POPCORN, INDIANA

Yes, there is such a place. It’s a small town, unincorporated, about 20 miles south of Bloomington (home of Indiana University, one of Indiana’s two flagship state research institutions). Quiet, sleepy, bucolic—it’s even given its name to a brand of the iconic snack food (you may have seen Popcorn Indiana brand popcorn in your local supermarket).

AND WHAT OF THE SNACK FOOD?

The Midwest in general—and Indiana in particular—play outsized roles in the story of popcorn, that snack serving as both scourge (remember the war against movie theater popcorn, due to its fat content?) and savior (Air popped! Low fat!) for the calorie-counting cartels among us. Popcorn, a type of corn that puffs up when heated (thanks to residual water turning to steam) is not native to the Midwest. Rather, like other types of corn, it originated in present-day Mexico, from a grain called teosinte, the precursor to modern corn varieties (which, incidentally, looks nothing like today’s corn).

Today, the states producing the most popcorn are Indiana and Nebraska (they seem to trade off the top spot periodically). Nebraska is firmly in the Great Plains, Indiana solidly rooted in the Midwest, so Popcorn the Snack Food is proudly wearing its Flyover pedigree! But there’s more to the culinary geography of popcorn than just where it’s grown. The people are important too!

LOOK WHO’S POPPING UP!

Charles Cretors

While making popcorn is a relatively simple activity (apply heat and wait for the popping sounds to begin—and to end), producing it commercially, in quantities sufficient to feed numbers of people, is best done with some sort of automated machine. Manual machines were in existence, but they delivered inconsistent products. Enter Charles Cretors, the Chicagoan (but originally from Ohio) who created the popcorn maker (he effectively improved upon a peanut roasting machine, modifying it so that it could also pop popcorn uniformly and consistently). Cretors received a patent in 1893. Today, the Cretors company is still in business (and their offerings have expanded).

Glen Dickson

Midwestermer Glen Dickson didn’t invent the popcorn machine, but he DID have the brilliant idea of placing them in movie theaters! We can thank him for what is a seemingly classic combination–films and popcorn. Today, it’s difficult to imagine cineplexes without concession stands centered on popcorn. Indeed, the smell can be enough to entice even those who initially had no intention of eating to grab a tub before heading to the movie.

Orville Redenbacher

Born in Brazil, Indiana (near Terre Haute), the late Orville Redenbacher is certainly the face of microwave popcorn (although the company also produces plain kernel popcorn). From his ubiquitous bow tie to his stern but goofy black eyeglasses, native Hoosier and Purdue University graduate Redenbacher is probably the most iconic popcorn personality in the United States. His background in agriculture (and science) had Mr. Redenbacher experimenting with hybrids before founding his eponymous company. Although the company was sold several decades ago, the brand still bears his name.

THE MANY POPCORN CAPITALS IN FLYOVER COUNTRY

National capitals, state capitals,… popcorn capitals? No fewer than six Midwestern-ish towns call themselves the “Popcorn Capital of the World”: two in Indiana (Valparaiso and Van Buren), plus one each in Illinois, where it’s the official state snack food, (Ridgway), Iowa (Schaller), Ohio (Marion), and Nebraska (North Loup). Clearly, America’s beloved snack has its heart and soul in the middle of the country!

POPPING YOUR OWN!

Although many of us enjoy our popcorn from the microwave, it’s really not that difficult to make on the stovetop. All you need is oil (coconut or peanut, with high smoke points, seem to work best—canola seems to have a fishy aftertaste for many people and olive oil’s flavor isn’t really compatible with corn), popcorn, and salt. You can certainly add some melted butter to flavor your popcorn after it has popped. Indeed, you can add a variety of flavors–parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast, if you’re vegan), dried herbs, chili powder, whatever strikes your fanciful taste buds! Here are some instructions for making popcorn for 1 or 2 (can be doubled).

Heat some oil (about 2 tablespoons) and some fine salt (about ½ teaspoon) in the bottom of a saucepan (2-4 qt. size, use the smaller for this “recipe”, the larger if you double it) over medium-high. When heated, add 3-5 kernels of popcorn, cover, and wait until they’ve popped. Then add about ¼ cup of popcorn (I like Lady Finger), take off the heat for about 20 seconds, then return to the heat with the lid of the saucepan slightly ajar (to allow the steam to escape—you don’t want soggy popcorn!). When the popcorn kernels slow down their popping (a few seconds between pops), take off the heat and dump into a bowl. Add more salt and some butter, if desired, or create your own flavorings.

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Midwest Meets Upland South—Mitten Reserve Cider

On Craft Cider

To say that craft cider is having a moment would be a bit of an understatement. While the craft beer movement is now decades old, well established, and even bubbling up in places one would not normally associate with a craft-anything movement (my small city of Muncie has four breweries that I know of). Yes, I do know that there is a difference between craft breweries and microbreweries, though offhand I can’t remember what that difference is. I’m not much of a beer drinker, so I should be forgiven my lapse.

Anyway, craft cider, especially of the apple variety, is definitely coming into its own. Perhaps it is a nod to the past—the long-ago past, when presidents and the hoi polloi would drink cider as a matter of course. Thomas Jefferson made sure to plant apple trees specifically for cider on the grounds of Monticello. Hard, or fermented, cider was a staple drink back in the early days of the United States. It fell out of its eminence in favor of other beverages, including beer, but now seems to be making a comeback in these DIY, locavore, culinary exploration times.

Sweet, or nonalcoholic, cider never really went away, making its annual appearance at orchards and supermarkets alike during apple season. However, the cider I’m referring to, the alcoholic variety, is developing a really strong following these days. Hard cider can be both sweet (think Woodchuck Amber), semi-dry (which is still on the sweet side—try Rhinegeist’s Semi-Dry) or dry. I suppose I should also add a fourth category—unusual (read: tending toward funky). In short, there’s a cider for everyone, from the Cosmopolitan/Appletini/Strawberry-Lemonade Vodka drinking set to those with very adventurous palates.

The Mitten Reserve

Enter Virtue Cider, a cidery just outside of Fennville, a quaint and arty town in southwestern Michigan. Virtue produces a number of ciders, both semi-dry varieties as well as drier ones, including the decidedly for-the-daring-palate Sidra de Nava (which might appeal to fans of sour beer). And Virtue uses 100% Michigan apples in its ciders. That’s a big plus for me, because I think Michigan apples are truly the best apples in the US! Yes, Washington apples get all the love (or at least all the publicity and marketing), but if given a choice in a supermarket, I always opt for the Michigan ones. Washington apples probably taste delicious—in Washington (or thereabouts). Given that I’m in Indiana, Michigan apples don’t have to travel far, so I’m probably getting a better product.

Okay, this isn’t a review of the Virtue Cider facility or a rundown of its products (maybe some other time). Rather, I’m here to discuss a particular Virtue offering—The Mitten Reserve (2016) as an introduction to Virtue (and Flyover ciders). Let’s look at the name. Surely you remember from your middle school or high school geography 1(assuming you’re in the US), that Michigan is divided into two parts: the Upper Peninsula (home of pasties and Yoopers) and The Mitten, so named because of its physical resemblance to a mitten.

Back to the cider. The Mitten Reserve is a dry cider, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels (just like The Mitten) for about one year. The “Reserve” part comes from the blend of ciders used. I will say that this cider is definitely bourbon-forward! It’s smooth, with hints of warm spice (think of muted apple pie spices, like cinnamon), as well as butterscotch. And, of course, apples. The alcohol content of this particular cider is 8.4% alcohol by volume, fairly high for a cider. As far as food pairings, this is the cider to drink with bacon or ham. Vegetarians might enjoy this with a slice of toast slathered with onion jam, grilled pineapple, or even a piece of honey cake or lebkuchen, something with a hint of sweetness.

Midwest Meets Upland South

The Upland South (Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, even parts of southern Indiana and Ohio) is distinct from the Deep South, with Kentucky and Tennessee probably forming its core. Of course, Kentucky is known for bourbon—perhaps it most well loved “export”. So, aging the Michigan apples in bourbon barrels is a sort of culinary marriage between the two, the Kentucky whose distilling skills have rendered it as a bourbon paradise, and the Michigan, with its unparalleled microclimate giving it some of America’s best fruit. And now that marriage is nicely expressed in The Mitten Reserve!

1You didn’t have a class called “geography in middle and/or high school? Ah, one of America’s educational failings–a discounting of vital content in favor of “teaching to the test” (and there isn’t any geography on the test).

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On Chicken and Values and Mindfulness

The Tale

I threw a chicken into the garbage today. And I felt awful about it. Through my own carelessness and inattention, I took a frozen chicken out of my chest freezer and forgot to put it back, leaving it on the cement floor of a hot garage for twelve or so hours. It was largely thawed, but while my heart wanted to go ahead and just roast it, my head said to take the well-Googled advice and discard it, thus avoiding a chance to catch food poisoning.

About the Chicken

First, let me begin by stating that I am not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. I understand the ethical underpinnings of such a diet, but I am an omnivore who has no issues with eating animal flesh and other animal products. If you are one, I applaud your finding a diet that dovetails with your convictions. But my convictions differ from yours.

Let me tell you about this chicken, though. It was humanely raised—pastured and able to peck in the dirt for bugs and slugs, just like a chicken should. It was locally raised as well, as I went to the farm to buy it. And therefore, it cost more than the factory chicken found at supermarkets. The cost is something I’m willing to pay—I’d rather pay more for high quality food and buy less. This is not a value judgement against you if you purchase supermarket poultry. Remember that food is my “thing”. I spend a bit more to buy crisp organic butterhead lettuce from a local organic farmer than my 99-cent iceberg loss-leader. I would much rather buy a small piece of unusual and artisanal cheese that retails for $29.99/lb. than buy pounds of pre-shredded industrial cheese. But I rein in my spending elsewhere—I don’t buy many clothes, I cook my own meals rather than going out to restaurants frequently, and I don’t need the latest electronics. I’m childfree, so I don’t have to worry about feeding a family. I’m not judging you, so please don’t judge me.

Chickens, Values, Mindfulness

So what bothered me about throwing this chicken in the trash? It wasn’t the money—I am fortunate to be able to afford this and can easily get another without sacrificing my monthly food budget. No, it was something else—I respect my food and I respect the producers who have provided it for me. In this case, it was an affront to my values caused by my own carelessness. That chicken was slaughtered–for nothing!–because of my negligence. The hard work and labor of the farmers who raised it, a lovely young couple making a go of it on a local organic farm, was for naught because I was not paying attention. It’s not about the money—it never is and never was. It was, instead, a disconnect from my values.

In a way, I am grateful to that chicken for prodding me to focus on mindfulness, the act of paying attention and being in the moment. I vow to be more present and I vow to show more respect for the food that nourishes me. And I vow to treat the next chicken with more care.

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Farmers Market Finds: Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

The Start of the Season and the Start of Discovery

With the advent of my local farmers market (Minnetrista in Muncie, Indiana) holding weekly markets, I look forward to the thrill of culinary discovery, of the delight of finding a new-to-me variety of vegetable or fruit, or of a vendor offering me new locally produced treats. This past Saturday, I ventured to (and through) the market, with its wares. The pickings, and the number of vendors, were rather slim—it’s been a very challenging spring for planting. The average high temperature in February was followed by a lower one in March. Following on the heels of a relatively colder March, April turned warm again. May, what few days of it we’ve had, had been a cold, soggy, sodden mess. Copious amounts of rain interspersed with frost. As an organic farmer I know said, it’s been a most challenging spring for a farmer.

Still, on that morning of May 6, it wasn’t raining, despite being forecast. I ventured over to one of my favorite produce stands (Christopher Farms, a local organic operation), so see what farmer and all around wonderful person Wendy Carpenter had to present to her customers, both loyal and new. Knowing that I was looking to eat more salads, I was drawn to one of the more striking lettuces I’ve ever seen—Mayan Jaguar.

Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

With its dappled maroon and green, a head of Mayan Jaguar lettuce certainly commands a second look. This has the ability to form the foundation of a seriously interesting looking salad (interesting as in good, not weird). So naturally, I had to buy some.

Mayan Jaguar lettuce belongs in the romaine/cos family. The head is tall and the spines of the leaves have that characteristic romaine crunch. Its leaves are gorgeously ruffled. It is a beautiful lettuce.

Flavor-wise, Mayan Jaguar is sweet with a hint of bitterness. In a salad, it pairs nicely with balsamic vinegar and walnuts. Add some dried fruit and blue or goat cheese for a delicious dish. I will share a salad recipe which uses Mayan lettuce to its advantage in my next post.

Start Your Own Voyage of Discovery

If you have a local and treasured farmers market, find a vendor with unusual varieties of produce. In my experience, I’ve found that organic farmers are likelier to offer something different than conventional farmers (but I am a sample size of one). If you are unsure, just ask—most farmers would love a chance to talk about their products! It’s a great chance to break out of a standard-supermarket-variety rut.

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O, Landjaeger! My Landjaeger!

Apologies to Walt Whitman for that title.

Coincidence? I Think Not!

I suppose that those of us Americans of relatively recent Germanic vintage of some sort (Germany, Switzerland, Austria) are statistically likelier to have conversations about sausages and wursts than those of some other ethnic background. Granted, I’ve not actually conducted this particular type of combination geographic-linguistic research (but, hey NSF, feel free to send me some monies!) Still, I’m fairly confident that my hypothesis is not only testable, but also reasonably likely to produce my anticipated results. So somewhere on my recent road trip to Iowa and southern Wisconsin, the term “landjaeger (landjäger)” came up in conversation. As in my extolling the smoky virtues of them. As in Mike not ever having eaten one. As we were cruising the back roads south of Madison, seeking (and finding, though closed, Cheese Chalet Coop, the only American plant producing limburger cheese), we stopped at a gas station in Monroe (WI) because my bladder is the size of an acorn. Low and behold, what do I see hanging up by twos like some glorious snack ark getting ready for a 40 day-and-night deluge but landjaegers! I bought a pair (they are typically sold in pairs) and excitedly (very excitedly!) split them between us. How serendipitous!

landjaeger1

Speak Softly and Carry a Meat Stick

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of indulging in one of these (and are omnivores), a landjaeger is a meat snack. Like lottery machines and cigarettes, meat snacks are a mainstay of convenience stores (Slim Jims™ is perhaps the most well known). But landjaegers aren’t mere meat sticks. For one thing, they aren’t as well known outside of certain regions with large populations of Germanic ancestry; this is unlike beef jerky (which seems to be ubiquitous). Therefore, they are likelier to be produced locally (and, by extension, have a smaller market area). And they are often made by real butchers instead of in giant factories. Landjaegers are created with beef and pork, salt and spices, and smoke. The smokiness is integral to the landjaeger. You see, these babies are cooked/smoked and dried, making them shelf-stable and free from the need for refrigeration. That’s why I found them hanging next to the cash register at the Monroe BP station.

Landjaeger, directly translated, means “country (land) hunter(jäger)”, perhaps owing to its popularity with hunters or others about to spend a lot of time outdoors. Certainly hunters (or hikers or long-distance cyclists) would find these to be delicious yet portable snacks. But no need to go outside—enjoy them indoors (or on a country drive in Wisconsin!)

Zuber’s and Ruef’s

So, my first Wisconsin landjaeger was made by Zuber’s Meats of Monroe Wisconsin. Now that was definitely local, given that we’d stopped at a Monroe gas station. We enjoyed them as we drove on to New Glarus Brewing for an afternoon beer. In the über-Swiss town of New Glarus itself, we stopped at Ruef’s Meat Market, hoping to find more landjaegers, as we’d eaten the two purchased earlier. Alas, there weren’t any. But as luck would have it, another customer told us they often had a few extra in the back. We asked and were rewarded with some Ruef’s landjaegers. And, as luck would have it again, a stop at a gas station the next day yielded some more Zuber’s landjaegers. More souvenirs to add to my collection of fourteen Wisconsin cheeses, several liqueurs, and a couple of cookbooks!

Zuber's in the front, Ruef's in the back
Zuber’s in the front, Ruef’s in the back

Ruef's in the front, Zuber's in the back
Ruef’s in the front, Zuber’s in the back

Want Your Own?

If you have a German butcher or delicatessen in your neighborhood, see if they carry them. But if not, Zuber’s and Ruef’s do ship landjaegers. Because these babies are cooked, they can be mailed to your home.

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