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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Flyover Tapas–Returning in May!!!

I’m not sure of the date, though it’ll be sometime after the semester’s grades are turned in and I’ve had a few days to decompress. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying all things food-related in the Midwest! It’s already mid-February, so I’ll see you in approximately three months, when we’ll be well into spring (although it’s been pretty springlike throughout much of this winter).

In the meantime, enjoy these heritage turkeys. I took this picture at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.

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Ravishing Radishes

Eavesdropping on a Farmers Market Conversation

Late May in Indiana can be a time of real produce anticipation. Unlike early May, when bedding plants and a few lettuces form the bulk of offered wares, late May brings us a peek into the summer ahead, when fruits and vegetables from local farmers overflow the vendor stands. It’s when my Flyover cooking imagination really starts taking hold.

I was in line at the Christopher Farm stand (run by organic farmer extraordinaire Wendy Carpenter) on Saturday, as a market trip is part of my Saturday morning routine. I overheard a customer in front of me ask Wendy if she knew of Dan Barber (the celebrated chef and sustainable foods advocate). Wendy hadn’t heard of him, but the customer, no doubt looking at her delicious carrots and beets, mentioned that Barber believed the Midwest’s root crops were the best, given the cold winters. I have no idea if Barber ever said that (and while I did read his eye-opening tome The Third Plate, I don’t remember if he discussed them or not). But certainly, many root crops are sweeter after a frost, because they process their starches into sugars. That said, root vegetables are hardly limited to the midlatitudes; cassava (aka manioc—it’s the source of tapioca) is a staple food in places like Nigeria, Brazil, and other low-latitude countries.

Types of Root Vegetables

Perhaps Barber—if he really did say this—was referring to a category of root vegetable based on the taproot, the central root from which other roots grow. Types of taproot vegetables include carrots, parsnips, and yes, the radish (the other category, tuberous roots, would include cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes). Radishes are, to me, a sign that summer is on its way (even if it’s not here yet)–they are one of the first non-lettuce vegetables I find for sale at the farmers market.

Radishes

The Radish

The radish (Raphanus sativus) is thought to have originated in southeast Asia. They have been cultivated for millennia far from Asia (e.g. Europe). Although there are varieties that linked to various Asian cuisines (e.g. daikon radish and Japanese cookery), my focus here is mainly on those commonly seen in my Flyover farmers markets.

Although radishes with red spherical taproots (yup, that scarlet orb that you eat is the taproot) are most common, one can find radishes in a variety of colors (e.g. white, purple). Additionally, they may be shaped like stubby fingers instead of globes (such as the spicy French Breakfast radish).

Radishes are typically eaten raw, perhaps in salads, as crudites, or as part of a sandwich. Although their sharp crispness is the appeal for many a radish lover, these can actually be cooked. When subject to heat, radishes become earthy, yet sweet. Any spiciness is tamed (but in a good way!) Later this week I’ll be posting a recipe for radishes cooked in butter—you an even use the radish greens as a garnish.

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The Amish in the Heartland

Given that a previous post on Kalona Supernatural discussed the Amish and Mennonite farms that supply them with milk, I thought I’d briefly chat about the Amish in the Flyover States.

I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, part of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Though domiciled in a clichéd suburbia, I nonetheless frequently encountered Amish buggies on drives through the admittedly beautiful countryside. Amish (and their brethren, Old Order Mennonites) are certainly cultural manifestations of southeastern Pennsylvania, perhaps even more than their actual numbers imply. Lancaster County has built a veritable tourism industry based on Amish culture. But one can argue that the Midwest is a locus of the Amish, certainly as much as what is sometimes called “Amish Country”—Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and its environs.

Ohio—The Amish Capital of the United States

Yes, Ohio (especially Holmes County in the northeast), not Pennsylvania, is the Amish Capital of the United States. As of 2010, according to the U.S. Religious Census, 7 of the 10 states with the largest absolute numbers of Amish were Flyover States: Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois (the other states in the Top Ten are Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky). This is certainly unsurprising, as the Amish are a predominantly agrarian population and settle where affordable farmland can be found. Even in Pennsylvania, they are no longer found solely in traditional Pennsylvania Dutch country (Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks, and Chester Counties), as population pressures are driving land values up (and Amish out).

The Amish in Indiana

Northern Indiana (particularly Elkhart County) serves as Amish Central in Indiana, although they can certainly be found elsewhere. Indeed, I’ve seen buggies on US-35 between Richmond and Muncie; southwestern Indiana’s Daviess County is home to a quite sizeable Amish settlement. And, as in Pennsylvania and Ohio, there is a veritable industry focused on “Amish” tourism (in quotes because it’s typically the non-Amish that promote it).

The Amish in Iowa

When I lived in Iowa City, I went to Kalona (home of Kalona Super Natural) to get my buggy fix. Okay, I went once–I wasn’t missing them as much as I thought I might. But the day was lovely (a sunny, low-humidity June morning) and the drive was pleasant. Kalona is one of the centers of Amish (and Mennonite) life in Iowa, with Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, and Beachy Amish represented. Mennonites, from which the Amish are an offshoot, are also represented in the Kalona region.

And Food?

Well, the Amish are a farming people, hence Kalona SuperNatural getting their milk from them. There is an Amish cuisine, the likes of which William Woys Weaver extracts the truths from the (tourism-driven) fantasies in his delightful book As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. There are foods associated with the Amish, but they’ve certainly adapted foods and dishes of the English (as non-Amish are called) for their own (such as the Whoopie Pie, which has its roots in New England). I’ll be revisiting the Flyover Amish in the future!

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Looking forward to 2015: Flyover Resolutions

Why Make Resolutions?

It’s been a fun 7 months (so far!) of blogging about the culinary geography of America’s Flyover States. And it’s heartening to realize that I’ve barely scratched the surface—lots more to discover and blog about! So, in the spirit of New Beginnings and a Blank Slate, I thought I’d share some Flyover-themed New Year’s Resolutions.

The Resolutions

In 2015, I resolve to:

  • Visit more farmstead cheese producers, specifically
  • Visit Zingerman’s Deli and Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Make a pilgrimage to Springfield, Illinois to taste their signature Horseshoe sandwich (consisting of bread, hamburger patty, fries, and a cheese sauce
  • Trek out to some new-to-me farmers markets and get to know some other farmers
  • Make a Sugar Cream Pie—it’s Indiana’s official state pie and, since I’m now living in Hoosier Land, it’s time I made (and ate!) one of these
  • Blog about issue facing Heartland farmers (NOT the beholden-to-Monsanto industrial farmer, but rather the small-scale producer

I may be adding on to this list (in fact, I’m SURE of it!) And I’ll be sure to post any additions. Well, there is ONE big resolution that I’ve not mentioned yet—that is to cook in my NEWLY REMODELED KITCHEN! Starting some time in January, I’ll be having my kitchen renovated (basically a gut job). So, whether you want to or not, you’ll be hearing all about it. Given my love of food and cooking, this is something I’ve been living for. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve LOVED my quite dated kitchen and have spent many happy hours (and “happy hours”) in it. But it’s time for me to modernize it. I won’t feel too keen on washing dishes in the bathtub, but it’s a sacrifice I’m ready to make.

And My Wishes to You

May your 2015 be filled with love, happiness, joy, and Flyover Food! Happy New Year!

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