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.


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.

“Neuro” hype and 21st Century Phrenology


Is the brain the hottest organ in the body? That’s the argument made in a recent Slate story “The End of Neuro-Nonsense” that argues that brain hype reached its peak in 2008 and is now on the decline for a variety of reasons. Quoting from the new book Brainwashed that details the perils of brain-centrism: “Naïve media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.”

Maybe so.

But I’d argue that we’ve been living a “neurocentric,” to quote the term used in the article for our brain obsession, world for nearly 200 years. We just had a different name for it in the past: phrenology.

Phrenologists posited that the brain was made up of individual organs with specific functions and attributes. The size and shape of these organs, as read on the skull, revealed our character. Many argued that these organs – and thus our personalities – were changeable, improvable. With a little exercise, we could make ourselves better by strengthening positive traits and weakening others. With phrenology, doctors could easily determine not only how but why someone thought, felt, and coped with life in a particular way. It provided comfort and insight into our seemingly unknowable depths, a way to understand behavior and personality with seemingly scientific precision. Who wouldn’t like that?

Like the 19th century, many of us hope today, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of our natures. And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro” that now, from neuromarketing to neuroeconomics, a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation. Colorful fMRI images of the brain on TV encourage us to think of almost everything through its effect on the brain, the modern equivalent of the phrenological charts that adorned the walls of pharmacies and general stores and were featured in the pages of magazines and books. Just as in the past, popular neuroscience suggests that the way to make us smarter, happier, and even more beautiful is through concentrated efforts to improve the brain regardless of how little we actually know about how the brain works. It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.

So maybe 2008 marks the most recent crest of a brain obsession with more than two centuries of history behind it that seems bound and determined to rise again.