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.

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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.

What?

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.

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.

Historic Green Travel

At a time when everyone and everything is engaged in going green, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s first environmentally-sound tour occurred long before going green was hip.

In July 1858, an anonymous Milwaukee resident and his companion set out to cross the entire state, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, on foot, just for the heck of it. Signing his articles only as “Alpha C.,” he described their “walk of some little romance” in the Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel.

1856 View of MilwaukeeSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1856 View of Milwaukee
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Walking only three miles outside Milwaukee on the first day, the pair walked 23 miles to Delafield the next day, stopping in Oconomowoc, “a very pleasant village, full of pleasant people, on a very pleasant lake, full of very pleasant sail boats,” he wrote.  Every trip seems pleasant at the start, doesn’t it?

At Watertown, floods had damaged the Watertown Plank Road, which made it “risky for the unsuspecting traveler to attempt to cross Rock River after dark.  There was enough of the bridge left to carry a man into deep water, and nothing laid across to stop him;… and my walk to the Mississippi came near ending at the Rock.”

From Watertown, the pair turned north into Dodge County, where they found a well-kept resort on Lake Emily and the “largest field of Fife wheat I have ever seen…I am incompetent to describe it with justice.”

Fort Winnebago, which they examined at Portage, “is not the interesting pile of ruins that some folks expect to find it. Heading for Baraboo the pair needed to cross the Wisconsin River as dusk came on. The owner of the only boat offered to take them across for the exorbitant fee of $3.00, thinking that with the coming dark, the travelers’ only option would be to pay.  “But we showed him there was one thing more we could do; we reduced ourselves to the state of nature, fastened our little effects up our backs over our shoulders… and swam the river.”

1858 map of WisconsinSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1858 map of Wisconsin
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Exhausted and wet, they camped somewhere around Devils Lake and “then, for the only time during the whole journey, some doubt came into my mind as to there being so much romance about it after all; for that evening only, it assumed the aspect of a stern matter of fact; Fancy was overpowered by Experience.” They made a large fire “to keep the wolves and mosquitoes away, and ate voraciously of smoked beef and crackers.

They reached the Wisconsin Dells the following day, “where one might think the whole world was made of rock.” They visited Pilot Nob, admired the gorges, and speculated correctly on the potential of the area as a magnificent tourist destination.

Following the railroad northwest for the next few days they passed through Lemonwier Valley, and the new towns of Mauston, New Lisbon, and Greenfield.  They pushed through to Sparta and then on to La Crosse where they climbed Grandad Bluff and the writer realized “the earliest ambitious wish of my boyhood was at last gratified — I saw the Mississippi!”

Arriving in La Crosse thirty days after they began, the author concluded ” by the roads I travelled, the distance is 302 miles, all of which I walked,” a mighty distance to walk then as it is almost unimaginable today.  And clearly the walking bug and spirit of adventure were still in him, as he planned to continue on to Itasca Lake, Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, excited by the prospects of all that he would see along the way.

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.

Silver Award for eHistory

My book A Short History of Wisconsin recently (in the last few months anyway) became available as an ebook. And it’s digital self just won a silver prize in the history category from eLit Awards, which, according to their website, recognizes the “very best of English language digital publishing entertainment.” That’s right – my history book has ceased to be just a book and is now “digital publishing entertainment.” Awesome. Thanks eLit!

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.

Making Radio

Most of my work days look like this:

I sit for hours cutting a word from here and a phrase from there; deleting the sound of swallows and licked lips (you’d be amazed how loud they are in a microphone – and perhaps once you do know, how self-conscious you become about them); searching for the perfect music and then fitting it in to complement but not overpower the voice, to emphasize a point and then fade away; and trying to make sentences I’ve cut from 10 different places sound like they flow naturally from one into the next. It’s the glamorous world of radio.

But if maybe not glamorous – there’s nothing stylish about the enormous black headphones strapped to my head – it’s certainly magical. Even after hours listening to the same paragraph over and over and over… and over… to the point that I have memorized the entire essay or interview answer (or more recently, a song), it never fails to excite me when it finally falls together. It’s just like writing the perfect sentence or finding just the right word to describe a moment, a scene, a person. It just feels… right.

Creating radio is an intimate experience, too. Radio is itself the most intimate of mediums – a voice talking to you, the listener, over the airwaves. Voices you know in a second but couldn’t identify the face of its owner. And yet you somehow feel connected. You feel that you know her.

The same thing happens in my headphones as the subject tells me a story, over and over, that I just have to get right. I owe it to her, I think, as I make the painful decisions of what is essential and what can be left behind. The soundwaves may not look so personal on my screen but most special things are hard, if not impossible, to see.

I can’t imagine the day when this will ever get old – when I’ll stop getting excited about someone’s story and determining how to share it. Sure, my ears throb after hours encased in headphones and my pointer finger aches from endless mouse clicking, but even so, the end result always sounds like magic to me.

Here a few recent radio pieces I’ve produced* for Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio:

Count This Penny – songs based on letters of Wisconsin Civil War soldiers (love them, love this)

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (I can’t wait to try it!)

Distill America (I did the recording for this one, too)

Sugaring Season

* Many people ask me what a producer actually does. Good question. In radio, producers do a variety of things but generally book guests for talk shows, find music and sound clips, sometimes write questions for interviews, conduct interviews, and edit audio. Essentially everything but take to the microphone themselves.