted that like the rest of us, he’s getting too old for the training/breaking part and isn’t anxious to get any more broken bones. It’s a younger man’s game, he ruefully noted.

He’s currently engaged in raising those yaks that we were surprised to see in his back pasture. He raises them for some rich guy who’s invested in yak breeding stock. Apparently yak meat is very healthy and is sought-after by a certain class of people because of its low fat content and other reasons I can’t remember right now. Every spring, Yaks can be combed out and the hair they shed can be spun into very fine yarn. Also, yak milk can be turned into a fine butter.

Bob said they’re better tempered than cattle, and they’re also smaller and eat less. One main concern is grizzly bears, two of which the fish and game people had to trap in his back pasture last year after they killed a couple of his neighbor’s llamas (Montana stock raising isn’t exactly what I’d pictured). The sow grizzly was relocated about 30 miles away. The boar, which turned out to be the biggest ever trapped by the Montana fish and game folks, had to be euthanized because this was the third incident where it had definitely killed livestock.

Typical Polson espresso kiosk

A typical Polson espresso kiosk.

Modern Montana livestock raising was a surprise, but I was happy to see the area around Flathead Lake is still obsessed with espresso. The stuff is sold in little kiosks that look like those old Fotomat booths that used to dot shopping centers. Mornings, especially, dusty pick-up trucks with gun racks in their back windows line up for their morning pick-me-ups.

So yaks and llamas and espresso and cowboys…it’s good to get out and see the countryside so you don’t get too settled in your notions about the way things are or ought to be in areas you’ve never been before.

 

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