Vintage Wisconsin: The Perfect Christmas Outfit

I’ve started a new blog at Wisconsin Public Radio called “Vintage Wisconsin.” It includes things like this:

Have you picked out your Christmas outfit yet? In this great photo, a young girl takes dressing up for the holidays to a new level with this tinsel- and ornament-bedecked dress in the 1950s. 

Jesuit priest, the Rev. Claude Allouez, celebrated what was perhaps the first Christmas in Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior in 1665. He had set out from Montreal in August in the company of 400 Native Americans returning home to Wisconsin. He landed near where the city of Ashland is today and built “a little chapel of bark” that he decorated with “various pictures, as of Hell and of the universal Judgment.” Cheery decor, no? Allouez didn’t say what he did on Christmas, but it was probably praying and saying Mass rather than dressing as a Christmas tree.

Holiday cooking disasters have a long history in Wisconsin as well. In 1803, British trader Capt. Thomas Anderson attempted a Christmas feast for his Native American neighbors. He captured “the fattest raccoon” he could find – 32 pounds – and set to work stuffing it with venison, onions, and seasonings.

“No coonship’s body, I am sure,” he wrote, “was never so cram-full before.”

He set the stuffed raccoon by the fire intending to roast it in the morning but woke up to find it “putrid and stinking.” Mortified, Anderson went without dinner and got laughed at by his “half-famished friends.”

Despite this cooking disaster, Anderson was at it again in 1811, preparing a “sea pie” of muskrat for a Christmas feast. He made the crust and fit it in the bottom of a bake-kettle; spread a layer of muskrat meat, pepper, and salt; and continued alternating crust and meat until the kettle was full.

“But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food,” Anderson lamented. “On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it, that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air.”

Maybe Anderson should have tried the tree outfit instead. May your holiday feast be more relishable.

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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.

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.

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.

19th Century Health Resolutions for the New Year

Resolutions to be healthy and fit are among the most common this time of year. Only two days in to the new year, we’re all still winning our resolutions (good news!). In honor of my soon to be released book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, here are some 19th century tips for living healthy and well:

1. Drink water, the colder the better. Nature’s purest drink was the health beverage of choice for hydropaths, who promoted the benefits of regular bathing, soaking, and imbibing at least eight (and often a lot more – one guy claimed 30 glasses before breakfast!) glasses of cold water a day to wash out disease.

2. Think positive. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that the cause of all disease was wrong thoughts. Replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts led to happiness and health.

3. Go natural. Samuel Thomson was a self-taught American herbalist who believed that nature knew best. He devised his own system of healing known as Thomsonism that relied on remedies made from the plants growing out your backdoor.

4. Move. Outside, if possible. Between drinking water and bathing, hydropathic patients went on long walks in the woods. The fresh air, trees, and other plants made for particularly restorative forms of exercise. On rainy days, patients juggled, danced, or chopped wood – anything to move more.

5. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other spirituous substances. Homeopaths believed that certain foods and drinks inhibited healing. The movement’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, even cautioned against drinking coffee, claiming it could lead to impotence, sterility, and mental and physical “degeneration.” But even Hahnemann couldn’t deny its pleasures, particularly in the morning: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after waking, everyone who is not living completely in a rude state of nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs,” Hahnemann wrote. Coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” and makes drinkers “completely alive” with each sip.

L0025612 R.T. Claridge, Hydropathy, or the cold water cure...

 

My new book is only days away from its release into the world (January 7th!). It’s about health and sickness and how Americans throughout the 19th century struggled and embraced a variety of ways to be well before we knew about things like germs. They even got a few things right.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Mushroom Hunter

I’ve only found one. “Found” might be too generous of a term for what happened. Tripped is probably more accurate even if it makes me sound like the klutz that I probably am.

Miraculously, the morel mushroom survived the impact with my foot, its top cut clean off the stem but still whole and undamaged. I carefully picked it up and stuck it in the netting pocket of my backpack. Please don’t get crushed now, I thought, imagining what I would do with this single mushroom when we got home from our hike.

Warm spring weather sends morels popping up through the dried leaves of a Wisconsin woods. They are a wily bunch – resisting easy detection with their brown spongy heads. Accomplished morel hunters zealously guard their mushrooming grounds. I know a few of them. “Maybe I’ll take you sometime,” says a friend. “But you’ll have to be blindfolded.” I laugh but then realize she’s not joking. Morels are the truffles of Wisconsin. Now if only I could get a morel sniffing pig…

Advice on how to find morels is plentiful. Look by dead or dying elms, they say. Old apple orchards, pine trees, old ash, or old poplar. The advice all assumes I can easily identify these trees, particularly when dead or dying. I look at pictures and study tree guides.

Ferns but no morels yet...

But out in the woods, I just walk and scan, walk and scan, hoping to spot that elusive brown cap. No luck yet. I’m not yet worthy of the shirt I spotted in the window of a Czech Village store in Cedar Rapids: Morel Mushroom Master. The store boasted a full line of mushroom lovers gear and even had two 18 inch carved wooden morels in the window.

My one morel made it home safely from the hike. I carefully washed it and then sauteed it in butter. Divided into two servings, the small slices equalled about a teaspoon of food each for me and my husband. But it was an intoxicating taste of a hunt that I’ve only just begun.

Check out this great morel mushroom poem from poet Jane Whitledge.