A Thousand Miles on a Single Street

Marcel Proust once said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” It’s a line I sometimes tell myself as I walk roughly the same route to work that I’ve walked for the last nine years. Sometimes it’s an admonishment – a jolt back from a daydream of some imagined land and life – as quotes, even good ones that you totally agree with, often become when thrown in your face by family members, coworkers, or Oprah. And other times it’s a reminder to notice even the small changes visible all around every day.

Saturday morning broke numbingly cold – 9 degrees and who even wants to know about the wind chill. Yet I ventured out anyway, earnestly admonishing myself with another quote, but this one from a friend rather than a dead Frenchman: “You can’t let the weather determine your life – or your wardrobe.” So I headed out, suitably bundled, on a route I walk fairly often. But this time I saw things I’d never seen before.

Maybe there was a clarity to the frigid air that made everything more visible.  Or maybe my brain was too numb to throw up its usual distractions, but how had I never noticed the Art Deco beauty of the State Office Building? Or the stark white trunks of birch trees at the back entrance to a bar?

The more I looked and saw new things, the more I thought about how many times I’ve walked some of these streets – how many miles I’ve walked without seeing. The most shocking one I came up with was State Street, which I walk at least 200 times (conservatively) up and down every year. It’s a mile each way from top to bottom. That’s 400 miles each year on a single street. Factor in my nine years living here and I’ve walked 3,600 miles on State Street alone, more than the width of the continental United States.

And yet despite all these miles, that well-trod path is still littered with new discoveries.

Cooking up the Past

Lifting weights had not prepared me for the strain of beating eggs to stiff peaks with a hand crank beater. Turning and turning and turning, switching arms every few minutes, until the translucent whites began to froth and then, finally, turn to a foamy mass, a moment my husband and I feared might never come. Making breakfast 19th century-style is hard work.

A few Junes ago, we participated in the Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen program at the Villa Louis estate in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The meal takes you inside the lives of the prosperous Dousman family – or rather the lives of the family’s servants. You don’t just eat the foods of the past – you roll up your sleeves to prepare them using the tools, recipes, and technology of the time. That means hand-crank eggbeaters, wood stoves, and recipes a bit less instructive and a lot more intuitive than today. The jelly omelet team had it far worse than us, though, beating two-dozen eggs, yolks and whites separated, for an hour.

Arriving around 8:30AM, we were quickly divided into teams to take on various tasks. The breakfast menu changes with the seasons, and that June day’s menu included fresh strawberries, bacon fried with sweet peppers, rice waffles served with strawberry-rhubarb sauce, fried Mississippi catfish, a thin bread called Wisconsin cake, and coffee. Some teams worked in the steamy outdoor preserve kitchen, while the rest cooked in the main kitchen with its dim gas lighting and imposing, ornate cast iron wood stove.

Laughter soon filled the kitchen as everyone struggled to complete their assignments. Anxious choruses of “I’m not sure we picked the right job” echoed around the room, followed by encouraging words from fellow participants. You’re never completely on your own, though. The Villa Louis kitchen staff are there to answer questions and to lend a hand to avert a cooking disaster.

About two hours later, breakfast was finally ready. My stomach grumbled fiercely after all this hard work. Everyone sat down to eat at two communal tables adorned with jars of flowers and herbs freshly picked from the grounds in the mansion’s kitchen. Our Wisconsin cakes, which seemed like a sure disaster during the egg beating and mixing process, turned out pretty well, as did everything else that made it to the table. Surveying the breakfast feast before us, all of that hard work definitely paid off: new experiences and a renewed appreciation for electric mixers.

Chinese Apples

Regionalisms, like regional foods, are everywhere. Even in our constantly connected and commercialized world, linguistic variations persist in communities around the country. There’s something heartening to me about the idea of the persistence of language idiosyncrasies in the face of so many leveling forces.

Last week, I learned a few new ones while visiting New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Speaking at the New York Public Library about my new book Apple: A Global History, a woman asked me why pomegranates are sometimes called “Chinese apples.” Beats me. I’d never heard that before! It turns out it’s a regionalism, fairly specific to the New York City/New Jersey area. It turns out the Chinese apple = pomegranate lobby even has a Facebook group devoted to it. Pomegranates are from Asia originally so that’s probably where the name originated, but that name didn’t seem to spread outside the northeast.

A few more, though, not necessarily food – or even apple – related:

  • What I call a roundabout or a traffic circle (perhaps I’m unsure myself) is a “rotary” in Massachusetts
  • Water fountains are supposedly “bubblers” in Massachusetts, just as they are in Wisconsin, though I never heard anyone reference this
  • Hero is a sandwich in New York City
  • A milkshake is a “cabinet” in Rhode Island and a frappe in Massachusetts (wish I’d had one but my desire to try things outmatches the number of meals in the day and room in my stomach)

What other food-related regionalisms do you know? Any other apple-related ones?



Dead People’s Houses

I love to haunt the homes of the dead, especially those of the famous and notable. Now before you think me profane, let me explain.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved visiting historic homes. Family vacations always involved at least one stop at a house museum and more likely, several. I can honestly say I’ve been in hundreds of historic homes, from General Ulysses S. Grant’s house in Galena, Illinois, and Rutherford B. Hayes’s home in Fremont, Ohio, to the homes of Susan B. Anthony, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and lesser figures who just happened to have beautiful old homes in states across the country. I thrilled at walking the same floors as President James Monroe, and tried to imagine the lives of the people who lived in these spaces decades and even centuries ago. It made history seem real and tangible (it’s the historic corollary to celebrity magazines that show celebrities doing normal things like grocery shopping. Thomas Jefferson sleeps in a bed, just like me!) and is probably largely responsible for my love of history today.

Cut to a few years ago when I met my now husband. “You want to visit a dead person’s house for what reason?” he asked. “You know they’re dead, right?”

The question left me speechless. “Of course I know that,” I snapped. “But aren’t you curious how they lived? Where they lived? Some of these homes are just so beautiful.”

He still hasn’t come around to my view. But he’s happy to come along and wait outside while I continue my tour of the homes of dead people in American history.

Mark Twain's house in Hartford, CT - the latest stop on my tour of dead people's homes



A Trip to the Water Cure

I just got back from my first water cure.

The Greenbrier Resort is a period film brought to life

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really a water cure of yore, but the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, began as a resort for people seeking the healing power of the sulphur water that bubbled up from its mountainous ground. People first began coming in 1778, and the visitors only increased in the 19th century as people drank and bathed in hopes of curing everything from headaches to arthritis. All of this water bubbles up from a green-domed, white-columned spring house to the side of the main resort. On top is a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health and medicine. The spa still uses water from the spring house, though, most people probably think of it as spa rather than a medical facility these days.

Presidents came to the Greenbrier. Lawyers, bankers, and others hoping to escape the summer heat came, too. The construction of the large main hotel in 1858 made the White Sulphur Springs not only a place of healing but also the place to be seen for social elites. That seemed about right. Hydropathic institutes attracted many people who were just looking for a break from the city. They tended to be built in beautiful places (West Virginia is gorgeous) and to offer outdoor activities to relax and rejuvenate.

I was there to attend the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, a multiday extravaganza of great food and great food talk. I met some fantastic and talented people many of who (and many of them are already) are sure to be famous. I’ll be sure to remember that I knew them when.

Today, a visit is like a step back in time–and for me, a step into another social class. Famed decorator Dorothy Draper redid the place in outsize florals, massive colored stripes, and bright colors after World War II (I should have taken more pictures. Heidi Swanson of 101Cookbooks took some nice ones). Everything you could ever need is taken care of as employees swirl around you in the lobby and at every meal. Afternoon tea brought live piano music and a well-dressed couple dancing in the lobby before tea sandwiches and cookies were brought out on silver trays carried high above the heads of the servers. It was a little like stepping into the “Be Our Guest” number from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Wow, look at the wallpaper. Our curtains were the same pattern and even the ceiling was wallpapered.

It’s also probably the closest you can get to the hydropathic experience of the past. A well-appointed resort attracting people from all over the country to take in the fresh air, exercise, and of course, as much of that healing water as you could handle.  

Polka Till You Puke

Polka is the law in Wisconsin. Or so they tell you in Pulaski, home of Polka Days, a weekend celebration of the Wisconsin state dance near Green Bay. It draws a serious polka crowd, both young and old, as well as some of the country’s most popular polka bands.

Polka pride is evident on the many funny t-shirts worn by attendees

Polka began as a Czech peasant dance in the early 19th century. It spread to ballrooms in Prague and then Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. The French loved to polka and their enthusiasm for the dance helped increase its popularity. Polka soon spread to England and then to the United States where Polish-Americans adopted it as their national dance in the early 20th century. The name ‘polka’ is derived from the Czech phrase for ‘half-step’ in reference to the dance pattern of lightly stepping from one foot to the other.

Polka emerged at roughly the same time as its signature instruments: the accordion and concertina. These squeeze boxes became the 19th century’s most popular mechanical musical innovation because one person could play the part of an entire musical ensemble, playing melodies and harmonies with one hand and chords and bass in the other hand. These instruments became prized possessions that many immigrants brought with them to the United States.

A variety of polka styles developed in different sections of the country, particularly the Midwest. The styles became associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Polish, Slovenian, and Dutchman, based on the ethnic heritage of the musicians or composers.

Radio brought polka to an even wider audience in the 20th century. After World War II, polka joined, for a brief time, popular culture, in large measure due to the accordion stylings of Frankie Yankovic of Cleveland, Ohio. Rock ‘n roll eclipsed polka in the 1960s but polka has remained popular in many communities throughout the Midwest.

Polka is clearly still big in Pulaski judging from the huge, cheering, and dancing crowds. It’s an impressive sight–two tents with wood dance floors packed with people, polka-ing with abandon, and not a little skill.

Homeopathy, Alive and Well

Homeopathy is alive and well in its birthplace. On a recent trip to Germany, I was surprised to see so many homeopathic pharmacies and doctors’ offices. But maybe I shouldn’t have been since Germany (and Austria) seems to have given rise to so many alternative medical theories: hydropathy, phrenology, homeopathy, to name a few. 
One of many homeopathic apothecaries

Premade homeopathic remedies for sale in a store window in Lubeck

The area we visited, northwest Germany, seemed filled with all kinds of “alternative” doctors. There were chiropractors, herbalists, naturopaths, and homeopaths around every corner, a concentration I might expect to find in certain areas of the United States that have a hippie-ish reputation like San Francisco, Austin, and Berkeley. We saw them in Hamburg, Lubeck, and Luneborg, cities of very different sizes and characters. Perhaps the German medical system takes a more broadminded view than mainstream American medicine toward their alternative cousins, and perhaps the German people do, too. Seeing so many of these places, I could almost imagine being in the 19th century United States when such a range of medical options was prominent.

Food & Think

I had the great pleasure of having one of my pieces featured on the Smithsonian’s fantastic food blog Food & Think on Monday. It’s funny how a prompt– in this case “the most memorable meal of your life”– can bring back memories in a flush of sights, sounds, and smells. And just thinking about my meal made the whole month I spent in England come back in more vivid detail that it might have had someone just asked me to tell them about the time I spent in London 11 years ago.

Something I didn’t include in this piece was my memory of one weekend dinner in the Zebra Club. The thuggish Eastern European chef must have had the night off so dinner that night was both made and served by the regular waiter, whose name I wish I could remember. I do remember that he was from Serbia and that he bore a slight resemblance to Mr. Bean. He took our order–pasta or meat, as usual–and then headed back into the kitchen.

From my place at the table, I could see through the round window to the stove.  Through that portal I saw the Mr. Bean-waiter ignite something that resulted in tremendous flames–they were literally 18 inches high and looked like they could easily singe his eyebrows off. Did I mention I ordered pasta?

Twenty minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with our bowls of rubbery pasta. Everything looked normal: or as bad as what had become “usual” by this point in the trip.

I never discovered what the flames were about. We tried asking but he seemed confused by the question. Perhaps he had hoped no one had seen. He wanted to keep those flames to himself.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail

The death throes of the last Ice Age are clearly visible along a path not far from a busy stretch of highway near Madison, Wisconsin. Standing in the parking lot of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, stands of oaks covering rock-strewn moraines and areas of crater-like kettle ponds are clearly visible. The trail preserves and celebrates the state’s geologic past as it courses like a u-shaped river through Wisconsin.
Around ten thousand years ago, the mile-high wall of ice known as the late Wisconsin Glacier, responsible for shaping much of the physical landscape of Canada, the Upper Midwest, New England and parts of Montana and Washington, began to melt. In its wake, the retreating ice deposited a line of sediment along its southern edge, a serpentine strip of gravelly hills called a terminal moraine that defined the glacier’s final reach. And fittingly–considering the glacier’s name–one of the best places to see the effects of the continent’s Wisconsin glaciation is in Wisconsin, along the Ice Age Trail.
Ice Age Trail segment in the Lodi Marsh
Extending like a ribbon from St. Croix Falls in Polk County to Potawatomi State Park in Door County, this scenic belt provides a walking tour of geologic beauty both close to home and in some of Wisconsin’s remotest places. Carved from land both privately and publicly owned in 30 counties, the trail is currently more than half-finished, about 600 of the proposed 1,200 miles, and is one of only two national trails in the U.S. contained within one state.
Preservation of this geologic fingerprint was the idea of Milwaukee attorney and avid outdoorsman Raymond Zillmer, who believed the trail would tell the story of Wisconsin’s past while serving as a wide-scale conservation effort in a state he believed destined for more and more development. And since 1958, thousands of Wisconsin residents have volunteered countless hours to protect, preserve and share this past through the creation of a continuous park along the glacier’s edge.
Last fall, we started section hiking the trail, beginning with the part closest to Madison and working our way north and south. Our progress is slow. It’s hard to get very far when you have to park at one end and hike back to the car, and when you only have a day or two every two weeks to go out. But we’re getting there. 
The Devil’s Staircase in Janesville
Last weekend we completed about half of the Janesville section, about six miles, but 12 for us since we had to walk back the way we came. The trail is a fantastic mix of city, park, suburbia, prairie, and woods. We’ve hiked–if I can even use that word–around the Farm and Fleet in Verona, past several libraries, and through the downtown streets of Lodi, Cross Plains, and Janesville. We walked through a dark tunnel under a roadway, hoping to find a safer way to cross, only to find ourselves at what appeared to be the underground entrance to a mental hospital. And a few weeks ago, a golf ball from a wildly off course golfer nearly knocked me out as we hiked the strip of woods between a neighborhood and golf course. But we’ve also hiked through gorgeous restored prairies and along limestone bluffs. 
The Ice Age Trail is truly a wonderful adventure. And one I think I’ll be on for the rest of my life at the rate we are going.