Easter Tastes Delicious: Breaking Fasts with Pastries

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From “Vintage Eats” in Edible Milwaukee (Spring 2014)

When the Easter season approaches, the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread and sugary sweetness of flaky pastries and cakes fill kitchens as cooks prepare the foods associated with this important religious holiday. Easter is steeped in religious practices but also rich in food traditions that stretch back centuries: from the Last Supper, which in Christian theology is the day Jesus and his apostles shared a final meal, to today, when we still gather for festive meals on Easter Sunday.

Growing up in a traditional Polish Catholic home in Milwaukee, Peter Burzynski understood from a young age that Easter was the most important holiday of the year. His parents, both immigrants from Poland, opened Polonez Restaurant in 1983, where Burzynski now works as executive sous-chef.

“Polish Catholics have a unique tradition on Easter Saturday in which we go to church to receive a blessing of our food baskets,” Burzynski says. “The baskets usually feature a small sampling of what we have for the feast the following day.”

While many traditional foods grace the Easter table, baked goods, especially sweet and buttery breads, are essential to the meal. This is, in part, because of the deprivation that precedes it.

In the past, devout Christians observed a strict fast during Lent, the six or seven weeks before Easter, when they abstained from eating animal products of any kind, including red meat, milk, poultry, butter, cheese, and eggs, as a form of penitence. In some parts of Europe, sugar, honey, and olive oil were also forbidden. While few follow such strict fasts today, the tradition of feasting on special foods is still common.

These Lenten fasts make the Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) preceding it and the Easter feast following it all the more indulgent.

The pastry Burzynski most closely associates with the season is one Poles eat the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s called a pączek, but is more commonly known in the U.S. by its plural form, pączki.

“The pronunciation is almost as tricky as getting your mouth around one of these huge doughnuts,” he says.

Burzynski says the correct pronunciation is closer to “pone-chykey,” not the “poonch-key” he so often hears in Milwaukee.

PaczkiCrispy on the outside but soft and yielding on the inside, pączki are made from an especially rich dough of lard, milk, and eggs that is fried and then filled. They were originally created to clear out pantries of fruit, sugar, and fat for Lent.

“We filled ours with either strawberry or prune filling and topped them with either powder sugar or a lemon and orange peel glaze,” he says. “If I’m going to eat a pączek, I’m going to go all the way to my daily caloric limit. That’s the only way to go.”

The earliest Wisconsinites adhered to Easter fasts. In 1661, Jesuit Father Rene Menard complained to his superiors in Quebec of harsh weather along Chequamegon Bay that limited the amount of fish so “those who wished to keep Lent suffered greatly.” Fortunately, the cold did not congeal his communion wine, and an abundance of moose after the holiday helped to refortify the supplicants. Baked goods were also likely off the table.

Easter dinner looked better in the 1830s. General Albert G. Ellis recalled American settlers, army officers, and Christianized Indians strictly observing a Lenten fast. “They ceased gormandizing ducks, venison, and porcupine, only to feast in more epicurean style on trout, sturgeon, and wild rice,” Ellis wrote. When Easter arrived, “the most joyous of the calendar,” they all gathered in the woods amidst the sugarbush to feast on roasted chicken, eggs, and fresh maple syrup.

Easter is a colorful patchwork of customs drawn from pagan and Christian traditions. Celebrations of the spring equinox were common in pre-Christian times. Early Church leaders recognized that eliminating all pagan customs and replacing them with religious ones might devastate the progress of the faith. So Christianity absorbed some of the old traditions as the custom of welcoming spring merged with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The name of the holiday itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre.

This convergence of traditions is perhaps most apparent in the changing date of Easter. Rather than a fixed holiday, Easter is instead governed by the phases of the moon. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Christian bishops set Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox.

Mesopotamian Christians were the first to adopt eggs as Easter food, though eggs had a long symbolic history as representations of rebirth and rejuvenation. Eggs were often exchanged as part of the celebration of spring. Christians were the first to dye the eggs red to represent Christ’s blood and resurrection. These red eggs, traditionally dyed with the skins of red onions, are often nestled in Easter breads, like Armenian choreg.

“It’s the singular pastry of an Armenian Easter,” says Terry Peterson, describing choreg, a triple-braided egg bread.

Her grandparents emigrated to Milwaukee from Armenia in the 1920s. Only minimally sweet, choreg is flavored with mahleb, the ground pits of St. Lucy’s cherry, that give the bread its distinctive flavor. The mahleb is ground so fine that Peterson says it something you can taste rather than see. “And it must be there because it doesn’t taste right otherwise,” she says.

KolaczkiAlthough choreg is exclusively an Easter pastry, it isn’t the only one to appear on the Armenian table. Both Terry and her brother Armen Hadjinian say that Easter is when you “make every pastry you know how to make.”

Both siblings love katah, a flaky layered biscuit similar to a croissant common at most holidays.

“It’s loaded with butter and delicious,” says Hadjinian, chuckling.

Although Peterson grew up steeped in her Armenian heritage, she didn’t learn how to bake these traditional foods until she helped to organize cooking classes with some elderly women at Holy Resurrection Church in South Milwaukee.

“They all had their grandmothers’ recipes and wanted to pass on their knowledge,” Peterson says. “Breads like choreg are fairly labor intensive so it could be a lost art without someone sharing and passing on these recipes.”

Armenian breads are rolled out with special rolling pins called grdnak, a kind of fat dowel roughly three feet in length. Women customarily received their own rolling pin when they became engaged, along with a copy of the 1950s cookbook Treasured Armenian Recipes.

“It’s a rite of passage. It’s how you know you’ve arrived!” Peterson says, with a laugh.

Like a treasured chef’s knife, everyone brings their own rolling pin to the cooking classes. Peterson uses the one that belonged to her grandmother. The tradition of baking bread as a religious offering dates back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians offered small round cakes to the goddess of the moon, each marked with her symbol, the horns of an ox.

The three braids of the Armenian choreg and other bread shapes aren’t just beautiful; they are meaningful. Three strands represent the Holy Trinity. Wreath and ring-shaped breads represent Christ’s crown of thorns while also harking back to pagan fertility symbols. Round breads represent the life-giving sun, rebirth, and resurrection.

The most famous of the round breads may be the British hot-cross buns. Baked on Good Friday, these slightly sweet circular buns often have dried fruit and chopped fruit peel in the dough. The bread gets its name from the cross cut in the top of each bun before baking.

Superstitions regarding bread baked on Good Friday date back centuries. In England particularly, many people believed that Good Friday bread would never mold, so a bun was hung in the house to keep away bad luck for the year ahead. Grebe’s Bakery in Jackson Park and Regina’s Bay Bakery in Whitefish Bay are among the Milwaukee area bakeries to make hot-cross buns.

Greeks celebrate Easter with the sweet braids of tsoureki.

“It’s a sacred, holy bread. The smell of it baking warms you inside and lets you know the holidays are coming,” says Eleni Katrantzis, daughter of Aleka Tsioulos of the eponymous Aleka’s Kitchen in Sheboygan.

Tsoureki is an eggy bread seasoned with mahlepi (the Greek version of mahleb) and mastic, the hardened resin of the mastic tree from the Greek island of Chios, the only place in the world where the tree exudes its aromatic, piney resin. The addition and type of other spices and flavors in the tsoureki varies by region and family. As does the adornment atop the freshly baked tsoureki.

Like choreg, bright red eggs nestle in the braided strands of tsoureki, symbolizing Christ’s blood.

“The red eggs are central to the Greek Easter,” explains Katrantzis. “At midnight, after the Easter service, everyone is given a red egg for a celebratory cracking. You crack one end against the end of another person’s egg, trying to crack their egg.”

The person who successfully cracks both ends of the egg belonging to the other player is said to have good luck for the year. Katrantzis and her sister Demitra Tsioulos grew up in Sheboygan, a town with a strong German, not Greek, heritage. They recall feeling out of place when they stepped out the front door of the home that their Greek immigrant parents had so immersed in the smells, tastes, and perspectives of their home country. Their mom, Aleka, was eager to share her heritage, though, and frequently invited non-Greek guests over to eat.

Cake and kolaczkiBoth women remember helping their mom in the kitchen as children. She usually gave them the mundane tasks, like “stirring milk for 40 minutes without stopping to make a custard,” laughs Tsioulos.

But these monotonous, detailed tasks gave them a deep appreciation of their culture.

“Greek pastries are complicated and require patience to master,” says Tsioulos. “The details make it authentic.”

While tsoureki is the central Easter pastry, it isn’t the only sweet treat on the Greek Easter table. Shortbread-like cookies known as kourabiedes, made with almond paste and covered in powdered sugar, are common at nearly all Greek holidays. Galaktoboureko, a creamy and sweet custard pie baked in phyllo and drenched in lemon and honey is another indulgent favorite of Tsioulos and Katrantzis.

Baking stirs memories and connections to family, culture, and home.

“These pastries have more than ingredients in them,” says Tsioulos. “They are filled with stories passed down through the generations.

A Wisconsin Chiropractic Tale

After spending several years researching alternative healing methods for my new book, I was surprised to only recently learn the story of chiropractor Clarence Gonstead. Even more so because I’ve driven by the modernist Gonstead clinic in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, countless times.

Born in South Dakota in 1898, Gonstead grew up on a dairy farm in Primrose, Wisconsin, with an interest in automotive and tractor repair. Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis at 19, the bedridden Gonstead had exhausted nearly all of his medical options when he sought the services of a Madison chiropractor. The treatment worked. Gonstead was soon up and walking. This life changing experience led Gonstead to devote his life to chiropractic – a not uncommon conversion story in the annals of alternative medicine.

Source: Wikichiro

Source: Wikichiro

To save money for school, Gonstead worked as an automotive engineer. In 1923, he graduated from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa (the Palmers had founded chiropractic in the 1890s), and a few years later, set up his own practice in Mt. Horeb.

Gonstead didn’t stick with the Palmer’s original theory. Rather than a vertebral bone causing nerve pressure (and thus disease) as founder D.D. Palmer and his son B.J. believed, Gonstead suggested that the vertebral disc caused nerve pressure. He developed his own method of spinal assessment to locate the spinal impingement, known as a subluxation in chiropractic.

“The principles of the Gonstead Method are the simple principles of chiropractic put to work; how to understand what causes nerve pressure, how to find it on the patient, how to achieve a corrective setting of the offending vertebra, and how to know when the chiropractor’s job is done, and nature’s begins,” explained Gonstead.

Neither D.D. nor B.J. Palmer took kindly to the ideas of others, even other chiropractors, so Gonstead likely received a chilly response to his technique.

Patients, on the other hand, loved Gonstead’s methods and they came from all over the country seeking his care. His clinic, a midcentury modern structure designed by Wisconsin architect John Steinmann, was one of the largest in the world with seating for 106 patients, a lab and research facilities, and seminar rooms. He even built a hotel, the Karakhal Inn, in 1965 to accommodate patients from out of town and other chiropractors seeking to learn his method. Business was so good that a regular limousine service traveled between the Madison airport and the Mt. Horeb clinic. Patients with their own private planes could land at Gonstead’s personal airstrip on the outskirts of town. For many years, the clinic was the largest chiropractic clinic in the world.

Gonstead also had a rather notable home. Herb Fritz, Jr., an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the private home on 55 acres in the late 1940s or early 50s. Unfortunately, the home burned down in 1992.

Gonstead died in 1978 and a nonprofit foundation now runs his clinic. His method has spawned followers and practitioners around the world.

Lutefisk, Torsk and other Seafood Traditions Abound

Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Read the rest of my story in the new issue of Edible Milwaukee.

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Before MOOCs, There Was Radio

Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.

But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?

In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.

Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state.  Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.

WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.

At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.

Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.

It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.

 

 

Teddy Roosevelt’s Milwaukee Assassin

On the night of October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a crowd in Milwaukee despite having been shot by a would-be assassin.

Milwaukee was a campaign stop for Roosevelt who was running for president as the candidate of the newly independent Progressive Party. Roosevelt had already served two terms as president but his unhappiness with his successor, William Taft, led him to seek office on a progressive platform.

 

Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, New York bartender John Schrank had been stalking him for three weeks and across eight states. Obsessed with the thought of a third Roosevelt term, breaking the two term precedent set by George Washington, Schrank was convinced that Roosevelt’s election would lead to civil war so he decided he had to act. Schrank finally managed to get off a shot from his .38-caliber revolver as Roosevelt departed the Hotel Gilpatrick for his speaking engagement at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Unwilling to miss his speech, Roosevelt trivialized the wound and insisted on speaking. He even opened his vest at one point, revealing the wound, and declared, “It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.”

Fortunately, Roosevelt had poor vision and was long-winded. The metal case for his glasses and the thick folded pages of his speech absorbed much of the force of the bullet lodged in the right side of his chest.

Following his speech, Roosevelt was rushed to the hospital. An X-ray confirmed the presence of the bullet in his chest but doctors decided to leave the bullet in place as it posed no threat to his organs and surgery could be risky. Roosevelt carried the bullet for the rest of his life.

 

Footnote – I realized only recently that the site of the shooting was on Old World 3rd Street near Kilbourn Avenue, the current home of the Hyatt, where I have stayed several times. I hear there are even photos and a plaque! I should be more observant.

A Pirate Who Roved the High Inland Seas

Yesterday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day (that’s September 19th in case you want to mark your calendar for next year), a day to practice your “arrrrrrrrrs” and “ahoys” and maybe adopt a pirate name.

While we tend to think of pirates as tropical characters (at least in popular lore), pirates (lumber thieves, privateers, rum – runners) roamed the Great Lakes as well. Only one, however, was actually branded a pirate and formally charged for his actions. Dan Seavey – or “Roaring Dan” as he was known – was guilty of everything from poaching to running a floating brothel aboard his Lake Michigan schooner, the Wanderer. 

Roaring Dan Seavey Source: Wikimedia

Roaring Dan Seavey
Source: Wikimedia

Born in Maine in 1865 and the son of a schooner captain father, Seavey took to the seas as a teenager, first working aboard local vessels and then for a stint in the U.S. Navy. He came to Wisconsin in the 1880s where he met and married 14-year-old Mary Plumley, the first of his three wives. The couple moved to Milwaukee in the 1890s where Seavey had a small farm and operated a tavern with a partner on the waterfront.

Seavey soon met Milwaukee beer king Frederick Pabst who encouraged Seavey to invest in a mining company in Alaska. Seavey took his advice and pulled the first of what would become several disappearing acts. He sold his business and deserted his family to seek his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The company went bust within a few years and Seavey came back to Wisconsin but not to his family. He soon disappeared again, resurfacing in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1900.

There, Seavey married Zilda Bisner. Four years later, Bisner filed for divorce, claiming domestic abuse, and Seavey fled once again onto the lake.

Seavey ran many different businesses in Michigan, both legitimate and not. He tried trapping, logging, lumber milling, and marine transporting. On the side, he also practiced the pirate-y arts of bootlegging, poaching, smuggling, and pimping. All of these activities made Seavey a recognizable character throughout the Lake Michigan port cities. Not to mention the fact that he was nearly 6 and a half feet tall and weighed 250 pounds.

And like any good pirate, Seavey was notorious for his barroom brawls and prize fights. One fight occurred on a frozen harbor in Frankfort, Michigan, in 1904. Seavey fought pugilist Mitch Love bare fisted for two hours before cleaning the ice with Love and collecting his winnings.

Seavey also made a significant fortune off his floating brothel. It was a brilliant move considering that the jurisdiction of local authorities ended at the water’s edge. Crafty schooner captains like Seavey would load their boats with alcohol and ladies and travel from port to port. Weekends and paydays were, unsurprisingly, especially profitable in port towns.

On June 11, 1908, Seavey and two accomplices stole a schooner in Grand Haven, Michigan, and headed south to Chicago intending to sell the ship’s cargo on the black market. The theft initiated a chase with federal authorities. The federal ship Tuscarora steamed after Seavey carrying U.S Deputy Marshal Tom Currier and a warrant for Seavey’s arrest. The Tuscarora eventually spotted Seavey’s ship near Frankfort and gave chase, firing a cannon that ended Seavey’s run. Seavey was arrested and arraigned for mutiny and sedition on the high seas.

Seavey’s luck had not run out, though. Despite the government’s best efforts to prosecute him, the grand jury did not indict him and Seavey was set free. How he got off when he clearly stole the ship is a matter of speculation but the act and the case forever branded Seavey a pirate.

 

 

 

 

A Taste of Milwaukee in an Apple

A century ago, Milwaukee had its own apple. The seedling found growing beneath a Duchess apple tree and developed by George Jeffrey in the 1890s yielded a yellowish-green apple with a tart flavor that was a local specialty, one of thousands of varieties of apples known, grown, and beloved in North America.

Apples are one of the most widely grown and eaten fruits in the world. In North America alone, some 14,000 varieties have been named and nurtured over the last four centuries.

The industrialization of agriculture changed that world. By the mid-20th century, the Milwaukee apple along with many other Wisconsin apples had largely disappeared. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote and distribute worldwide, transforming the fruit from a local specialty into a global commodity. Today’s industrial food system has left us with only a meager sampling of the richness and diversity of the bygone apple world.

Read the rest of the story in Edible Milwaukee.

Past and Present in the Wisconsin Dells

The Wisconsin Dells is a funny place. Like Wall Drug, its attractions scream at you from billboards all over the state – magic shows, water parks, thrills, terror (the amusement park kind), music (often cheesy or popular several decades ago – or if you’re really lucky, both), it’s all there.

As a kid, Wisconsin Dells was one of the many Wisconsin places my family visited in the summer. But not for the water parks that often draw people there today. No, we came to ride the Ducks, those amphibious boat vehicles that apparently saw action in World War II before finding a new life patrolling the woods around the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton (And in more recent years, taking tourists around big cities with some kind of duck whistle and/or silly hat. The Dells had them first). Or to take the boat cruise or visit the H.H. Bennett photography studio, Parson’s Indian Trading Post (open since 1914), or one time, to take the horse-driven canyon tour. Only once did I convince my mom to fork over the money for the wax museum.

We ate at Paul Bunyan’s cook shanty, a circus-y restaurant, and the supper club Ishnala; and we slept in motels straight from the 1950s and 1960s with holiday-themed rooms, see-saws and merry-go-rounds out back, or plastic palm trees beside pastel shades more at home in Florida or the tropics than south central Wisconsin.

Did I mention that I loved it?

Wisconsin Dells holds very specific and place-based memories for me, a mythical childhood-and-vacation Wisconsin that bares little resemblance to the Wisconsin I actually live in now.  My adult self cringes at the artificiality of the whole place with its fake Greek columns, pyramids, enormous wave pools, and log structures, and instead longs to see the striated bluffs and rock formations that first drew people to the area in the mid-19th century. And really, a dog jumps across Stand Rock in imitation of that great Bennett photo of his son leaping across the chasm from 1886, purportedly the first stop-action photo taken in the world? A trained dog?

And yet, I can’t help but smile at the sight of a green-and-white Duck driving down the parkway, and sigh with relief that the deer park is still there even though I’ve never been there to actually pet a deer and I frankly don’t like the whole petting zoo concept in any format. And phew, waterskiing shows.

What?

Maybe it’s the place and maybe its nostalgia. It’s both horrifying and fascinating to see the gaudy and destructive infrastructure atop a place so rich in natural beauty and history. But I also remember the delight of being a kid in a place so unlike anywhere else I’d been. It’s one place where my younger and older selves collide, where one idea of Wisconsin meets another, reminding me that I still have a lot to learn about this place and my place in it.

What I Did Today

Inspired by the Creative Fiction Foundation oddly interesting “What We Did Today” tumblr, here’s a very incomplete list of what I accomplished (accomplished sounds so lofty and so well… accomplished) today:

1. Finished the final mix of a Wisconsin Life radio piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg with a dramatic reading of two letters, one from a soldier at the battle and the other from his fiance describing what she read of the battle in the newspaper. Amazing stuff.

2. Watched a delightful Oreo animation as inspiration for a possible animation/radio project, rekindling my childhood ambition to be an animator.

3. Ate a piece of birthday kringle and marveled with colleagues on the possibility of saving money by eating multiple meals a week from the countless birthday/employment anniversary/new employee/departing employee snack-dessert tables alone.

4. Discussed and celebrated the rehanging of bras on the ceiling of a Milwaukee bar after the city backed down from its bra ban.

Butter and Dairy Queens

Some girls dream of being a movie star. Me? I’ve got a thing for agricultural queens like Alice in Dairyland. Alice is Wisconsin’s agricultural royalty. Crowned in May, she travels the state during her yearlong reign talking up the importance of farming.

Wisconsin's first Alice Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin’s first Alice
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Alice in Dairyland got her start in 1948 at the Wisconsin Centennial Exposition (she was preceded by the “Dairy Queen”).  Margaret McGuire-Blott had the honor of being the first Alice. Alice’s early years were a bit strange. At the State Fair, a huge paper-mache Alice would answer questions from children, while the real Alice sat backstage and threw her voice. But she also got to travel the country.

Early Alices logged more than 150,000 miles a year. They went to Hollywood, rode in the Rose Parade, and danced with Lawrence Welk on TV. Today’s Alice spends most of her time in Wisconsin but she continues to make appearances worldwide.

I met my first Alice at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2003 where I got to shake her hand. Our bond was cemented when she gave me a cow-shaped air freshener.

This was only my first encounter with Wisconsin royalty, though. I once took a class with Wisconsin’s Honey Queen. She wore a different honey t-shirt every day. I thought at first that she just really liked honey.

Wisconsin’s royalty isn’t just confined to dairy and honey, though. We’ve also got a cranberry queen, a Brown Swiss Queen, and a Cherry Blossom Queen, among others. While they may seem a little silly and outdated today, these agricultural queens have an ancient history.

For thousands of years, women have been associated with agriculture and the harvest. Women have been depicted as symbols of the earth, fertility, and abundance, the very things that people hoped for their crops. The mystery of life, especially birth, was one area that women held deep firsthand knowledge, and fertility goddesses, particularly Mother Earth, were important figures in the ancient world. The correlation of fertility and the goddess found its roots in agriculture. All over the world, from Asia and Africa to Europe and South America, female goddesses represented the fruitful plains as well as the work of tending to them.

The Greeks had Demeter who was said to have invented agriculture and all of the rituals associated with it. The Romans had their own Demeter named Ceres, as well as Pomona who kept an eye on the fruit trees. Hindu goddesses watched over food, the harvest, and nourishment. In North and South America, a Corn Mother gave life to the continents’ staple crop. Corn along with beans and squash were known as the Three Sisters because the plants were said to embody female spirits.

This ancient connection between women and the land extends to real women, too, not just divinities. Women have long been responsible for growing, harvesting, and preparing food for themselves and their families.

So Alice in Dairyland and Wisconsin’s other queens aren’t just some prefeminist holdover from the 1940s and 1950s. They are the modern incarnation of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to people and cultures around the world.