Tag Archives: food

At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

While the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, a ground beef patty served on bread or a bun, may have been invented in a small town diner in Texas (views vary; strongly), it’s pretty much a sure thing that the cheeseburger was invented right here in Illinois.

When Kendall County’s first pioneer farmers arrived, they found a land of almost inconceivable richness where opportunity seemed limitless. The problem was, that while the Fox Valley’s rich, deep topsoil grew extremely bountiful crops, it was difficult to get all that grain, livestock, and other farm produce to a market where someone would pay for it.

Grain was expensive to ship overland due to the region’s truly awful road system. Until well after the Civil War, most rural roads (and most of them in small towns, too) were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie that turned into bottomless quagmires after every rain and following the spring melt of every winter’s snow.

1860-hog-drive

Until better roads were available, the easiest way to get hogs and cattle to the Chicago market was to drive them there overland.

But grain can be turned into many other useful things, such as cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. Livestock, unlike a bushel of grain, can walk to market all by itself, so until sufficient rail service was available, cattle and hog drives were not uncommon sights as the Fox Valley’s livestock farmers got their animals to the Chicago or Joliet market.

Grain can not only feed cattle destined to be turned into steaks and roasts, of course, but can also be turned into milk, and the products derived from it.

Before the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was pushed northeast from Streator to Geneva in 1870, dairying in Kendall County was important, but the county’s relative distance from larger markets meant problems in getting raw milk to market. When the new rail line opened, that helped ease some of the problems getting milk to market, but trains ran on tight schedules that didn’t necessarily match the needs of dairy farmers. And the line was still distant from many farmers, meaning that trips over the terrible roads of the era still meant large investments in time and labor.

oswego-chesse-and-butter-factory

W.H. McConnell’s Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory opened in the spring of 1877. One of its first major contracts for butter and cream was with Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel.

And that’s when America’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. If it was proving too difficult to get milk to markets in larger towns, why not create milk-processing factories nearer to the farms that were producing it?

One of the first to fill this need was W.H. McConnell. In 1870, a brewery had been built between the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) and the new railroad right-of-way just north of Oswego’s village limits and atop a strong natural spring. Despite the area’s large German population, however, the brewery was a bust. But McConnell figured it would make the perfect location for a creamery, a factory to turn raw milk into butter, cheese, and other related products. It was adjacent to the railroad line, so getting his plant’s products to market would be easy.

The brewery’s access to a cold, clear fresh water spring offered natural cooling for safe storage of the newly produced cheese and butter, but just to help Mother Nature out a bit, Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting and storage facility about a half mile north of the creamery site in 1874.

So W.H. McConnell & Company opened for business early in 1877. Within months, the changeover from beer to butter was complete. By March 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped, in a measure, the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

1873-grand-pacific-hotel-chicagoBy May 9, 1878, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Oswego’s creamery had gotten the contract to supply a major Chicago hotel: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

The Grand Pacific Hotel was a big deal, in more ways than one. Destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1873, covering the entire block bounded by Clark, LaSalle, Quincy, and Jackson streets. That McConnell was able to get the butter and cream contract was a real coup.

1904 NaAuSay Creamery.jpg

NaAuSay Township’s cooperative creamery was located a good distance from any town, and served dozens of area dairy farmers.

Other creameries soon opened throughout Kendall County. In those pre-electricity days, they were powered by small steam engines, meaning they could be located about anywhere—and they were—from rural NaAuSay Township, where today’s Walker Road crosses the AuSable Creek; to Plattville, Lisbon; and Millington. On the south side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—McConnell opened another creamery at Hydraulic and Main Street, and he also opened one at Bristol Station on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line. The Palace Car Creamery Company’s creamery and butter factory was located at the northeast corner of Hydraulic Avenue and Main Street.

With sufficient markets available, Kendall County farmers responded by greatly expanding their dairy herds. In 1870, the U.S. Government’s farm census reported there were just under 6,000 dairy cows on county farms. By 1880, the number ballooned to 9,000 before topping out in 1890 with 9,500 dairy cattle.

In order to get milk to the creameries, farmers first hauled their own, but within a short time, some farmers figured there was money to be made hauling their neighbors’ milk to local creameries.

Graham farm scene

Fred Graham, sitting in the wagon at left, was one of the Kendall County farmers who earned additional money by hauling milk from dairy farms to the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory in Oswego.

In 1900, the construction of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Company’s interurban line down the Fox River from Aurora to Yorkville offered a handier way to transport farmers’ milk to creameries in Aurora. In addition, the development of efficient motorized trucks and the subsequent improvement of roads also made it easier to get milk to markets once considered far too distant.

The changes in transportation led to the disappearance of the small local creameries that dotted the rural landscape since larger dairies could pay more money for farmers’ milk and were more profitable.

kraft-cheese-box

Joseph Kraft packed his patented processed American Cheese in 2 and 5 pound wooden boxes that were shipped all over the world. The cheese melted nicely, leading a nameless Kraft worker to invent the cheeseburger sometime in the 1920s.

And with all the dairy products being manufactured also came innovation. Chicago dairyman Joseph Kraft patented a method of processing cheese into a product that was not only more stable than the familiar cheddar, Swiss, and brick cheeses (meaning it could be stored and shipped far easier), but the process could be industrialized with Kraft’s cheese being mass produced. His new “American Cheese” was packed in tin cans and six million pounds of the stuff was shipped off to help feed Allied armies during World War I.

It proved a popular product here at home, too, especially after cooks found that American Cheese melted nicely without separating like natural cheeses did. At the Kraft Cheese labs in Chicago, they continually experimented with ways to use this new cheese product. One of those innovations was to top a hamburger with melted American Cheese.

And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.

Kendall County’s love of dairying gradually cooled. Managing a dairy herd is hard, labor-intensive work. Cows have to be milked twice daily, 365 days a year. Hand-milking was hard, but ingenuity soon produced milking machines. But those, and all their myriad parts, have to be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Milk cans have to be cleaned, and the raw milk has to be properly stored so that it’s fresh when the driver picks it up to take to the city dairy where it is processed.

The big dairies merged, and what farmers called the “Milk Trusts” came to dominate the industry. Farmers fought back during the “Milk Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gradually, like all other agricultural endeavors, dairying became a specialized. Fewer farmers wanted to bother with the labor and expense involved. By 1900, the number of dairy cows on county farms had declined by a couple hundred to 9,300 from its 1890 peak. But by 1950, the number of county milk cows had been halved to 4,000 and nine years later had been nearly halved again to 2,300. During the last farm census in 2012, there were so few dairy farmers in Kendall County that the number of cows wasn’t even reported.

Today, dairy barns still dot Kendall County’s landscape, but virtually none of them are used for the purpose for which they were built. Instead, milk is produced on large corporate-owned dairy farms that are completely divorced from the communities where their milk is sold in stores.

There’s probably more truth than ever before in the old joke about city folks being asked where milk comes from and answering “The grocery store.” And I think we can all agree that it might be a good idea to give a tip of the old hat to Joseph Kraft the next time we bite into a nice juicy cheeseburger.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History

How about a nice bowl of cereal?

I miss cereal.

Oh, I’m not totally cereal-bereft. I can—and do—still eat oatmeal, both because it’s good for my increasingly old body with its malfunctioning parts, and because it’s good.

No, the cereal I’m talking about is the boxed kind, the Honey Smacks and the Golden Crisp, and the Frosted Flakes.

Because part of the aforementioned malfunctioning of various parts is that for some reason this old body decided milk will now throw the plumbing system into serious, China Syndrome meltdown. So, goodbye bowl of cereal before bed. So long bowl of cereal for breakfast. Bye-bye bowl of cereal for mid-afternoon snack.

And it’s hard, because I enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the stuff.

shredded-wheat-box

I was lured to shredded wheat thanks to Straight Arrow’s tips on wilderness survival.

One of my earliest cereal memories is eating Nabisco shredded wheat, and looking forward to uncovering the pieces of cardboard that divided the three layers of shredded wheat biscuits in those rectangular boxes. That’s because there was neat stuff to read on those dividers.

Starting in 1949, the National Biscuit Company began printing “Straight Arrow’s secrets of Indian lore and know-how” on the dividers, which imparted all sorts of useful information, some of which still sticks in my mind to this day. The idea was that the innovative and inventive Indian, Straight Arrow, would explain how to survive in the wilderness as a way to get kids interested in eating shredded wheat. Because, let’s fact it. Shredded wheat is not a very interesting cereal, although it’s pretty healthy.

straight-arrow

Straight Arrow could survive in the wilderness with practically no modern help at all. For a 6 year-old, it was an eye-opening introduction to living off the land.

So Nabisco not only sponsored the “Straight Arrow” radio program, starting in 1949, but they also contracted with Fred L. Meagher to created the illustrated cards. I don’t know about other little kids, but they certainly hooked me.

For instance, birch bark canoes were not white like the outside of the bark but were brown like the inner layer of the bark when it was peeled off birch trees. Why? Because when birch bark dries, it naturally curls with the white outer bark inside the curl. The brilliant Ojibwa marine architects who invented birch bark canoes took advantage of the natural curl of the sheets of bark they peeled off paper birch trees to fit the bark onto the canoes’ cedar frames.

Another card insisted that when finding himself in the wilderness, a person could survive if all he had was an ax, because with a good ax and the necessary survival skills you can manufacture about anything, from one of those birch bark canoes noted above to the paddles for the canoe to a cozy bark lodge for shelter from the storm.

But shredded wheat was far from the only cereal that got my gastronomical juices flowing, although as a rule, gastronomy took a backseat to cereals sponsored by my favorite TV shows.

jets-cereal

Sugar Jets were hawked by one of my TV heroes, Jet Jackson, but each one of the things was like a little bomb dropped in my digestive tract.

Captain Midnight, for instance, was one of my favorites. It was sponsored by Ovaltine, which for some reason my mother absolutely refused to buy. But then in 1958, Captain Midnight’s name suddenly changed to Jet Jackson, and the Ovaltine sponsorship disappeared in favor of Sugar Jets Cereal. So I absolutely had to have a box of Jets in order to get the box top, but, it turned out, Jets did not agree with my digestive system at all.

So it was back to Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops (“Sugar Pops are tops!), Post Sugar Crisp and their Kellogg’s cousin, Sugar Smacks, and Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (“They’re grrrrreat!”). Sugar Corn Pops were a big favorite because they were the main sponsor of “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” one my favorite TV westerns. Favorite because Wild Bill wore his twin six-shooters butt first, which was his gimmick. The Lone Ranger had his mask, silver bullets, and black two-gun rig; Hopalong Cassidy dressed in all black that showed off nicely against his white horse, Topper; and Red Ryder had his lever-action carbine, of which I got the Daisy BB gun version when I was 9 years-old. But Wild Bill and his sidekick, Jingle Jones (who was from East Sedalia) was arguably my favorite, and thus the reason I ate so many boxes of Sugar Corn Pops.

sugar-crisp-roy-dale

First Captain Video and then Roy and Dale beckoned me with the sirens’ call to Sugar Crisp cereal.

Post Sugar Crisp was a sponsor yet another favorite cowboy TV show, “The Roy Rogers Show,” which was a sort of surrealistic time-warped show. Almost everyone rode horses, including Roy (Trigger) and Dale Evans (Buttermilk), except Roy’s sidekick Pat Brady, who drove a 1946 Jeep that had been accessorized with armor plating and which he named Nellybelle.

Cowboys weren’t the only kids’ TV personalities hawking cereal, either. I was introduced to science fiction, a lifelong love, by watching “Captain Video and his Video Rangers,” which also got me sort of hooked on Post Sugar Crisp, thanks to Post’s sponsorship of the show even before Roy and Dale and Pat showed up on TV. It was my first introduction to a robot, the show’s TOBOR character (“robot” spelled backwards) and it frankly scared the beejebus out of me.

But all that was then, and this is now. Sugar Crisp, Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes, and the rest of those carbohydrate-packed cereals are actually still around, although in deference to today’s healthy eating aspirations, Sugar Crisps are now Honey Crisps, Sugar Corn Pops are just Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes are merely Frosted Flakes.

I sometimes visit the cereal isle at the grocery store, when I can ditch my wife, who hates shopping with the heat of a thousand suns, so that for at least a few minutes I can relive the old days when digestion and metabolism were kinder processes in my much younger body. And at least I can sort of make do with my daily morning bowl of oatmeal, on which I’ve found my sugarless creamer makes a passable substitute for the milk I so enjoyed on all those cereals of decades past.

But I still miss cereal.

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Filed under entertainment, History, Nostalgia, People in History

The days when the Rawleigh man came to call…

Back not all that many years ago, grocery stores were places where you went to buy mostly staples–flour, dried beans, rice, sugar, salt, meat, perhaps canned fruit. You didn’t have to go to the store for the other things, from bread to milk to vitamins to ice cream, since they were brought to your door by the bread, milk, and sundry companies.

Out on the farm, for instance, we got our bread from the Omar Bread man, milk came from our cow, Daisy; ice cream came from the ice cream man; and spices, vitamins and useful potions and ointments came from the Rawleigh man. All my mother had to do was to be home during the day (which, being a farm wife, she was) and the stuff was delivered right to our door.

There were also a number of other door-to-door salesmen that worked rural areas. Down at the Little White School Museum, we have copies of a series of diaries written by a farm family in the first decade of the 20th Century. One of the diarists, the farm wife who lived near the Kane-Kendall border in the Hinckley-Little Rock-Plano area, noted on a bi-weekly basis that the “tea man” had been to the farm. It could have been the National Tea Company representative or the Jewel Tea Company man; she didn’t say. It would have been interesting if she would have listed what she bought from the tea man, who usually provided a variety of products from coffee and tea to other sundry items.

Rawleigh's Ointment

Every Rawleigh family had at least one round, blue tin of Raleigh’s Ointment on hand for those minor scrapes, scuffs, and bruises.

We didn’t order from the tea man when I lived on the farm, but some neighbors did. We did, however, order from the Rawleigh man. You were, my sister once reminded me, either a Rawleigh famil’y or a Watkins family. It was sort of like farmers and their cars. My dad was a Chevy man (he’d had a Model T in 1919, and vowed never to own another of Henry Ford’s products), but his friend and fishing buddy Howard Gengler was a Ford man, and they used to kid each other unmercifully.

And our extended family were all Rawleigh people, too. Every so often, the Rawleigh man would arrive in our farm driveway in what I later learned was called a panel truck with the Rawleigh logo painted in gold on the side. In our kitchen, he would open his multi-layered case and display the most fascinating variety of things ranging from bottles of vanilla extract to Rawleigh’s ointment and salve to vitamins. And best of all, there was always a small packet of gum for me.

Many years later, we went to a relative’s wedding and my mother saw someone sitting at the next table that she knew, but couldn’t immediately place. Turned out to be the Rawleigh man. Why, she asked, was he there?

“I’ve been their Rawleigh man for years,” he explained, and for him that’s all there was to it.

Omar Bread truck

Omar Bread we got; pastries not so much since my mother was an excellent baker. And we got quite a bit of bread, too, because unlike my grandmother, my mother could not abide stale bread.

Our bread man delivered Omar Bread, but my grandmother, who lived about three miles down the road, signed up with the Peter Wheat Bread man instead. She made the most wonderful homemade bread, but my grandfather liked the store-bought variety better, so the bread man delivered. The best thing was the bread man also carried a variety of sweet rolls and donuts in the big metal basket he used to lug from his truck to the house. We didn’t get many of those treats, both because my father was battling diabetes and my mother could out-bake any bread company, but my grandmother did. She loved those “boughten” cinnamon rolls. Even stale, they tasted just fine (and they usually were stale because Grandma didn’t throw anything out; you ate it until it was gone).

Peter Wheat Bread comic.jpg

Walt Kelly, later of “Pogo” fame, drew the Peter Wheat comics and other books. While not the most interesting to read, they were fine for a youngster looking for any literary port in a storm.

The best thing about Grandma’s Peter Wheat Bread man, though, was that he dropped off colorful Peter Wheat comic books. Granted, they weren’t the most interesting comic books, but for me, a kid who spent an inordinate amount of time reading, they were an absolute treat.

We had a very productive Guernsey cow (the aforementioned Daisy) for milk. After she was sold off we picked up our milk in glass jugs at The Fruit Juice House, one of the local fruit juice and dairy products chains’ stores on what was then the Lincoln Highway on Aurora’s far east side. And every once in a great while, we’d get one of those delicious Fruit Juice House malts.

My grandparents, though, had no cow and so bought their milk in dark brown bottles from the Lockwood Dairy man who drove the farm neighborhood route from the firm’s headquarters in Plainfield. Although my grandparents didn’t have a cow, Grandma was as good at making butter from the cream our cow, Daisy, produced, as she was at baking bread. Freshly baked bread with freshly churned, salted, and worked butter might not have been heaven, but it was awfully close. Daisy’s excess milk, sans cream, was taken over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who magically turned it into truly excellent cottage cheese.

Later, when we moved to town, Oatman’s milk was delivered to our door from their dairy in Aurora. Besides milk, cottage cheese, cream, and other dairy products were brought to our door by our milkman.

The delivery of bread, milk, and other such stuff was a regular feature of life in the Midwest’s small towns and rural areas from the 1930s through the 1960s before economics and the advent of “convenience” stores killed off such house-to-house service.

And in the case of the big tea companies, house-to-house and farm-to-farm deliveries started long before motor vehicles were invented to make the rounds. Some house-to-house delivery services are apparently making a comeback, especially milk deliveries. We haven’t seen a bread man making the rounds though, but the Schwanz Ice Cream man does travel routes around town making home deliveries as the company has for decades.

Basically, though, getting groceries and other products is on your own these days without the interface of a company representative extolling the virtues of, say, Rawleigh liniment or Watkins’ salve, in the comfort of our own homes. Not many of us are home during the day nowadays anyway, so it probably wouldn’t be a money-maker for aspiring door-to-door tea men and women. It’s hard to tell if this difference is better or worse than the way things used to be—but a person has to admit it definitely is a difference.

 

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Tiger Ed, Harry, and the bear…

I got to thinking after my last post on the kind of sort of subsistence farming my parents and just about all our neighbors engaged in back in the early 1950s that one my relatives was a lot deeper into the subsistence thing than we ever were.

Uncle Charlie was one of those ‘uncles’ of my childhood who was an actual uncle, by marriage, unlike several other ‘uncles’ who were not at all related.

My grandmother’s sister married Uncle Charlie, and he was a kind soul though often coming up short on the ambition scale. He and Aunt Edith had six sons, of which five lived to adulthood. Aunt Edith died a few days after giving birth to their last child—their sixth son—who my grandmother promised Edith on her deathbed to raise as her own, which she did.

Of the other brothers, Clarence died when he was a year old, the rest living on to become adults. Among them was Ed, called Tiger Ed by friends and enemies alike. Tiger Ed was a reckless youngster whose emotional development seemed to plateau around age 14 or so.

A Tiger Ed story to elucidate: During the Depression (the great one, not this last pale echo) dairy farmers were organizing to get higher prices for their milk from the big dairy companies that were mercilessly squeezing them, and the result was the Pure Milk Association, a union in everything but name. Pure Milk activists conducted all sorts of protests, some violent, to persuade and if necessary force dairy farmers into joining.

An item from the Jan. 10, 1934 Kendall County Record illustrates some of their tactics:

As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch. Colby said he thought he could get by with his load because it consisted of cream and not milk. He did not recognize the men, and they took his writing materials so he was unable to get license numbers. After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.

Wading in cream three inches deep over the pavement, Colby loaded up the empty cans and returned to Yorkville. It is thought that the insurance carried on the truck will cover the loss.

Concrete milk house

The dairy farm milk house is where milking equipment, including the metal milk cans, are cleaned and stored until used during twice-daily milking. That’s also where the cooler was located to keep milk chilled until it was picked up and hauled to market.

Pure Milk activists were reportedly not beyond burning down stubborn farmers’ dairy barns if they refused to join. The fire that destroyed my great-uncle’s diary barn, with most of his herd inside, was chalked up to the Pure Milk Association, for instance.

So with that backdrop, the folks out in our farm neighborhood were tipped off one day that plans were afoot to burn a dairy barn. So a bunch of them decided to camp out in the milk house adjacent to the barn on the night it was all supposed to go burn. The dairy barn was a beautiful one; my best friend in first grade lived on the farm and I spent quite a bit of time in it as a youngster. Its milk house was state-of-the-art for the 1930s—it was poured concrete, walls, floor and ceiling, all whitewashed inside and out, making it simple  to keep clean (notice I didn’t say easy; keeping a milk house clean is not easy) and the milk pure.

That evening, the farmers gathered in the milk house to await developments and among them was a young Tiger Ed, who brought his revolver although most of the other men were armed with shotguns. Ed, being in his late teens at the time, was exuberant and eager for action, boasting what he planned to do. At which point he pulled the revolver from his waistband and began twirling it around his trigger finger like he’d seen cowboys do in the Saturday movie serials. At which point someone yelled at him to just put the damned gun away before he shot somebody, whereupon Ed angrily shoved it back into his waistband, causing the revolver to fire.

One of the people present said that when the pistol went off, the bullet ricocheted around the concrete interior of the milk house packed with terrified farmers for what seemed to be hours before it came to rest—in Tiger Ed’s rear end. The incident deflated the posse’s ardor and they all went home–except for Ed, who went to the doctor–but forever after, especially when he was working as a bartender, Tiger Ed would show you his wound if you asked nicely.

But I’m trying to get at subsistence farming here and for that we need to consider Tiger Ed’s older brother Harry. When Harry was a youngster, my father asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and after some thought Harry said he figured he wanted to be a tramp.

And to be truthful, he did have a somewhat checkered career. In the early 1950s he somehow got hired as a motorcycle police officer. Back in the day, relatives on both sides of my mother’s family started a social group called the Can’t Be Beat Club that would have summer picnics and holiday parties. And at one of those picnics on a hot summer day at Aurora’s Phillips Park, Harry stopped by, in uniform, with his motorcycle and proceeded to ride it back and forth while doing tricks on it—standing on the seat, riding backwards, doing a handstand—it was thrilling for us little kids and, I assume, appalling for the adults.

Ma & Pa Kettle's farm

While Harry and Juinita’s northwoods farm didn’t look exactly like Ma and Pa Kettle’s farm, the atmosphere was fairly similar.

Eventually Harry became a true genius at welding and that’s how he made his living the rest of his life. And for a good part of that late life, he moved his family up into the wilds of northern Wisconsin where they lived on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest. Harry would farm and raise kids until the family was out of money, at which time he’d leave the northwoods to do welding jobs until he’d accumulated enough cash and then head back home before the cycle repeated.

Harry’s wife was a formidable redhead named Juanita. Harry and Juanita were, for the early 1960s, an unconventional couple. Along with their natural children, they (because they were the kindest folks you’d ever meet) also raised a tribe of foster children. I was a teenager when my folks took me to visit them at their farm in the woods, which strongly reminded me of the set for a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. The doors and windows were all open and chickens were wandering in and out of the house, along with numerous children, dogs, and cats. Having been raised in an extremely structured environment, it was truly a revelation to me, an initial point of reference as I lived through the years of hippies and communes.

Juanita gave us the complete tour of her house, including the cellar, which was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning under hundreds of glass jars of every sort of fruit and vegetable that grew on their property. As she proudly waved her arms describing the results of the family’s labor to subsist on their own land, she also pointed to the meat they’d canned, pork, beef, chicken, “And there,” she pointed, “is the bear.”

Bear? my mother wondered with an odd catch in her voice. Yes, bear.

Farmall

Not sure what model Farmall Harry and Juanita owned up in the northwoods, but it looked a lot like this one. It made a great bear retriever.

Turned out that a few weeks before, Juanita had sent the kids out to pick raspberries. They hadn’t been gone lone before they all came pelting back scared witless, screaming that a bear was in the berry patch. I believe I mentioned that Juanita was a formidable woman, and when something threatened her brood of natural and foster kids, she turned into a real tiger. Loading Harry’s shotgun, she hopped on their old Farmall tractor, and set off to the berry patch shouting at the kids to stay inside and that’s she’d “take care of that damned bear.”

Which she did. Killed it dead with three rounds from Harry’s Remington 12 gauge pump shotgun. Then she wrapped a log chain around the bear’s back legs and dragged behind the tractor it back to the house, where she skinned it and butchered it, and then she and the kids canned it for Sunday dinners during the winter.

Most of the rest of my family were pretty conventional farm folks, with a thick leavening of city folks mixed in, and none of them made living quite the adventure some of Uncle Charlie’s family did. But when it comes time for a good story, it’s hard to beat their adventures that have the added cachet of actually being the truth. At least pretty much, anyway.

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Common sense seems to be a vanishing commodity

In February, new legislation in the State of Kentucky legalized what is called ‘herd sharing,’ meaning folks can buy into a herd of dairy cows, which will allow them to share the milk and other products the herd produces without such pesky requirements as requiring the raw milk to be pasteurized.

To celebrate the passage of the new law, a Kentucky legislator brought a jug of raw milk and passed it around to his lawmaking colleagues. Whereupon they all got sick. The politicians insist that it was mere coincidence they happened to become violently ill immediately after drinking raw, unpasteurized milk, and it may well have been. But probably not. At least nobody died that I know of, which may or may not be a good thing for the people of Kentucky.

The episode got me to thinking about my own childhood. I was either extremely lucky or disadvantaged, depending on your outlook on life, to have been born at a time when television had not yet become ubiquitous, indoor plumbing had only just become the norm, and diversified farming was morphing into the modern grain or livestock operations common today. It really was the end of an era, and the dawn of a new one.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher. The barn where my dad milked Daisy is in the background, the disused outhouse is hidden beside the garage at left, and my mother’s chicken house is barely visible through the trees at right.

When my mother brought me home from Copley Memorial Hospital in 1946, it was to a house with a new indoor bathroom that my preteen sisters greatly enjoyed. Granted the bathroom was in the basement, but that was a small trade-off given no more winter or rainy day trips across to the outhouse and the benefit of an indoor bathtub complete with a water heater. We listened to the radio, not TV, and my sisters’ music collections were filled with 78 rpm records that shattered if dropped—or if their little brother stepped on them.

By that time, subsistence farming was long gone in the United States, although vestiges of it remained. My mother did not work outside the house and my father did not work off the farm, but that aspect of farming life was beginning to change even then. Instead of working off the farm, my mother managed the garden and fruit orchard and raised chickens. It all sounds sort of like some modern suburban areas, but her garden was huge, and the orchard was sizable. Each year, she canned dozens and dozens of quarts of vegetables and fruit. And when my grandparents bought chest-type deepfreezes for their children one Christmas, all those veggies and fruits were frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.

Not only did her chickens produce eggs for family use, but the chickens themselves were a year round source of fresh meat. The eggs over and above those used by our family were carefully washed, candled, and packed in egg crates to be taken to town on Saturday and traded for the groceries we didn’t produced ourselves on the farm.

Guernsey cow

Maybe if you’ve seen one Guernsey you’ve seen ’em all, but this lady really does look a lot like the Daisy I remember.

Which brings me to that raw milk I mentioned above. We had a cow named Daisy, a gentle Guernsey. My dad favored Guernseys for his family’s cow because they produce milk with a very high butterfat content. That meant Daisy produced more cream per gallon of milk than the Holsteins most dairy farmers favored, but less actual milk than those black and white Holsteins.

My dad milked Daisy morning and night out in one of the former horse stalls in the barn. He was an expert hand-milker, sitting on his three-legged stool, quickly filling the polished steel milk pail with quick, sure pulls on Daisy’s teats. The barn cats were always drawn by the sound of the milk hitting the bucket, and as they gathered around, Dad would send a squirt of milk first to one and then to another, which they learned to catch in mid-air. Just writing that last sentence brings back the sounds and the smells of that time and place…the warmth of the barn even on a cold winter’s day, the excitement of the cats and kittens, and the glint of humor in my dad’s eye as he accurately shot those milky treats around the semi-circle of hungry cats.

Cream separator.jpg

Our cream separator sat in a corner of the basement. It had to be thoroughly cleaned after each use, a job my sisters did, but not all together willingly.

After Daisy was turned back out into the pasture, Dad took the milk in the house and down the basement, where he put a new filter in the separator, and poured in the milk. Our separator was blue in color and sort of resembled a miniature municipal water tower on four legs. The milk went in the top, and the ingenious tool used gravity and centrifugal force to separate most of the cream from the milk.

My folks used Daisy’s rich cream for their coffee, and mom used it for cooking. After enough of it was saved up in the refrigerator, we took it to my grandmother, who used her electric churn to turn it into rich butter. After being turned out of the churn, she would work it with a flat paddle in a large, shallow wooden bowl to force the buttermilk out, and then to work in the salt she sprinkled on. My dad loved buttermilk. It’s a taste I never acquired.

We drank the milk that came out of the separator and used it on our cereal, and mom used it for cooking. I wasn’t so fond of cream in those days, and even though it had been run through the separator, after a fresh batch of milk sat in the refrigerator over night, a thin skim of cream would form on the top—which my parents happily skimmed off with a teaspoon to color their morning coffee.

Daisy always produced more milk than the five of us could consume, so when enough extra was saved up, Mom and Dad took it over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who then turned it into cottage cheese by some magical process which I never really saw. All I knew was that milk went to Aunt Bess’s and wonderful cottage cheese came back packed in metal containers.

Some farmers during that era had begun pasteurizing their family’s milk, but my dad said that as long as you know where the milk came from, and if you made sure that cow was healthy, there would be no problems with drinking raw milk.

Which brings me back to those Kentucky politicians and their new law. My dad was a wise man, and his insistence that only raw milk from a known healthy cow was safe, it seems to me, is at risk with this ‘herd sharing’ scheme. Who, exactly, will be responsible for assuring every cow in that herd is approved to give healthy enough milk that it doesn’t need to be pasteurized? And what are the shared liability issues? If I were a parent with children, I certainly wouldn’t want to take a chance that milk might be safe when the simple process of pasteurization would assure its safety.

Assuring the safety of milk for human consumption was one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th Century, something that saved countless lives and avoided tragedy on what would be, for us modern Americans, an almost unbelievable scale. But now, well-meaning, but essentially clueless people who are alive today thanks to food safety and health regulations, from vaccinations to milk pasteurization, are eagerly discarding them for their own children in some sort of back to nature scheme. I guess I’m not very worried that parents with crackpot ideas may poison themselves or give themselves preventable diseases, but it does concern me that they may be sentencing their children to disease and death.

 

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Who is General Tso and why am I eating his chicken?*

Maybe it was sort of in honor of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” playing in a loop on Ted Turner’s old TBS and TNT stations, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, on Christmas Eve both my wife and I were hungry for Chinese food, which we ordered and drove over and picked up.

The last time we had Chinese, we decided to try General Tso’s chicken (the name had fascinated me for years), and we enjoyed it, although we went back to our old sesame chicken Christmas Eve. As I looked the menu over this time, I got to wondering about good old Gen Tso, and why somebody named a chicken dish in his honor.

Turns out, he was a major mover and shaker in the late 19th Century in China’s Qing Dynasty, not only an accomplished military leader, but also an effective diplomat. Oddly enough, he was not commemorated in his own country with a dish named in his honor. Rather, General Tso’s chicken was invented in the 1970s here in the U.S. in New York City, inspired by a dish developed by a Taiwanese chef named Peng.

And that, of course got me to thinking about all the other foods and dishes named after individuals, although their origins are mostly unknown these days.

As Vince put it, "Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff." Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it's named after Bakers German's Sweet Chocolate, developed by Bob German.

As Vince put it, “Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff.” Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it’s named after Bakers German’s Sweet Chocolate, developed by Sam German.

German chocolate cake is a good example. It’s not German, as in the country, but rather German as in Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was developed in 1852 by Sam German for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. The recipe for the cake was first published in the Dallas Morning Star in 1957 using German’s Sweet Chocolate. Over the years, the name has been shortened, dropping the apostrophe “s” suggesting to the unwary that Germans had something to do with it.

Graham crackers are another familiar food—no S’Mores with out ‘em!—that carry the name of their inventor, this time a guy by the name of Sylvester Graham. Graham was a Presbyterian minister back in the 1800s who was a health food fanatic who developed a process for milling whole wheat flour to be used in what he considered healthy eating. I suspect Sylvester would be horrified at what generations of Girl and Boy Scouts have done to his healthy crackers.

Which brings us to Fettuccine Alfredo, one of my favorite pasta dishes, that was created by early 20th Century Italian chef Alfredo di Lelio. He developed it as a mild dish for his pregnant wife. Tourists eating at his restaurant in Rome liked it and spread the recipe around the world.

A number of fruits and vegetables are named after the folks who developed them, including boysenberries. Rudolf Boysen, a botanist who was also the superintendent of parks in Anaheim, California, crossed a loganberry, raspberry, and blackberry sometime in the 1920s to arrive at the boysenberry. Its fame was assured when Walter Knott started pushing boysenberry jam, jelly, and syrup at his Knott’s Berry Farm California tourist trap.

Clementines, those delicious little oranges, are named after Père Clément Rodier. The good father either came across a mandarin orange mutation while serving in North Africa in the early 20th Century, or he himself made a mandarin and Seville orange cross to create the tiny, sweet fruit. That’s at least one story, the other being clementines may have been created by some nameless Asian horticulturalist long before Father Clement got into the act.

Granny Smith apples, named after BLANK, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Granny Smith apples, named after Marie Anna “Granny” Smith, the Australian woman who first cultivated them, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Lots of varieties of apples are named after the orchardists who developed them by cross-breeding. The Granny Smith apple, which was discovered, and then propagated, in in Australia in 1868 by Marie Anna “Granny” Smith was named in her honor. Closer to home here in Kendall County, the Minkler apple was named after 19th Century orchardist Smith Minkler, who developed it from seedlings given him in lieu of cash when he worked for local French American businessman and property owner Pierre Lamsette, who was also known as Peter Specie. While Granny Smiths are still very popular, Minklers are mostly only found now in old farmyard orchards and at nurseries that feature heirloom apples.

As well as fruit, we Americans love our salads. Last week we ate out at one of our local pizza/Italian beef/hot dog joints and I had a great Cobb salad, which I though was probably so named because it had kernels of sweet corn in it. But no, the Cobb salad was invented by Robert H. Cobb, the owner of the famed Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood. Sometime around 1936, Cobb rustled up a salad for himself using ingredients he had in the kitchen. He apparently liked it so well, he started serving it in his restaurant after naming it after himself.

And you might think Caesar salad was named after Julius or one of the other long line of Caesars who ruled Rome, but you’d be wrong. Granted, its creator, Caesar Cardini, was of Italian ancestry, but he was an American restaurateur and chef. One of his buddies created the Caesar salad in the restaurant at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico and named it for the hotel and his friend.

Ever wonder about nachos? About 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya created his original dish by making a bed of fried corn tortillas and then covered them with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Hershey, Pennsylvania gets all the press about its famous chocolate candy, but really, Illinois probably ought to own the nation’s candy making crown. Heath bars, for instance, those delicious little English toffee bars were created in downstate Robinson by the owners of Heath Brothers Confectionery, Bayard and Everett Heath. A salesman brought the brothers a recipe developed by a Greek candy maker down in Champaign, and after some tweaking, the Heaths turned it into a local favorite during the Roaring 1920s. At the time, Crawford County was an oil production center, and the wildcatters who came and went carried those little Heath Bars with them all over the U.S. The orders rolled in and the rest is history.

Also developed right here in Illinois by Chicago’s Williamson Candy Company was the chewy Oh Henry! peanut, caramel, fudge and chocolate bar. The story goes that a young fellow by the name of Henry used to stop by the company’s offices who could be convinced to do odd jobs and the call for his services, “Oh Henry!” became so frequent they named a new candy bar in his honor in 1920. Although there are other explanations of the candy bar’s name, the company is sticking with their story about good old Henry.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it's almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it’s almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Not sure where we’d be these days if somebody hadn’t invented sandwiches. The name itself is easily traced back to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792). Now the Earl didn’t invent sandwiches; they were popular, especially among the lower classes for a long time before the Earl was a glint in his father’s eye. But the name for two pieces of bread with varied fillings is said to have been given the dish back during the Seven Years War when the Earl demanded food that could be easily and neatly handled while playing cards with his friends.

One of my favorite sandwiches is the Reuben sandwich. Although it’s almost impossible to find a true Reuben these days—it requires Russian dressing, not the almost-always-substituted Thousand Island Dressing—many local restaurants make a passable version. The best here in the Oswego area is at the Riverview Diner in Montgomery. Food historians believe the sandwich was invented at Reuben Kolakofsky’s restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska around 1925 to feed his poker buddies. On the other hand, some believe that Arnold Reuben, a New York City restaurateur, created it and named it after himself around 1914.

Finally, another of my favorite dishes is Salisbury steak, and it turns out the guy it was named for had dietary theories that pretty much exactly mirror my own. Dr. James H. Salisbury invented the dish named in his honor, and he strongly advised his patients to eat it three times a day, while limiting their intake of vegetables (which he considered to be somewhere between dangerous and evil) and starches.

A man truly after my own heart. And stomach.

 

 

*Turns out while I thought I was being original with this title, Kimberly Kohatsu already used it on a 2014 piece on Huffington Post. Oh well…

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