Wisconsin’s Goddesses and Ag Queens

I’ve never hid my love of agricultural queens. The cow-shaped air freshener given to me by Alice in Dairyland 2005 hung from my rearview mirror for years (no, it didn’t smell like cows). A few years ago, I did a tribute to Alice on “Wisconsin Life.” And now, I’ve written a longer piece on ag queens and the long history – and future – of women in agriculture for Edible Milwaukee. Get a sneak peek below and then follow the link to the full piece.

Isn’t she adorable? Alice in Dairyland.

She’s milked a cow with rocker Alice Cooper. She’s danced with Lawrence Welk on TV. She’s appeared in the Rose Parade.

She is Alice in Dairyland and she’s been Wisconsin’s agricultural royalty for 66 years. Alice travels the state during her yearlong reign talking up the importance of farming. Despite her name, she’s more than just dairy, and more than just an agriculture beauty queen.

“I cover the diversity of Wisconsin’s agricultural sector from mink and cranberries to ginseng and ethanol,” says Zoey Brooks, the 67th (and current) Alice in Dairyland. “It’s a marketing job, and I spend most of my time on the road trying to be a positive voice for agriculture in Wisconsin.”

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 While they may seem a little silly and outdated today, these agricultural queens have an ancient history.

Read the rest of the story in the fall issue of Edible Milwaukee.

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Living Wilder in South Dakota

As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” books. Every time it snowed (rare in Seattle), I’d imagine opening the front door to find a wall of snow like in The Long Winter. Or tying a rope from the house to the barn to find my way in a blizzard (not that we had a barn in the suburbs). When the power went out (a much more common occurrence), my parents and I would huddle near the gas fireplace. Though we never had to close off the upstairs of our house for the winter, I was ready if it became necessary.

I read the books so often as a child that the characters felt like members of my own family. I imagined living in Laura’s time as well as showing Laura my life should she ever come to the present for a visit.

Although its been years since I’ve read the books, I couldn’t resist a stop in De Smet, South Dakota, otherwise known as the Little Town on the Prairie. De Smet is the setting for five of Wilder’s Little House books. Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small rolling hills and glacial lakes under an enormous sky. The whole town is given over to Wilder mania… even the public restrooms.

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The two existing Ingalls homes are owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Association. There’s the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake (Wilder wrote about it in By the Shores of Silver Lake), where the family lived for five months before moving to their own homestead. Down the street is the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. Its a small white two-story frame house just a few blocks from what is today De Smet’s main street.

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Some of the buildings featured in Wilder’s books still stand in the quiet town, including the Loftus Store and Banker Ruth’s house. On a warm and sunny September day, De Smet’s streets are quiet. The few people we pass smile and nod at us, surely knowing we are there for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Just outside De Smet is the Ingalls homestead where reproductions of buildings described by Wilder dot the spacious prairie grass. The 1862 Homestead Act provided that any citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the land was given to the original claimant for only a small registration fee. Pa Ingalls staked his claim and moved the family out to their new farm.

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The land has passed through many hands since the Ingalls family lived there. I was far less interested in the recreated buildings than in seeing the landscape with my own eyes. Even many years removed from reading the books, I could still see the mental picture of the Ingalls’ life that I had created so long ago. It really is a beautiful place and seeing it in person (something I still can’t quite believe I really just did!), I can imagine why Pa had so much hope for this promising piece of land after so many years of hardship.

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An Apple A Day Keeps the Doctor Away

We all know that an “apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples are filled with healthy vitamins and fiber – the perfect healthy snack.

But this is a relatively new idea. For centuries, eating a raw apple was seen as a reason to call FOR a doctor. People throughout Europe and North America were suspicious of apples and raw fruit in general. In medieval Europe, apples were banned for children and wet nurses. An upset stomach or flu nearly always resulted in fingers pointing at the poor, humble apple. It didn’t help that many believed the apple the cause of Eve’s downfall in the Garden of Eden.

At the same time, apples found a welcome home in the medicine cabinet, prescribed for all manner of aches and pains. It’s funny that an apple could both cause disease and cure it.

Part of the unease with apples had to do with the apples that many people were eating. The Romans had cultivated extensive orchards and seemed to know everything there was to know about apples. But when Rome fell, that knowledge mostly disappeared (or in many cases, went behind monastery walls where monks practiced orcharding techniques aiming for self-sufficiency), leaving people with the often bitter wild apples. They tasted so bad that many people came to believe that apples were poisonous. Fruits sold in villages and city markets were often unripe, overripe, or contaminated so apples weren’t all that appealing.

Apples were wildly popular in alcoholic form, however. Cider was the drink of choice in England, France, Spain, and the United States. The Temperance movement in the 19th century ruined cider’s reputation and by extension, that of the apple as well.

In an effort to rehabilitate the apple’s image, the apple industry began marketing apples as healthy foods for actual eating and not just drinking. Missouri fruit specialist J.T. Stinson coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, an association apples have benefitted from ever since.