Key Ingredients

Key Ingredients

Winter 2011

Through food, we tell each other where we’ve been, whom we choose and hope to be, and where we want to belong.

Key Ingredients: America by Food is an exhibition created by The Smithsonian. We toured Key Ingredients around the state from October, 2010 through August, 2011 by collaborating with community hosts in Reedsburg, Rhinelander, River Falls, Westfield, Brodhead and Osseo. In this issue of On, we get a sampling of the way food can bring people together and inspire conversations about cooking, recipes, regional specialties, industry, tradition, cultural celebrations, farming, consumerism, scarcity, and what we eat for dinner.

In this issue of On

From the Director’s Desk

The Smithsonian is coming to town! In any community, large or small, this would be big news. For the six rural communities selected by the Wisconsin Humanities Council to host the Smithsonian exhibition, Key Ingredients: America by Food, it’s a huge opportunity. Our six host communities competed hard for this chance. Since then, they’ve worked even harder to make the most of what “the Smithsonian coming to town” can mean.

You can find out if you visit Reedsburg, Rhinelander, Brodhead, Westfield, River Falls or Osseo during the exhibition’s tour, now through August 2011. Walking through Key Ingredients, you’ll learn about the rich history of food across the United States. You’ll get to ponder the cultural and historical influences that shape Americans’ food choices, the technological changes on farms and in kitchens, and the many ways families around the nation celebrate with food. Locally produced displays and activities will introduce you to the breadth and depth of Wisconsin’s food story, as seen through the eyes of each community.

If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the host communities, you’ll have an opportunity for something more: a chance to make new and deeper connections with neighbors and with the history and culture of your special place. You’ll find that Key Ingredients, like the WHC’s previous Smithsonian tours, can become a catalyst, drawing all kinds of people together. Through Key Ingredients, you can share the foods you love, while learning new things about your community’s ways of growing, hunting, preserving and preparing. And you’ll get the chance to showcase this wealth of local history and culture for visitors from around the corner, the state, and sometimes the world!

We recently witnessed an election season during which the rhetoric of difference felt inescapable, and Wisconsinites were asked to take up residence in sharply divided camps. It’s easy to believe our differences are extreme and irreconcilable. But the Key Ingredients tour, and other WHC programs like it, offer an opportunity to draw strength from our differences—differences rooted in where we live; in our cultural backgrounds, history, life experience and beliefs. In reality, daily life in our communities is far richer in ideas and relationships than any political campaign might suggest. I’m proud that the Key Ingredients tour is one reason why.

Dena Wortzel | Executive Director |

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Essay: Centered on Food by Janet C. Gilmore & the UW-Madison Foodways Class of 2010

“Eat Cheese or Die!” said the slogan, as I crossed into Wisconsin in 1978. Its irony invoked our common need to eat, and stood as a joking reminder of what remains true today: What we choose to eat—and where, with whom, how and why—aligns us with some and separates us from others. Through food, we tell each other where we have been, whom we choose and hope to be, and where we want to belong. Yet even though we so often use this everyday stuff in these ways, we don’t always recognize food’s remarkable capacity to say so much about ourselves.

Learning how we use food so expressively is central to the festivals and foodways classes that I teach in the Folklore Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Early each semester, I ask students to describe in writing a particular food—special or everyday, loved or hated—that is meaningful to them. I savor their deeply personal reflections on diverse food traditions percolating all over Wisconsin and bordering states, North America, and around the world. As a folklorist, I am thrilled to see how everyday food preparations routinely guide my students, like the rest of us, on fascinating cultural journeys in their own kitchens, as they learn to eat, cook, and share food with others. In this crucible of formative culinary experiences, we connect with special mentors, move from childhood to adult roles, and bond in beloved social groups. Along the way, we distill our own key ingredients and concoct our own destinies, as my Foodways Class of 2010 confirms.

By the time the typical student lands in my class, s/he has survived the excesses of food experimentation in the freshman and sophomore years and begun to settle into a new food responsibility. For some students, a simple childhood favorite like macaroni and cheese may then become the starting point for a quick pasta-based staple worthy of endless experimentation and refinement. The beginning cookery may begin as a pre-hangover medication or an impromptu late-night feast with friends, then become a favorite signature dish to share on special occasions. What an adult with young children may employ as a quick, economical solution for picky childhood palates may serve those children later as the beginnings of culinary competence, steps in taking adult responsibility for not only feeding oneself, but for sharing food with others, cementing bonds of friendship through the gift of home-made production while watching out for each others’ well-being.

Other students muse over foods that seemed daunting to taste in the first place and act as rites of passage, often suspicious foods like home-canned pickled beets, or boiled fish that has fallen off the bones in a vinegary-watery soup prepared and fought over by grandfather and uncles, or slippery salmon lox complementing a traditional homecoming spread of bagels, lettuce, capers, sliced onions and tomatoes on grandma’s favorite blue plates. Some keep trying to overcome their distrust, not always successfully, while others eventually succeed, moving into a new, more adult status in the family. One student overcame her rejection of anchovies in cream cheese roll-ups partly because the older members of the family had so much fun competing for the morsels as they emerged from the oven at the family Christmas party. The anchovy-cream cheese delight—spread on white bread, rolled up and sliced, then quickly heated—reminds family members of their grand- and great-grandparents who began cultivating the dish in the 1930s. Today, they teasingly use the dish to test a newcomer’s reaction, watching the greenhorn as s/he first eats it (or refuses it), judging whether the person will fit in. Initiates to church and Sons of Norway community lutefisk dinners in Madison also report this kind of intense gaze by tough Norwegian-American veterans as they watch the reaction to that first bite of the blubbery, transparent mass that smells like old shoes. Similarly in another student’s family, gusto for the customary Sabbath meal “cholent,” a cassoulet-like stew that cooks in a tightly sealed pot for hours, is said to be a litmus test for Jewishness—with the understanding that this frequent dish of the no-cooking-on-Sabbath ritual can tend toward plainness, if not even tastelessness. In another situation, where long-time family friends gather once a year, the cook grandly presents a meal centerpiece that taunts the group’s shared Jewish heritage in the modern American context: A giant roast turkey, basted with bacon hidden beneath its skin—though not labeled as such—tests faithfulness to kosher food laws, where pork is taboo.

Learning to cook, and integration into family cooking events, profoundly inspired some students to take up cooking on their own. Several, from early ages, routinely hovered while mothers cooked in the kitchen, baked pies for an extended family’s spectacular Thanksgiving dessert spread, or prepared lavish school lunches with custom-decorated lunch sacks. They helped when they could, or as ordered, or pestered until they were enlisted, picking up skills and confidence that they put into practice as teenagers, young college students, and sometimes, young parents. One student proudly displayed her remarkable lunches at school, demonstrating her mother’s care, expertise, and her own participation. Each day the two evaluated her lunch as they drove home from school—performer and audience negotiating the creation’s success. Another student remembered how her grandfather engaged her in baking butterhorns from scratch when she was 10. She recalled the precise steps he invited her to accomplish—adding ingredients, punching down dough, shaping forms, watching the rolls rise in the oven. The patient coaxing, partnership, and discussion made a lasting impression. In one student’s family, the process of making pierogis integrates all family members, yet is so strongly associated with her father’s expertise in making his signature heritage dish that she perceives him as one of the most important ingredients: Pierogis, and especially pierogi-making, just are not the same without his involvement. Yet another student has become the pro at preparing the topping for her family’s special occasion sweet potato casserole, looking forward one day to performing the entire task herself.

For many students, inspiration comes as they see fresh vegetables grown in friends’ home gardens, become fascinated by a step-by-step procedure on the Food Network, or discover new food combinations at immigrant food cart vendors near campus. They begin to separate from perceived old family patterns and venture into new territory, both as eaters and as amateur chefs.

Enduringly, the kitchen—especially its lively character during occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and Ramadan—is an important meeting ground where families and friends re-unite, co-produce meals, experiment with and pass on food knowledge, and recreate social orders and relationships. Excited young children sense family history in Old Country dialects; in the articulations, smells and tastes of ancient cooking techniques; and in the camaraderie created by the production, display and consumption of foods rooted in the past. Here, food nourishes body and soul; it evokes important relationships and memories often of happiness, family and love; and it reminds the students, and us, of important contexts—whether boisterous and profane, calm and respectful, or tautly constrained—where we are bound to people and place, where we know who we are and where we come from, and where we realize new expressions of old ways.

Janet C. Gilmore is a folklorist who studies material culture, fishing and foodways. She is an Assistant Professor at UW-Madison and worked with students from her “Foodways” class in 2010 to write this essay.

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Essay: Ingredients of Home by Hrysanthi Kinis

In August 2010, Milwaukee teacher Hrysanthi Kinis joined 20 educators for a weeklong WHC-funded cultural tour of the Kickapoo Valley. This essay was inspired by that journey.

Driving home from a beautiful week in the Kickapoo Valley, my head spins with images, experiences, words. What I keep circling back to is the concept of place—the strong sense of place shared by the people there, for their community and their land. Weaving through these valleys on the rural highways to Milwaukee, I reflect upon this notion. Place.

I was born and raised in Milwaukee, but spent much of my childhood feeling like an outsider. With immigrant parents, I was the odd girl in class—the one with the salami and feta cheese sandwich in her lunch and a grandmother who dressed in head-to-toe black, mourning her long-dead husband. The stories my parents told were of their homeland. We spoke Greek at home and listened to Greek music. I heard tales of warm winters, olive trees and sparkling water. I visited Greece as a girl and was captivated by the seas and mountains and architecture.

I left Milwaukee with joy and relief after college to explore the mountains of Colorado; inability to secure employment drove me back. I fled again, to the warm Mediterranean towns of Spain, happy that at last I’d found a land more suited to me. But circumstances brought me back. Strangely, I began to see my city anew—to appreciate its beauty, to see it with kinder eyes, to understand my sense of place within it.

Many childhood friends had fled while I was gone. The closest, Tracy, lived three hours away on the farm she’d always dreamed of owning. Though work kept me busy, loneliness caused me to wander the city. I found myself revisiting places of my youth—parks remembered from family drives, streets in whose gutters I’d sailed paper boats, alleys whose rooftops we’d leapt between. The tree planted in our yard when I was four was now a towering evergreen. Flowers I’d planted still grew outside my college flat. I was tracing my own history and the marks I’d left behind.

Many places of my youth, I discovered, had been erased from the landscape. My grandmother’s house was now the parking lot of the Harley Davidson plant. The bridge where I had my first kiss no longer stood. Mr. Olsen’s giant chestnut tree—providing ammunition against brothers and cousins—had been chopped down. This vanishing of special places greatly unnerved me.

I found a need to soak in everything I held dear about the city, details previously taken for granted, lest they disappear. I researched the history of Milwaukee, and talked with relatives about what brought them overseas, how they ended up here. I’d gaze for hours at black-and-white photographs, trying to understand the people in them—who they were, how they felt. In contrast, the city seemed to burst with color and sound. I began to think perhaps Milwaukee wasn’t such a dismal place after all.

My friend Tracy came back to visit. She argued against the “evils” of the city, trying to convince me to move near her. She’d point out the traffic, the grimaces of drivers, and the city’s flow and ebb, much like a flood, at once awe-inspiring and horrifying.

I half-understood her point. When in the city, I yearn for wild, quieter places. I long for mountains and valleys, forests and rivers, for creatures I don’t know names of yet, for the whispers of rushes, of trees, the songs of nature, the melody of silence, a deep winter snow. These become utterly beautiful when you live an urban life. When forced to leave them, as I was driving home from the Kickapoo Valley, you feel a certain loss, a connection with land that feels so distant when you live amidst nearly one million people.

But you go back to the city and realize your senses are hyper-alert from being away. You hear the rhythm of shoes on pavement (clickety, click, click); grin at the bird nesting under the eaves, taunting your cat just out of reach; watch boats sail in and out of port; notice people strolling by, each sighing stories.

I seek beauty in the ordinary, no longer taking for granted the places and people that have shaped me. I admire ceramic tiles in old buildings, notice the crow’s feet when my mother’s eyes smile, giggle for four minutes straight when a student announces with glee that November 13th is his birthday and “it happened last year, too.” I watch carefully as each plant changes with the seasons. I remind myself, these people and places may disappear at any time, and I hold dear the everyday sights as much as I do the wondrous, rare ones from my travels.

Here, too, is beauty. It took me a long time to appreciate this. The buzz of voices, the antics of squirrels, the anthills in the cracks of the sidewalk (the same cracks that would break your mama’s back), the crickets chirping through open summer windows, the spiders weaving amazing webs between containers on the rooftop garden. Train whistles echo eerily between buildings at night, reminding you of all the places you’ve planned to visit as the years keep rolling by. Airplanes of many species fill the skies. Wildflowers sprout in most peculiar places—through cracks in asphalt, between bricks of buildings. Honey locust trees create a towering canopy against the hot summer sun, their leaves shuddering in Lake Michigan breezes. You fall asleep to silhouettes of leaves on your bedroom wall as the streetlight (a child’s ”come home before dark” signal) shines through. I find these things beautiful, a part of who I am. I miss them when I am away.

In the city, the inundation of stimuli can blind one to its beauty. It’s why I had to leave to truly discover my city. It’s what you lack or lose that makes you treasure your surroundings—those pieces that shape who you are, that turn a sense of place into a sense of home.

Hrysanthi Kinis is a first-generation Greek-American who no longer hides her feta cheese and salami sandwiches. She lives in the Bay View area of Milwaukee and teaches second grade at Garland Elementary School.

About the Photo

The photo is courtesy of the Marquette County Historical Society, the group that hosted Key Ingredients: America by Food for six weeks in March and April of 2011.

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