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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

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Milwaukee

The Crafting Project that Made Milwaukee Famous

handicraft-bookbinding
Source: UWM

Bowling and beer made Milwaukee famous. But so, too, did the books, dolls quilts and other handmade items created by thousands of women during the Great Depression. As someone who sews, it’s a story near to my heart.

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project was one of the many projects created by the Works Progress Administration to provide work for millions of Americans in the 1930s. Unlike other WPA programs, though, the Milwaukee program was unique in putting women to work, while many other early projects were geared toward men.

Elsa Ulbricht from the Milwaukee State Teachers College came up with the idea for the Milwaukee Handicraft Project. She envisioned a work relief program for women who needed to support their families that would create artistic items for public institutions at cost while also providing employment for graduates of her college that couldn’t find teaching jobs.

Ulbricht selected art education student Mary Jane Kellogg and Anne Feldman to serve as art director and general supervisor respectively.

Kellogg identified product needs for schools and hospitals in cooperation with state and local governments. The project first started compiling scrapbooks of articles and puzzles to entertain hospital patients. Workers also bound and repaired books for schools.

Eventually, 11 different units were created for bookbinding, block printing, screen printing, weaving, rugs, applique, dolls, toys, costumes, wood toys and furniture. New units were added as staff developed new products that would improve the lives of children and families.

A state order for coverlets for all WPA nurseries in Wisconsin created work for 75 women. Those workers who became competent in their craft were encouraged to find employment in other WPA projects, like the sewing project which paid higher wages.

More than 200 women reported to work on Nov. 5, 1935. Two weeks later, 700 women were employed. Unlike most other workplaces at the time, the Handicraft Project was racially integrated, employing a large number of African-American women. The project employed only women at first, but when it expanded to include furniture, men were also hired.

Orders for products came from every state and the project gained national attention for its use of unskilled labor to produce handmade products in an integrated workplace. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even paid the project a visit in 1936, writing about her experiences in her newspaper column, “My Day:.

“I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent. Milwaukee has a handicraft project for unskilled women which gives one a perfect thrill. They are doing artistic work under most able teachers,” Roosevelt wrote.

Federal support for the project ended in 1942, but Milwaukee County continued it for a time as a rehab program for older and disabled workers.

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.

Bringing Beer Back Home

Source: Edible Milwaukee
Source: Edible Milwaukee

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the summer issue. It’s all about some of the local growers trying to revive the state’s hop and barley tradition.

Let’s just say I jumped at the chance to explore Wisconsin beer, past and present. I remember the first time I saw hops growing at the truly wonderful Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It was actually the hops that led me there – I saw them climbing up the poles in one of the gardens and just had to get out to see what in the world was growing in there! I’ve since been to the American Hop Museum in eastern Washington so hops in their pre-beer state are no longer foreign to me. But I still thrill at the sight of them. There’s something magical about the vines and flowers.

I learned a lot telling this story (I won’t spoil it by telling you everything before you can even read it – something I tend to do to my husband all the time) but one of the things that sticks with me is something brewmaster Grant Pauly from 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan told me. Wisconsin’s long brewing history isn’t just about the beer. It’s also about the equipment to make that beer and that the state’s long brewing history means that many of the things needed to make and sell beer commercially – from the tap handles to the cardboard six-pack holders – can be sourced from local businesses. It makes perfect sense but had never before occurred to me.

Here’s the story. Enjoy!

 

Long before Wisconsin became America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin brewed beer. The state had barley, wheat, ice, and water. It had hops. And most important of all, a beer-thirsty people called Wisconsin home.

So thirsty that in 1839, German settlers in Milwaukee, desperate for a taste of home, mixed whiskey and vinegar with a little limestone to create a head that they called “Essig whiskey heimer” (something like homemade vinegar whiskey or vinegar whiskey of home). The opening of the city’s first brewery – by a Welshman, not a German, alas – the next year hopefully put an end to that frightening blend.

Read the rest at Edible Milwaukee…

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.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Milwaukee Assassin

On the night of October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a crowd in Milwaukee despite having been shot by a would-be assassin.

Milwaukee was a campaign stop for Roosevelt who was running for president as the candidate of the newly independent Progressive Party. Roosevelt had already served two terms as president but his unhappiness with his successor, William Taft, led him to seek office on a progressive platform.

Teddy Roosevelt
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, New York bartender John Schrank had been stalking him for three weeks and across eight states. Obsessed with the thought of a third Roosevelt term, breaking the two term precedent set by George Washington, Schrank was convinced that Roosevelt’s election would lead to civil war so he decided he had to act. Schrank finally managed to get off a shot from his .38-caliber revolver as Roosevelt departed the Hotel Gilpatrick for his speaking engagement at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Unwilling to miss his speech, Roosevelt trivialized the wound and insisted on speaking. He even opened his vest at one point, revealing the wound, and declared, “It takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.”

Fortunately, Roosevelt had poor vision and was long-winded. The metal case for his glasses and the thick folded pages of his speech absorbed much of the force of the bullet lodged in the right side of his chest.

Following his speech, Roosevelt was rushed to the hospital. An X-ray confirmed the presence of the bullet in his chest but doctors decided to leave the bullet in place as it posed no threat to his organs and surgery could be risky. Roosevelt carried the bullet for the rest of his life.

 

Footnote – I realized only recently that the site of the shooting was on Old World 3rd Street near Kilbourn Avenue, the current home of the Hyatt, where I have stayed several times. I hear there are even photos and a plaque! I should be more observant.

For the Love of Custard

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When you live in Wisconsin, it’s easy to take frozen custard for granted. Those outside the Midwest may think of custard as simply soft serve, a lie promulgated by a national ice cream chain that shall remain unnamed. It’s true that custard comes from a machine like soft serve but that’s where the similarities end. Custard is smooth, rich, and dense with the addition of egg yolks and the subtraction of air – spoons stand straight at attention, just like those commercials for Dennison’s chili from my childhood proclaimed. Custard makers work hard to keep the percentage of air in their product low to make for a dense dessert that more extrudes rather than releases from the machine valve. It’s even regulated by law – the FDA requires custard to contain 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That might not sound like many yolks but many ice creams contain no yolks – the yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny finish. Most places offer vanilla and chocolate with a rotating daily flavor or two. Custard is expensive and time-consuming to make, which is why you won’t find dozens of flavors.

Custard machine
Custard machine

On a mission, we set out for Milwaukee to taste some of the state’s finest. While I wouldn’t ordinarily consider temperatures hovering around 50 to be ice cream weather, when it’s been so cold for so long (below 0 on the first day of spring, friends), 50 degrees feels like 80 and you can happily stand in the parking lot of Leon’s Frozen Custard licking your cone. (Vanilla for me and the featured flavor, maple nut, for my husband, in case you wondered.) An added bonus: Leon’s supposedly inspired the drive-in concept for the TV show “Happy Days,” one of my favorites.

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Truth be told, we did not confine ourselves to custard alone – we also had ice cream for our two cone lunch – but being in America’s Dairyland, we figured we still did Wisconsin proud.

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