Midwest Maize


I have a new book coming out and a new blog to support it. The book is Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. The book combines a lot of fun factoids (like do you know the connection between corn and vampires?), but also covers the sweeping saga of how a weed from Mexico was bred into a powerhouse grain that spanned the globe and pretty much created the Midwest. The book also covers the transformation of the world over the last 150 years, from horses in farmings and cooking over fireplaces at home to the remarkable farm-to-table dynamic we have today.

The new blog will not duplicate info from the book, but will rather take you along on my travels as I researched the book and adding all the stuff I have learned and am learning that I think might be of interest, from cool tourist destinations to great chefs to fabulous farmers and more. (More info on the blog: http://www.midwestmaize.com — hope you’ll visit.)

The book won’t be out (from the University of Illinois Press) until February 2015, but it is available for pre-order at Amazon right now, if you want to lock in the current price. However, the blog is alive now.

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Maria’s Ancient Grains

Back in March, I mentioned that I was again working with Maria Baez Kijac, author of the award-winning and impressively comprehensive cookbook, The South American Table. This time, the topic was “ancient grains”–those super grains of Latin America that are so newsworthy these days. It was great to be working with Maria again–and the best part of working with Maria, since she tests all the recipes multiple times, is getting to try all the foods. So I can say with certainty that these recipes work and are mighty good. Of course, they also have the benefits of being gluten free and packed with nutrients from the super grains. Maria also includes tips everywhere as to how to alter recipes to personalize them.

But eventually the fun, and the taste testing, came to an end, the book went to press–and now it’s out. Cooking with Ancient Grains is now available for those interested in how to utilize these “nutrition powerhouses,” as Maria calls them.

One thing I did note of interest (though possibly only to me) is that one my favorite recipes, the mushroom and watercress soup, doesn’t look in the photo like it does in Maria’s kitchen. If you get the book and decide to try this recipe, follow Maria’s instructions, not the photo–because in the photo, the mushrooms are sliced (which probably helps confirm for viewers that it’s mushroom soup), but in Maria’s soup, they are chopped. It always seemed to me as though the mushroom taste was magnified by the greater surface area presented by the chopped mushrooms. That said, it’s probably great no matter what you do with the mushrooms. I also loved the salads, especially the quinoa, black rice, and smoked salmon salad, and all the salad dressings. And the raw tomatillo and avocado dip. In fact, though one always has favorites, I can’t say that I ever tried anything I didn’t like.

Because Maria includes detailed info about how to work with the grains, preparing them and how to use them in your own recipes, this is a useful resource if you’re new to quinoa, kañiwa, amaranth, and chia. And because the recipes are collected from Maria’s extensive travel, they’ll probably be of interest even if you’re already familiar with these grains.

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And Called It Macaroni

In the 1700s, visiting the European continent was a sign of culture and worldliness among British youth. Italy in particular was seen as “the place to go,” and anything associated with Italy was unimaginably “hip.” That included pasta, which was universally called “macaroni” in the 1700s. In 1764, a group of terribly fashionable, wealthy, aristocratic young men started gathering in London, to show off their sophisticated, Italianate manners and attire. The group became known as the “Macaroni Club,” and the fantastically dressed and bewigged dandies were called “macaronis.”

The song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was originally composed as a way of insulting colonial Americans. The Thirteen Colonies were becoming pretty sophisticated by the 1700s, with universities and growing cities, but the British wanted to make sure the colonists knew they would never be as “cool” as the aristocrats in Britain. They smirked that these colonial dandies thought that all you needed to be a “macaroni” was a feather in your cap.

The colonists, when they did eventually revolt against Great Britain, adopted the song as their own. They took pride in the fact that they were not foppish and decadent, like the dandies in London. By the time the American Revolution was over, the British were thoroughly sick of hearing the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

So for those who may have wondered why anyone would call a feather in the cap “macaroni”–now you know.

A British "macaroni" in 1773

A British “macaroni” in 1773

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Stagecoach Stopovers

I have been reminded during recent travels that the convenience of super highways and speedy travel are relatively recent occurrences. Only 150 years ago–a mere blip in the history of human travel–stagecoaches were considered a very modern means of transportation. They crossed the United States, from east to west and north to south, connecting cities and towns and outposts. However, places to clean up, dine, and spend the night were necessary, because transit took days and weeks.

On my trip to California and again on a more recent trip to Michigan, I relieved a sliver of this history, stopping at two splendid examples of these stagecoach stopovers–one considerably more rustic than the other, but both remarkable — and both still serving food.

In California, it takes a fair bit of driving on a winding, mountain road to reach Cold Spring Tavern. Built in the 1860s, this is actually a complex of buildings that stood on what was, until 1963, the the only route over the mountains into Santa Barbara. (Hard enough to do in a car; can’t imagine doing it in a stage coach.) Today, while the buildings are still rustic, the menu is very upscale and quite pricey for dinner. I opted for lunch and enjoyed my buffalo burger immensely.

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Tavern

Cold Spring Complex

Cold Spring Complex

A much different experience was visiting the Stagecoach Inn, in historic Marshall, Michigan. This handsome Greek revival building is impressive even amid an entire main street of impressive, 19th century buildings. Constructed in 1838 and made an inn in 1846, it is the oldest continuously operating inn between Chicago and Detroit. Amusingly, while the rustic Cold Spring Tavern offers an extremely upscale menu, the externally elegant Stagecoach Inn offers simple, though very tasty, bar food. A hand-formed burger and wonderfully crisp sweet potato fries made a good lunch during a break in a long drive.

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Stagecoach Inn, Marshall, MI

Come on in.

Come on in.

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Santa Barbara Seafood

Santa Barbara from Sterns Wharf

Santa Barbara from Sterns Wharf

After Ojai, I headed a bit farther north to Santa Barbara. Even here, there would be a bit of history and food research, but also a lot of enjoying the area’s beauty.

I spent many hours at the delightful Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, where I learned about the history, ecology, and ongoing reality of fishing in the area, with information about sea urchins, abalone, lobster, crabs, and numerous tasty food fish. There was also a tremendous amount of fascinating history on non-food topics, including Native American groups of the region, early exploration, wildlife, and numerous shipwrecks. One fact I found interesting was that the Santa Barbara Channel is considered one of the ten best places in the world to watch wildlife, with an abundance of whales, dolphins, seals, otters, and sea lions.

Of course, I didn’t want all my research about local seafood to be purely academic, so I made a point of locating the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, at the end of Sterns Wharf.
SB Shellfish Co-B
Sterns Wharf offers an amazing view of the Santa Barbara harbor and coastline. And Santa Barbara Shellfish offers a splendid array of seafood options. There were a few items that had been flown in from elsewhere, but I figured there was no point in eating fish from somewhere else when I was visiting the home of such splendid creatures as the Santa Barbara rock crabs. So I grabbed an outdoor seat overlooking the harbor, ordered the day’s special of just-caught rock crabs, and settled into an evening of wrestling with heavy shells and delighting in sweet crab meat. (I also enjoyed watching the sunset as I ate.)

Santa Barbara Stone Crabs for Dinner

Santa Barbara Stone Crabs for Dinner

If you get to Santa Barbara, I can definitely recommend this spot. There are many good dining options on the wharf, but the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is hard to beat for reasonably priced local seafood.

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Ojai Olive Oil

I posted a while back on olive history and have previously offered a couple of recipes that include olives. (Just type “olives” into the search bar at right, if you’re interested.) They are tremendously important fruit, especially among Mediterranean cultures. News of their health benefits has given olives and olive oil a great boost in the last decade or so in the United States. Countries with the right, Mediterranean-type weather, including Australia and South Africa, are now growing olives and producing excellent olive oils. Happily, the Mediterranean climate of parts of California have made that state a wonderful producer of olives and olive oils, as well.

While I loved the book store mentioned in the last post, it wasn’t my reason for visiting Ojai. The Ojai Valley has a great climate for olives (as well as oranges and avocados), and it was the region’s fruit-growing, especially of olives, that had brought me to town. The Ojai Olive Oil Company not only produces world-class, award-winning oils, it also offers free tours twice a week, and that was where I headed the day after I first arrived in Ojai. This operation is sustainable, organic, and family owned. It’s also remarkably beautiful, if a little hard to find. (If you go, be sure to follow the directions on their website, as a GPS can lead you to the wrong side of the sprawling ranch.)

Ojai Olive Oil has olive trees from several of the major olive oil regions of Mediterranean Europe, including France, Spain, and Italy. Apparently, both the soil and climate are ideal for the olives, and the trees show their gratitude by producing abundant olives, all hand picked.

In addition to being shown around the orchards, we also got to see the crushing equipment and then, best part, got to taste about a dozen different olive oils. Wow. We were told that the intense, complex, fruity, peppery flavor of course reflected the health and quality of the trees and the care of the process, but also demonstrated the difference freshness can make. Any olive oil shipped from Europe, unless you had it air freighted yourself, will likely be many months old by the time it reaches the grocery store shelf. It will still be good, but it probably won’t be great. For great olive oil, you not only want to buy good quality but also as fresh as possible. I had always wondered why olive oil I had in places around the Mediterranean always tasted so much better than oils I had at home, and now I knew why.

(The stuff on the grocery store shelf is fine for pan frying, by the way, or using in a marinade, but if you’re going to be dipping bread or drizzling it on a salad, that’s when you want the really good stuff.)

Because of the freshness factor, a California olive oil may offer your best opportunity to taste how good this oil can be. Of course, I can offer from experience a definite thumbs up for the oils from Ojai Olive Oil, but it is not the only good olive oil company in the U.S. But you owe it to yourself to try to find something really fresh and brilliant, so you know why olive oil is so revered in so many places. But if you are interested in seeing what the Ojai operation offers, here’s their website: Ojai Olive Oil Company. Enjoy.

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New Favorite Book Store

When I headed for Southern California last autumn, I had a good idea what I was going to do: for work, visit an olive oil farm, do some research, and connect with some business associates, and for fun, attend my college reunion. One of things I hadn’t planned on was running across an incredible store for secondhand books.

Bart’s Books dates to 1964. It bills itself as the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, though I find it hard to imagine it has too much competition in the “outdoor” category. Bart’s has nearly a million books crammed into a maze of al fresco book shelves. Attractive seating areas with umbrellas for shade on sunny days and brick ovens for warmth when the weather turns chilly invite hanging around. The variety of titles is stunning. There is actually a small house at the center of the sprawling “store,” but even it is filled with books (cookbooks in the kitchen and dining room, of course).

If you find yourself in Southern California, I encourage you to at least consider a side trip to Ojai–a charming, mountain-cradled town filled with artists and surrounded by orange, avocado, and olive orchards. And if you love books, then definitely seek out Bart’s Books. You never know what treasures you might find, but even if you find nothing you need, you will have been to one of only a handful of bookstores that might be considered destinations.

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