Star Dawn

St. John’s Lutheran Church Cemetery, Fenton, Iowa

There’s a sight that brings a smile to my face when I stand a short distance in front of my parent’s gravestone. I can look out and see all the old farmers I grew up working for who lived near us: Eddie and Virgene Uthof, Lloyd and Dorothy Kern, and Willard and Hulda Menz. It’s like the old neighborhood is still together in a quiet little cemetery a half-a-mile out of town in the countryside.

This was a group of farmers who all grew up in the 1920’s and ’30’s and sharing equipment and labor for jobs like baling hay and shelling corn was common.When they had been teenagers, large crews of neighbors took turns using a 20-ton steam engine to power a machine called a thresher that separated grain from the plant stalks.

It was hard work but it was also an extremely important social event for the whole neighborhood. They were called Threshing Parties and there was a festive atmosphere to the whole enterprise. It took large crews of neighbors – men, women and children – to do the work and provide all the food required to pull off a big operation like that. I could tell from the way the old-timers talked that those had been some of the happiest days of their lives.

I was lucky enough to get a sense of what that life was like and to hear their stories, but even then I was aware that I was experiencing something that was ending and never coming back. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the early 1970’s, a man named Earl Butz, told American farmers they should get big or get out. A few years ago, I talked on the phone with our neighbor, Virgene Uthof, on the night she passed away and we talked about how the old neighborhood was not like it used to be. It’s all big farmers now.

I think in many ways I have been looking for, and almost never finding, that same sense of camaraderie and appreciation in my own working life that I experienced with those old farmers then. I knew that I was working with others toward a common purpose and that my work was valued. I have almost never experienced that in my adult working life.

I was never really prepared for office politics. I seem to be a magnet for the petty, niggling coworker and the supervisor who acts as their enabler. I still feel like I have talents to give, but I work in a lot of places where I’m not really wanted on the team.

I even moved to a small town and owned a natural foods store because I wanted to be my own boss and feel a sense of connection to a community. Instead, I always felt like I was caught between a nativist group of townspeople who didn’t want outsiders coming to “their” town and the town’s cultural elites who did not think I was sophisticated enough to be in “their” town either.

I have wanted to have a sense of connection to others through my work and for my work to be treated as having value. For the most part, that has just not been the case.

When I think of how the old farmers I knew are now near each other in that cemetery back home, I think of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” and how the characters at the end of the play speak to each other in the cemetery they now occupy. It’s an image of the afterlife that seems out of place in the world I inhabit.

Is there a human consciousness that lives on after we die or do our atoms just split up and find new adventures? If we are just atoms that split up, that actually doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

I like to imagine the afterlife being like a piece of music called “Star Dawn” by Alan Hovhaness. It’s a 14 minute-long symphony that imagines a space flight taking off from Earth and landing on a distant planet. The music of Alan Hovhaness reminds me of a spirit world because he uses bells a lot and when I hear the “tinkly” parts of his music I think of a world that people can sense but maybe not see because it is a world that exists within arm’s reach but just out of sight. In this piece, the “tinkly” sounds combine with “bing-bongy” sounds that make me think of flying through space. If my Spirit leaving sounded something like this music, I think I’d be okay with that.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Since the old neighborhood isn’t what it used to be and I don’t have the same connection to it anyway, I think I would like to wind up at The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa.They are restoring the Iowa countryside to be like what the natural prairie was in 1840 before the land became dominated by industrialized agriculture. I honestly do not know if there is a personal God who knows the number of hairs on my head or if we are all part of The Energy that makes up The Universe, but if I could be a part of a landscape that can make use of me, well, then that sounds like a pretty satisfying way to live on.

Boston Brown Bread

I am a Boston Brown Bread. I was baked on this day of July 12th in the year of our Lord, 1780, in the house lived in by General Benedict Arnold. I am made from equal parts of corn meal, rye flour and whole wheat flour and am the unique creation of the colonists of this new land.

Benedict Arnold was a hero in the early days of this “American” revolution against England, but has in recent years grown jealous of many of the other generals. He is also greatly in debt and his new young wife, Peggy, is writing as General Arnold dictates a letter to Major André of the British Army.

“Listen … André … I got a deal for you … it’s the most beautiful deal … it’s gonna be huge … huge! I can’t tell you how beautiful and how huge it’s gonna be!”

“See … it’s like this … I’m gonna take over the fort at West Point … me … West Point … it’s a fort … see? It’s big … see?”

“Listen … for £20,000 … you know, £20,000 … it’s a lot of money … for £20,000 … it’s yours. Give me £20,000 and I’ll surrender it to you … see?”

Somehow, Benedict Arnold’s wife was able to take the general’s incoherent grunts and verbal flatulence and form sentences. The letter was sent by secret courier to Major André of the British Army later that day making Benedict Arnold the first great traitor to this new country.

As the traitor Benedict Arnold finished dictating his letter, I prayed that this young country would never again see someone so greedy and vainglorious in a leadership position. Then I was eaten. The End.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup Whole Wheat Flour
  • ½ cup Rye Flour
  • ½ cup Cornmeal
  • 1½ tsp. Baking Soda
  • ½ tsp. Baking Powder
  • 1 tsp. Kosher Salt
  • 1½ cups Buttermilk
  • ¼ cup Molasses
  • 2 tbsp. Butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • ½ cup Raisins

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Whisk whole wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the raisins and stir to give the raisins a good coating of flour.
  2. Whisk buttermilk, molasses and melted butter together in a second bowl.
  3. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and stir until combined.
  4. Spray your mold with non-stick cooking spray and pour the mixture into the mold. Tamp the mold down a few times and allow to settle for a couple of minutes. Place the mold in a stockpot and fill the pot with hot water until the water comes up halfway the outside of the mold. Cover the pot with a lid and bake for one hour.

Editor’s Note:

This bread is essentially being steamed in a bain marie and, in England, is known as a pudding. In colonial times, not every home had an oven in which to bake bread, but a pudding bread like Boston Brown Bread could be steamed in a pot in a fireplace.

The mold shown in the picture is a 1.5 quart stainless steel insert to a commercial steam table. They might be found at a kitchen supply store or online here.

The Legacy of Robert Ray

The World Food Prize sponsors an annual Iowa Hunger Summit that is free and open to the public which I am glad to have attended this past Monday. I sat down before the morning’s program and struck up a lovely conversation with two men from southern India who are colleagues of the first recipient of The World Food Prize. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President of The World Food Prize, had met them on a trip to India and invited them to attend.

Kenneth Quinn began the day’s events describing how The World Food Prize had its roots in the humanitarian effort led by Iowa’s Governor Robert Ray in the 1970’s when Mr. Quinn worked with Ray on the Indochinese Refugee Crisis.

It’s a story I remember well. I was a junior in high school in 1979 when the Cambodian Boat People Crisis happened. The images of families drowning as their flimsy crafts broke up in the ocean have stuck with me. Robert Ray set an example of moral leadership among politicians that remains unique in my lifetime. I felt pride in my state knowing that Iowa set the standard that others would follow because of Robert Ray. I was glad to send in $30 of money I earned baling hay to Iowa Shares and seeing my name with all the many others published weekly by The Des Moines Register.

Later, at lunch, I sat at a table with a group of 7th graders from Trinity Lutheran School in Boone, Iowa and told them that I was not much older than they are when Iowa led the nation in saving thousands of lives, and encouraged them to learn more about Robert Ray.

A professor named Matthew R. Walsh has written an incredibly well-researched book called The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa about that history and I think it is a history worth telling often given the times we are living in now.

In 1975, Iowa Republican Governor Robert Ray responded to a humanitarian crisis with a profile in leadership. Ray enjoyed an 81% approval rating and parlayed the political capital he earned to come to the aid of the Tai Dam people, an ethnically distinct group who fled their homeland in Vietnam because of their opposition to the North Vietnamese Communist insurgency. Iowa has a unique place in the history of refugee services in the United States because of it, and from 1975-2010, Iowa was the only state recognized by the U.S. State Department as an official resettlement agency.

Following the fall of Saigon, President Gerald Ford asked the nation’s governors to take in refugees from Vietnam who had been allies of the U.S. and were now fleeing persecution. Iowa governor Robert Ray was the only one who said, “Yes.” Ray was motivated not only by his Christian values to help others in need, but also by his desire to gain more control over state government’s role in shaping refugee policy, and started an experiment that continues to influence resettlement policy to this day.

Ray was frustrated that state governors had so little control over refugee policy. The U.S. State Department allocated refugees to the states through voluntary agencies like Lutheran Services in Iowa and Catholic Charities who, understaffed and underfunded, often signed new refugees up for welfare as the quickest way to achieve stability for the newcomers. This placed a burden on state services and Ray believed it could set refugees up for long-term failure by creating a false impression about society’s expectations. Resorting to welfare as a first option fundamentally ran counter to his fiscal conservatism.

Ray placed administrative responsibility to resettle the Tai Dam under the Job Service of Iowa department. Previously, resettlement issues were administered through the state’s social services: the distributors of welfare. Colleen Shearer was the head of Job Service of Iowa and also acted as head of the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement, thus streamlining the effort to find the Tai Dam jobs as quickly as possible. Resettling the Tai Dam as a group made the job placement task easier because the state only had one language and set of cultural barriers to deal with; if one Tai Dam in a workplace spoke English, they could serve as interpreters for the other Tai Dam workers.

The cohesiveness of the Tai Dam people also contributed to the success of this experiment. Leaders within the Tai Dam community had negotiated for their people’s exodus from danger as a single group no less than four times since the early 1950’s. This strong sense of community meant that members helped one another in hard times and fit well with Ray’s goal of showing that his experiment could be successful in keeping refugees off welfare.

The Governor’s Task Force relied on three characteristics for success: work-first, cluster resettlement and individual sponsorship. Iowans across the state answered the call to sponsorship from the popular governor and signed up to provide individual attention to Tai Dam families. Not only did this provide an additional safety net for newcomers, it acted as the first point of integration into established society for refugees. In return, the refugees enriched the cultural landscape of Iowa permanently.

Nationally, the Iowa model gained attention because of the success of the Tai Dam people. Ray continued to push the envelope of his political capital. In response to the boat people crisis, Ray made an executive decision in January, 1979 to increase the intake of Indochinese refugees. He was one of two governors to attend the Special United Nations Conference on Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland that year in July.

At the conference, Vice President Walter Mondale electrified the crowd by referencing the failings of the international community in 1938 at Evian, France when 32 nations met to discuss the plight of the Jews. In his speech, Mondale said,

“Our children will deal harshly with us if we fail…Let us not be like the others. Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us reach beyond metaphor. Let us honor the moral principle we inherit. Let us do something meaningful – something profound – to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”

Polling in Iowa showed that the majority of Iowans consistently opposed Ray’s resettlement policy. On December 4, 1979, conservative commentator Paul Harvey wrote an article that appeared nationwide in which he denounced what he called refugees “parasitism” and “welfare-Cadillac” lifestyle. Harvey wrote that the Indochinese “buy and sell their teenage daughters; they skin and eat dogs and cats; they ravage our fishing grounds…Transporting them here is cruel to them and an affront to our own jobless.” He cautioned readers not to get suckered into donating to relief efforts by the emotionalized appeals pushed by bleeding-hearts, preachers, and fundraisers.

The nativist instinct of comments like these are an undeniable part of the character of the United States. It is a part of our past, our present and our future. People who have lived through ethnic violence know that this is the most tribal of instincts. The angry letters that were written to Iowa governor Robert Ray show that he knew this instinct as well.

Ray had choices to make as to how he would spend the political capital he earned through five terms as Iowa’s governor. Politicians have always faced criticism for issues relating to refugees and immigration, and always will. It was Robert Ray’s personal moral choice as a leader to stand up to and rise above that criticism.

MSG

I once had occasion to shadow several cooks of Nepali heritage who had been refugees from Bhutan. I observed them cooking a meal, writing down every ingredient as it was prepped and every step as the dishes were made. I then turned my notes into a standard recipe format that others could follow.

There was a very skillful interpreter on the scene, but, for the most part, a potato is a potato and an onion is an onion. However, there was one mystery ingredient that kept popping up that we had trouble identifying. The interpreter, who is a fantastic cook herself, knew what it was but could not come up with the English word for it. The first cook we observed had bought it in bulk and stored it in an old honey jar, so no help there.

It was a white, slender, crystallized flake with no hint of aroma. When I took a pinch of the flakes and popped them in my mouth my first thought was, “It tastes like vegetable soup.” I went home that night, fired up the Google machine, and went off on a search. Because of that hint about vegetable soup and because my partner and I like to peruse mom-and-pop ethnic grocery stores for fun, I was able to figure out – fairly quickly, really – that the mystery ingredient was none other than Monosodium Glutamate – the dreaded MSG.

I’ve never given MSG any real thought beyond doing the cultural shorthand that a lot of people do: MSG = Bad. It’s the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome thing, right? But what did I really know about it? Given it’s reputation, it would not have surprised me if it was made from the same stuff as lawn fertilizer.

I came across an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called The History of Glutamate Production by Chiaki Sano. In 1907, a Japanese professor wondered what it was about the taste sensation he got from his wife’s soups that he just couldn’t put his finger on. It wasn’t exactly sweet or salty or sour or bitter which were the four accepted categories that taste buds were supposed to be able to taste.

What professor Kikunae Ikeda thought he was tasting did not match those categories, at least not exactly. With his wife’s help, he was able to determine that a type of seaweed called kombu, which was a traditional flavoring agent of soup stocks, was the source of the unique flavor.

He figured out that an amino acid called L-glutamate was responsible for a new taste he called “umami.” He was able to concentrate L-glutamate and crystalize it. MSG became one of the most widely used food additives across SE Asia because it adds great flavor to vegetarian dishes. There’s a parallel between MSG and Nutritional Yeast, which is also used to give umami flavor to vegetarian cooking, but which does not have the negative reputation that MSG does.

Both MSG and Nutritional Yeast are derived from fermentation. For MSG, the bacteria strains Corynebacterium glutamicumBrevibacterium lactofermentum, and Brevibacterium flavum produce L-glutamate when they gobble up the sugars in molasses and beet sugar.

Nutritional yeast is made from the Saccharomyces cerevisiae bacterium and is also grown in beet sugar or molasses. It is then deactivated by heat and does not go through a crystallization process like MSG does. It’s vegan-friendly, tastes similar to Parmesan cheese, and has about as positive a reputation as it gets in the natural foods world.

For the sake of accuracy, I picked up a bag of MSG when I recreated the dishes made by the Nepali cooks. I’ve made the dishes with and without MSG and I do believe that adding MSG makes a noticeable difference. For those too freaked out by the thought of intentionally consuming Monosodium Glutamate, Nutritional Yeast can be substituted for MSG teaspoon for teaspoon.

As for me, I don’t think there is anything to get wigged out about and it sounds like chefs like David Chang aren’t either. There’s a reevaluation of MSG going on in the chef world. When cooking for myself, I’ve been adding it to soups and vegetarian dishes, though I don’t usually include it when cooking for others. It adds a different dimension of flavor and since it is a crystal it dissolves and blends cleanly.

It’s crazy how MSG and Nutritional Yeast can be so similar and have such wildly different reputations. I do think Jeffrey Steingarten’s comment about MSG probably says it all: if MSG is so bad, how come there aren’t a billion Chinese people walking around with headaches all the time?

Portuguese Broa Cornbread

As the weather cools down, soups and chili fit the season and it’s nice to have a really good bread for dunking. Two things about this cornbread got my attention: it only needs one rising time and it uses yeast to rise instead of the baking soda and baking powder typical of American-style cornbread.

I compared about a half-dozen recipes and tested a few batches before settling on this combination as one that works well for me. My one contribution to the genre is that I’ve added an egg. An egg can help a bread rise and make it a little less dense and I thought this bread really benefited from that.

It’s great to have a bread that is ready to go in the oven in half the time of other homemade breads. It’s light and holds together well; it doesn’t dry out after one day and crumble into pieces like the typical skillet cornbread does.

After one hour of proving time it’s ready to go in the oven.

Ingredients:

  • 326 grams Bread Flour (2 ⅓ cups)
  • 218 grams Fine Corn Meal (1 ½ cups)
  • ¼ cup Sugar
  • 2 tsp. Yeast (1 Packet)
  • 2 tsp. Kosher Salt
  • 2 tbsp. Vegetable Oil
  • 1 Egg
  • 272 grams warm Water (1 ¼ cups)

Directions:

  1. Combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the vegetable oil, egg and water and knead for ten minutes. It’s a sticky dough, so if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook you should definitely use it.
  2. Shape the dough into a round ball and set aside to rise for an hour on a surface dusted with corn meal. Since the dough is so sticky, it’s a good idea to dust the surface even if using a silicone mat or parchment paper and maybe even giving your hands a light coating of vegetable oil before handling the dough.
  3. Preheat a baking stone in a 425°F. oven for 15 minutes. Dust the surface of the baking stone with cornmeal and plop the dough on the hot stone. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating the stone half-way through to help with even browning. Let cool on a wire rack.

Notes:

There’s a certain school of thought that says bread should only be made of whole grain flour, salt, water and sourdough yeast, and, as much as I like reading Michael Pollan, I think he gets he gets his shorts in a bit of a wad on this subject. There are other ingredients that have perfectly legitimate roles to play.

Sugar is important in bread because it is hygroscopic, meaning it retains moisture. Adding sugar helps prevent bread from drying out so it can help a loaf stay moist. Oils are fats and fats help keep the interiors of breads tender while keeping the exteriors delicate and crisp. Adding an egg helps with giving dough a good rise.

There’s a kind of puritanism that views white flour as an abomination. However, completely 100% whole grain breads tend to be dense, without enough gluten to get a good rise, and they dry out quickly. I find that about 60% white flour to 40% whole grain flour is kind of a sweet spot. It’s enough to get a decently risen loaf with plenty of character from the whole grain.

Whole wheat flour tends to go rancid fairly quickly and inexpensive, high-protein white flour from Canada and the United States literally saved millions of people the world over from malnutrition in the 1800’s. Check out episode two of Victorian Bakers for a real eye opener about how treacherous it was to be a member of the working class in England at that time just trying to eat. It’s right out of Charles Dickens because … it’s right out of Charles Dickens. (All four parts of the Victorian Bakers series are entertaining and educational.)

There’s gotten to be a thing where some people insinuate that the kind of yeast people buy in the grocery store might as well be derived from plutonium and that commercial yeast is compromising people’s immune systems. There are many different strains of saccharomyces cerevisiae and some strains are simply better than others at fermenting the sugars in flour. Science has helped us get better at identifying them. Some strains of yeast are better than others when used to brew beer, but if you try using brewing yeast to make bread you’re likely to be disappointed. If you want to make sourdough, fine, make sourdough. But condemning commercial yeast because it’s not “artisanal” enough is just kind of silly. Then again, I guess you can’t spell “artisanal” without spelling “anal.”

Keokuk Pie

This is a dang good pie.

I found this while researching some family history in the Iowa Women’s Archives of the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa’s Main Library. It’s from the 1934 Freedom Township Women’s Club Cook Book. I’ve never heard of anything called “Keokuk Pie” and have not turned up so much as a hint of anything on Google. l have no idea what it has to do with the town of Keokuk, Iowa or the chief of the Sauk tribe for whom the town is named.

It’s basically a vanilla cream pie. Mark Twain, who lived in Keokuk, Iowa in 1855 and wrote for the local newspaper run by his brother, is said to have written more words about pie than any other American author. None of them were about vanilla cream pies.

Keokuk, Iowa served as a departure point for about 2,500 Mormons setting out for the long journey to Salt Lake City in 1853. According to a magazine published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the favorite dessert of Joseph F. Smith was a custard pie. However, the recipe for the Mormon leader’s favorite pie clearly states that it contains “no vanilla.” And I think Keokuk Pie is technically a cream pie and not a custard pie since the custard is cooked, but I’m no expert on that sort of thing.

Why Keokuk? I feel like there’s got to be a story there. Did Mrs C.J. Miller, of Emmetsburg, Iowa, have a particularly good slice of vanilla cream pie while visiting Keokuk, Iowa and forever call all vanilla cream pies “Keokuk” pies thereafter? That’s as good a theory as any I guess.

Well, whatever the reason, it’s a pretty dang good pie.

Dead simple to make too, especially for someone who’s not skilled at making pies, which I am not. It can be thrown together on short notice. Someone who doesn’t feel confident in their cooking skills can score major points by making Keokuk Pie and saying, “Oh, this? Why, it’s just something I threw together. It’s called Keokuk Pie. Oh, you’ve never heard of it?”

I’d probably make up a story about the Mormons at this point.

Ingredients:

Pie Crust:

  • 12 flats of Original Keebler Graham Crackers, pulverized into crumbs
  • 2 tbsp. Sugar
  • 4 tbsp. Butter, melted

Mix and form a crust in a nine-inch pie pan leaving a tablespoon of crumbs for a topping.

Filling:

  • 1½ cups Whole Milk
  • 2 Egg Yolks
  • 1 tbsp. Corn Starch
  • 6 tbsp. Sugar
  • ½ tsp. Pure Vanilla Extract

Cook over medium-high heat in a double-boiler until the mixture thickens. I gave up after about ten minutes. After a while it didn’t seem to be getting any thicker.

Meringue:

  • 2 Egg Whites
  • 2 tbsp. Sugar

Beat the egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the sugar and continue until you have stiff peaks.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Pour the filling over the pie crust and spread on the meringue. Sprinkle the top with additional graham crumbs. Bake for 15 minutes until the top begins to brown. Let cool on a wire rack.

Mass Communications

In the 1920’s and ’30’s, my grandparents farmed in Freedom Township, which is a rural area east of Emmetsburg, Iowa. According to family legend, when Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and landed in Paris, my grandfather set his wind generator-powered radio in front of the speaker of the party-line telephone so all their farm neighbors could listen to the news as it happened in those days before rural electrification.

I love that story because it it points out how less than a hundred years ago we lacked the basic infrastructure needed to now spend, for the first time in human existence, the majority of every waking minute of our lives engaged in consuming some form of mass communication.

In a fascinating podcast from The Food Programme on BBC Radio, Chef Magnus Nilsson makes the case that he believes the world’s most diverse baking culture can be found in the Nordic countries because the populations of those countries were so isolated and spread out that information spread very slowly. If one home cook came up with a highly individualized recipe or technique, that innovation might spread only a few miles by being handed down through the generations. Perhaps unique and highly local traditions were not bulldozered if the residents were not targeted by marketers to replace anything old with anything new?

I sometimes like to look through old community cookbooks because I hold onto the hope that I will find some lost gem of a recipe that was the unique creation of a gifted cook from the past living in a small town in the Upper Midwest of my heritage. I am usually disappointed. Most often, the recipes in community cook books are pretty universal, with only slight variations made by the individual cooks.

I recently stopped by a wonderful used book store in Mankato, Minnesota called Once Read Books and purchased the 1871-1971 Centennial Cook Book of The Albion Lutheran Church of St. James, Minnesota. It’s a terrific book and the Scandinavian section features a lot of legit Minnesota prairie recipes for Kringla, Ebelskivers, Ostkaka, and Berlinerkranser.

But a lot of the other recipes with intriguing names like Poinsettia Salad from the prolific Gladys Brekken Siem and Everlasting Salad from Tillie Frederickson turn up dozens of variations with a quick Google search.

I then made a trip to the Special Collections Department of the University of Iowa’s Main Library to reclaim a piece of family history by examining the 1934 Freedom Township Women’s Club Cook Book. While there were very few commercially prepared ingredients used in that book (the Albion Lutheran Church book published in 1971 uses scads of them like the beverage made by Gladys Brekken Siem that is made up of two parts Hawaiian Punch to one part Fresca), I found that many of the recipes, like the Lady Baltimore Cake of Mrs. Frank Goddard and the Food For The Gods of Edna High were all commonly known all across the United States.

It may be that I’m missing a larger point about community cook books, especially ones made in the prairie towns of the Upper Midwest. It may be that what drove people to record and share something central to their lives was the desire to feel connected.

There was a phenomenon known as “Prairie Madness” in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. People living in isolation on the Great Plains could fall into deep states of depression. It was a very commonly known condition and an entire genre of fiction sprang up exemplified by Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and the silent film “The Wind” starring Lillian Gish.

It may be that the authors of these community cook books wanted to record for posterity evidence that they had more connection to the world than their first-hand experience. Homemaker shows broadcast on the radio and the Ladies Home Journal were a way to experience a taste of the world beyond the kitchen window and recording your own refinements to famous recipes was a way of demonstrating that you were someone who was tuned in and participating in the zeitgeist.

Some of the recipes in the 1934 book have an international flair to them and come from parts of the world without any cultural heritage connection to the authors. While the recipes may seem off-the-mark to a modern sensibility, I think the authors had an appreciation for the world beyond their localities and wanted there to be a record that they explored the world in their own way and brought back a little treasure to their towns.

It may be that the current desire for the hyper-local in food is a reaction against being bombarded by mass media – a mass media that has been manipulated at various times by the likes of Joseph Goebbels, Mad Men, and Cambridge Analytica. Some people are craving authenticity and feel a need to put up a defense against people who poison the desire for connectivity. Maybe focusing on the local is a way of giving the finger to the Hidden Persuaders, at least in some small way? There are a lot of little zeitgeists to choose from now.

So I will continue to enjoy looking through old community cookbooks and appreciate them for what they are. I won’t be too disappointed if I never find that hidden gem from a forgotten foodie auteur. My sensibility may be different from what motivated the authors of those books.

But I am going to try making the Keokuk Pie from Mrs. C.J. Miller from the 1934 Freedom Township Women’s Club. Google didn’t turn up a thing about that one!