Where the Old Fashioned is Always in Fashion

A few days ago, I read in The New York Times that the old-fashioned (the hyphen is matter of choice) is back. For those of us who live in Wisconsin, the natural response to such a story was: when did it go away?

Photo: Caro Scuro

The old fashioned is Wisconsin’s drink of choice, the official unofficial state cocktail, drunk anytime, but especially on fish fry Friday. Heck, we even have a restaurant called the Old Fashioned, and the drink can be found in bars all over the state. Wisconsinites prefer theirs with brandy rather than bourbon, though recipes for the drink vary considerably. Sweet or sour. Seltzer or 7-Up. Bourbon or rye whiskey. Some contain a veritable fruit salad of garnishes – a cherry, orange slices, pineapple – while others omit the fruit entirely.

Old fashioneds date to the 19th century and were first described as a combination of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. Some called for lemon and cherries in place of the sugar. The drink reached its height of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before Prohibition did the old fashioned, like many other cocktails, in.

Wisconsinites have preferred brandy since the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where the Korbel Brothers first introduced their drink. It spread throughout the Midwest, gaining a following in Wisconsin it never lost. Korbel is still the most common brand in a Wisconsin old fashioned.

Wisconsin’s version of the drink may not be the one that’s become suddenly fashionable in craft cocktail bars all over the country. But it is a drink with a long history and tradition here that the rest of the country just seems to be waking up to again.



World Posture Queen

I have a bit of a “thing” for beauty queens. Not Ms. America or Ms. Universe. But agricultural queens like Alice in Dairyland and the Wisconsin cranberry queen, food product queens like the Swiss Miss (an actual “Miss” at one point), and my newest discovery, the World Posture Queen.

The World Posture Queen was the queen of chiropractic, a way to publicize the fledgling healing system. The contest began in Michigan in 1955 as a way to bring attention to the annual meeting of the Michigan Academy of Chiropractic. The young woman with the straightest spine and the most perfect poise and personality would win. Contestants were given X-rays to determine whose spine was the straightest. Crooked spines were grounds for elimination. While strictly a local event the first year, the World Posture Pageant went national in year two, and international by year three.

Posture queens appeared on TV, including “What’s My Line” and “The Tonight Show.” In 1967,  World Posture Queen Ruth McCarter visited the White House and got a personal tour of the Rose Garden by President Johnson.

For fifteen years, World Posture Queens brought attention to chiropractic, prompting the 1958 issue of Chiropractic Economics to announce that “Posture Contests are BIG Business.” Despite its apparent success, the contest for perfect posture was discontinued in 1969. The demands of the contest were simply too much for its organizers.


An Ode To Bloomers for Women’s History Month

March is women’s history month, and in honor of the month (though really, every day is about women’s history for me), I recorded an essay about Amelia Bloomer and her bloomers for Wisconsin Life. 

The World Underfoot

“To know the world, some people need to travel the globe; others simply examine their own piece of ground entirely.” – Tom Montag, The Idea of the Local

Can your backyard ever be as exciting as the Alps? Your city streets as fascinating as Paris?

I knew I loved history early. Way early. Like elementary school early, decades before some kind of historical trigger seems to twitch in middle aged adults that transforms many of them into history buffs (and my readers, thank you!). Teachers matter (thanks Mr. Bloomhuff, Mr. Clay, Mr. Meyers, Ms. Engdahl). Have you ever loved a subject taught by a teacher you hated?

But for me, growing up in the Northwest, history was always something that happened over there. Over there and way back when because the history I loved was colonial, filled with tricorn hats, and dotted with perfect New England towns. I knew next to nothing about my home state. A few names and dates but little else. History was all around me but I couldn’t see it.

Then I moved to Wisconsin, got a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and started learning state history, like it or not. And suddenly my new home took on new dimensions. The hill up to the capitol was no longer just the cause of my sweatiness at work on humid summer days, but was a drumlin left by the massive glacier that covered two-thirds of the state 15,000 years ago. When my beloved Puritans were setting up households, negotiating with Indians, and fending off witches in 17th century New England, the French were trading and exploring in Wisconsin. Learning this history, this local knowledge, made my experience of living in Wisconsin so much richer and my connection deeper than any place I had ever lived before.

This is the power of local. Knowing a place so well that you begin to see yourself reflected back in it. Understanding that the history and stories of your place are just as important as – and connected to – the history and stories of another place.

This certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t continue to long to travel the world – I can barely keep myself from dreaming of hikes in the Alps or of the highlands of Scotland. Or that I’ve lost my love of colonial America. But it does mean that I try to lavish at least the same attention to place at home as I do abroad. Because there’s a lot I can learn about the world here, too. It’s why I walk as much as I do, thousands of miles down the same streets every year. And why my husband and I are now visiting all the county and city parks, part of an effort to know my own ground entirely.