Looking ahead to LauraPalooza 2019: Pepin-bound

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association this week announced the location of its 2019 conference, and it’s in Onalaska, Wis., just south of Wilder’s birthplace of Pepin, Wis.

The full announcement also reminds those interested about the big Little House on the Prairie cast reunion in Walnut Grove the week following LauraPalooza in July.

I was involved in the founding of the organization and in the running of the first two conferences, which we held in Mankato in 2010 and 2012. Personal circumstances kept me away from the 2015 conference in South Dakota and the 2017 conference in Missouri, but I’ve been excited to see the line-up of speakers and workshops as they appeared.

The conference was deliberately conceived as a site for Wilder fans, scholars, and independent researchers to meet and share across the usual divides that occur between such different groups. What’s fun about LauraPalooza is that everyone can enjoy interesting, well-researched presentations right alongside fun activities taken from the books, such as ice cream socials, cooking demonstrations, and handwork.

With the next site being close to Pepin, it’s in easy travel distance for me. Pepin is actually the first Little House site I ever visited, the week after I turned 18 in 1990. My friend, Maria, and I tossed a tent and sleeping bags into the back of my 1980 Ford Granada and headed west from Chippewa Falls, Wis., to seek out Little House sites just because we were legal adults and we could.

We took back roads into Pepin and got lost.

Eventually, we found our way, and I still remember the excitement in my belly when we drove up to the little replica cabin on Laura’s birth site. I think I probably squealed. (Maria and I are still in touch; I wonder if she remembers?)

After that first stop, we found our way into Pepin proper to visit the little museum there, then camped in Stockholm, Wis., our first night. The next day, we headed west toward Walnut Grove.

We locked our keys in the car in Faribault, Minn. Fortunately, there was an Auto Zone nearby and we’d left a window open slightly, so that was a free, less-than-fifteen minute fix with a wire coat hanger.

We eventually made it to Walnut Grove, squealing over the museum there (which at that time extended across the road in a series of trailer-type things. It’s been enlarged, renovated, and refurbished since, and is one of my favorite places to stop). We didn’t manage to find Plum Creek on that trip. In fact, my brakes started grinding as we pulled out of Walnut Grove and headed back east.

We camped at Fort Ridgely State Park that night, and wandered our way up to St. Croix Falls, Wis. the following night, before heading back to Chippewa Falls and new brakes.

At LauraPalooza 2010, twenty years later, I waded in Plum Creek for the first time. It’s another one of my favorite memories. I think there’s a picture of me, along with several other Laura enthusiasts, wading in the creek that summer.

I’m excited for 2019. My last published work in the area of Wilder research appeared in the South Dakota Historical Society Press’s work, Pioneer Girl Perspectives, in 2017. My contribution was a chapter about Rose Wilder Lane and her career as a working writer, touching on her FBI file and her work for Woman’s Day magazine.

I haven’t really dug into anything new lately, but I have been thinking about what viewing the Little House books through a cultural lens over time might look like. Why do the books remain popular? I have some ideas about that that I might propose to share in 2019.

Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the Pepin cabin again. Maybe I can talk Maria into joining me for the almost-thirty year flashback photo.

A Weekend in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

We celebrated my niece Kayla’s 18th birthday Saturday in our hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wis.

I actually only lived in Chippewa (which residents pronounce CHIP-wa) for about ten years, but I did finish high school there, and most of my immediate family still resides in the vicinity. It’s a pretty town grown from a lumbering community, and it is probably best known for its hometown brewery, Leinenkugels, and the brief mention it had in the movie Titanic as Jack Dawson’s home town.

However, there’s plenty in Chippewa to enjoy. I realized at the end of our day Saturday that we’d had pretty much the quintessential Chippewa experience for the day, missing only the brewery tour, which I recommend for the of-drinking-age set.

After a hearty breakfast at my parents’ home, we took our three-year-olds to Irvine Park, established in 1906 by the William Irvine family. Over the years, the park has grown to encompass 318 acres of natural woods and cultivated spaces, making it the place for residents and their guests to linger year-round. A zoo in the middle of the park includes a variety of guests, including tigers, hyenas, and bears, as well as a farm animal petting zoo that our girls adored.

Numerous families were taking advantage of the fine weather to picnic at the park, and we counted birthday balloons at five different pavilions on our way in. Our girls also enjoyed playing on the playground equipment that was just their size, across the main park road from the zoo.

When we were tired out and ready for lunch, I called Bresina’s Carry Out. Bresina’s doesn’t have a web page, and as the proprietor informed me when I went into the storefront on the edge of the park, he never intends to get one. A quick web search will turn up the phone number and the Facebook page that features their menu.

Bresina’s has been serving fresh broasted chicken and fried fish, sandwiches, jo-jos, and assorted other local favorite foods for decades. There’s no true seating area at the storefront, because the locals know to call ahead and come and pick up their food to take home or into Irvine for a picnic. We got fish and chicken, jo-jos (fried wedge potatoes), and cole slaw.

From the time I called within the park until the time we got children loaded up and to Bresina’s, fifteen minutes, our food was ready. It smelled absolutely delicious, and I decided to add a dessert that is also a quintessential Chippewa experience: Olson’s Ice Cream.

Olson’s employees make ice cream on site daily, and we stopped by on our way back to my parents’ for a quart of chocolate and a quart of black raspberry to share. If we’d been in less of a rush to eat our chicken, we’d have gone in to get a waffle cone filled with one of the daily flavors in the ice cream “bar” at the front of the restaurant.

We had our chicken for lunch, and for dessert, we chose to fill a bowl with a scoop each of the chocolate and the black raspberry, and as the girls said, it was “yummy.”

We finished our day with a bowling and pizza party at Ojibwa Golf and Bowl, another classic Chippewa spot. There are numerous golf courses in the area, and at least one other bowling alley, but this one hits all the nostalgic notes. I bowled a 76. It’s not my best sport.

If you’re ever in the area, just off the I-94 and I-29 junction in northwest central Wisconsin, stop in. It’s worth the trip.

On Soul Food


As promised, I’m writing today about the few soul food recipes I know well. My oldest children are fraternal twins who are African-American. My husband and I adopted them both when they were sixteen, and from their first Thanksgiving with us, our food boundaries expanded.

My son, Jovann, showed me how he fried chicken. My daughter, Nina, requested collard greens and banana pudding, and that required a bit more research. Together, we expanded our holiday table to include these favorites, which have now become traditional on our table.

For this post, I’m going to focus on the collard greens and the banana pudding, because fried chicken has other memories and stories to go along with it. Fried chicken was a staple of Fourth-of-July picnics on my Mattson grandparents’ farm, and my Grandma Elsie made it mouthwatering and delicious. Fried chicken is more a procedure than a recipe, so it deserves its own post.

For collard greens, I had to do some browsing on the web, talking to the kids’ biological Auntie and Grandmother, and a lot of Food Network surfing. This is the recipe I came up with:

Thanksgiving Collard Greens

In a large stock pot, add eight quarts of cold water, several shots of hot sauce (Tobasco or similar), a tablespoon of granulated garlic, a tablespoon of salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper. Add one to two smoked ham hocks, about three pounds total.

Bring to boil; reduce heat to a simmer and forget about the pot for at least two hours.

Meanwhile, wash three to four bundles of collard greens. Strip the stems, then roll and chop into one-inch pieces.

At the two-hour mark, remove the ham hocks to a strainer to cool slightly. Add the greens to the pot. Shred the meat from the hocks and add those back to the pot. Bring back to a simmer and let cook for at least another hour. (You can let it go as long as two; don’t let the pan go dry or they’ll burn.)

Serve in big bowl with the liquid on the side, which is commonly known as “pot liquor.” It’s also delicious. If there’s any left after Thanksgiving, I think it’d make a great base for split-pea soup. We’ve never had enough leftover to try.

Nina’s Banana Pudding

Makes one 8-inch square, deep pan of dessert.

6-8 large bananas

1 large box Vanilla wafer cookies

1 large box of instant vanilla pudding mix

3 cups milk

1 large (16 oz) container of Cool Whip

Make the pudding according to the package directions, using the milk specified in the recipe. Set aside.

In a deep casserole or baking dish, spread vanilla wafer cookies in a single layer. Peel and slice the bananas, and a single layer of sliced banana over the cookies. Pour or spoon a third of the pudding on top of the banana, spreading evenly so the pudding fills up all the spaces left by the round cookies and banana slices. Spoon a third of the Cool Whip over that and spread evenly. Repeat the layers twice more.

Optional: Crush a few vanilla wafer cookies to sprinkle on top for garnish.

Chill in the refrigerator overnight or for at least an hour before service.

The Music that is History and Culture

The late David Noble, himself a distinguished historian, assigned a final paper to a seminar I took with him fifteen or so years ago that forced me to think about how I viewed history.

The essay that I turned in offered a metaphor of history as music, and with the cultural tensions that abound in today’s political climate, I decided to revisit that metaphor. Recognizing history and culture as “music” might help some to see that every story is required to create the whole.

The melody through line for history is the chronology: the dates, times and places events of major import occurred in history. For U.S. history, which is driven in part by rebellion of many with British roots, that timeline stretches back to at least 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta by then-King John of England, who conceded certain rights to the nobility of his holdings with that document.

Those first concessions established precedent. Though it would be centuries before the British monarchy conceded absolute power, the concept that the monarch did not hold absolute authority resonated through the philosophical thought of many.

As school children, we are given dates to memorize, people to memorize, timelines to contextualize so that we can understand this very basic melody line, which is influenced by the victors in any given historical conflict.

And then, if we’re very lucky in our teachers and our curriculum, we start to get the harmonies.

Class harmony, through unveiling the stories of the impoverished, the working, middle, and upper classes over time. Gender harmony, through examining how men’s and women’s lives and stories differed over time. Race harmony, through examining how people interacted with others who looked different from them. Lifestyle harmonies, religious harmonies, urban and rural harmonies, and the multitude of stories of others all work together to share the rich symphony of history and culture. All are worth investigating. All are worth hearing.

In places throughout the melody, the drum beats of war and conflict overpower the harmonies of culture. The inability of people to recognize the varied harmonies—and those harmonies’ right to exist and contribute to the chord—creates conflict, clashing chords, clashing melodies that have to work together, eventually, to create a new chord, or to subsume a melody line.

I hear a lot of literal discord today; clashing notes from two through lines that can’t seem to find the place to harmonize. But I think it’s important find that chord that creates the harmony. Because when it can’t be found, one melody line may be lost.

Adventures in DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture

This is the line for tickets to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. The museum is the newest of the Smithsonian museums, and timed entry passes, which are free, are booked through December 2018. The only way to get a ticket the day of a visit in D.C., if one didn’t plan six months in advance, is to haunt the web site at 6:30 a.m. or get in line at 1 p.m. for walk-up release tickets.

Fortunately, I had friends who were already in this line, and when I joined it at 12:39, I waited for less than an hour to get a ticket into the museum. It was worth the effort and wait.

I started my visit with lunch at the Sweet Home Cafe, which featured soul food from different areas of the American South. I had buttermilk fried chicken, scratch-made macaroni-and-cheese, and fresh cornbread. My other choices were collard greens, potato salad, gumbo, barbecue, and a wide variety of other foods. I also added a mini-carrot cake to my tray to share with my companions. More on soul food in another post; it’s become one of my cooking goals since I adopted my oldest two children, who are African-American and requested it when they became a part of the family as teens.

After eating, I headed down to the very bottom level, which is where the permanent exhibits begin. They start with the history of the sugar trade in the fifteenth century and the gradual institutionalization of slavery. The exhibits include African artifacts, shackles and pieces of slave ships.

As patrons move through the exhibits chronologically, they move up vertically, too, with the very bottom level dealing with the debates over slavery at the founding of the United States, life as a slave, and the gradual movement, fought for with blood and pain, out of slavery. The ramp up to the next level begins with a presentation about the Emancipation Proclamation, on display next to a draft of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which legally freed the slaves.

Also on that bottom level? Harriet Tubman’s shawl, and Nat Turner’s Bible. For those who don’t know, Tubman escaped the in humane conditions she was living under as a slave, but returned nine times to the South to help others escape. Turner’s rebellion against slaveholders ended with his execution.

The next level outlines the long struggle from freedom through the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, including cabins from all-black settlements and the Emmitt Till Memorial. The counter from the Greensboro Walgreens that witnessed the first sit-in also looms large in this level.

The third level, rising up from the Civil Rights struggles, features contemporary African-American contributions and ends with an exhibit about the first African-American President, Barack Obama.

Outside the permanent exhibits, there are three levels above ground that feature rotating culture galleries. On my visit, one featured Oprah Winfrey and another featured hip-hop music.

The sheer volume of artifacts collected for the Museum, in context, makes the experience both moving and inspirational. I highly recommend a visit on your next trip to D.C.

The All-Purpose Bread Recipe


In honor of my trip last week to see Julia Child’s kitchen (now located on the first floor of the Smithsonian American History Museum), I decided to share my all-purpose bread recipe.

You know, making fresh bread isn’t all that hard. It also doesn’t need a lot of ingredients. Once you know how bread actually works, one all-purpose recipe will yield multiple variations.

I made my first loaf of bread in middle school–French bread, for French class extra credit–and that started me on the road to bread-making. Nowadays, if I or someone else in the family has a craving for fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, I don’t even need to refer to the recipe. I just pick up my big bread dough bowl and start measuring ingredients into it.

Classically, French bread needs only four ingredients: Flour, salt, water, and yeast. The method of baking is what gives it the crusty outside and tender inside that it’s known for. Bread needs structure (gluten in wheat flour), leavening to make it rise (yeast), fuel for the yeast if you want it really fluffy (sugar, milk or other glucose), and enough liquid for the flour to stick together.

This general dough and method works really well for all sorts of permutations. I use the basic dough recipe for pizza, buns, calzones, or plain old loaves of white bread, too. Once you master this, you can consider changing up the parts a bit to get different kinds of bread. Like whole wheat? Start with one cup of white flour to get the yeast and gluten happy, then add whole wheat (or rye) flour until the dough comes together. Like fluffier bread? Add a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast-and-water cup. Like things a little more tender? Add fat by subbing in milk for water, or adding a teaspoon of butter or oil.

The more fat and sugar you add to this dough, the more flour it needs to stay together. So just start with this one. Once you get a feel for it, play around.

Basic Bread Dough (White)

1 cup warm water

1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

2 to 2 1/2 cups white flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In a large mixing bowl, dump the flour and the salt and whisk together. Measure out one cup of warm tap water (if you have decent tap water). The water should be just warmer than skin warm, about 100 degrees. Scatter the yeast over the top of the water and set it aside to “bloom”–about five minutes. When the yeast is obviously dissolved in the water, pour it into the center of the flour in the bowl and whisk until you can’t. Clean the whisk, then dig in with clean hands and mix the dough together. Knead it until the dough is smooth and not sticky. You might need to add flour or discard some, especially if the weather is humid or especially dry.

At this point, you’ve got options.

Weekday Pizza Crust: Coat ball of dough with oil and let rest for 10 minutes while you preheat your oven to 450 degrees and prepare any pizza toppings you’re interested in. Spread out on well-oiled baking sheet to desired thinness (I just pat it out). Top with sauce, cheese and favorite meats and vegetables. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until crust is firm and lightly golden and cheese is melted completely.

Buns for sandwiches: Coat ball of dough in oil and set aside to rise for one hour or so. At one hour, poke the dough with your finger. If it holds the dent, it’s ready. If it just bounces, it needs more rise time. When it’s ready, punch it down. Form into 8-10 balls of dough, and space those out evenly on a baking sheet. Let rise again, 30 to 45 minutes. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

Traditional French Bread: Coat ball of dough with oil and set aside to rise as for buns. Punch down when ready. Form into a long, thin cylinder and set on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with corn meal. (You can buy special French bread forms, too, but this works, too.) Let rise another hour, until nearly double again. Slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife in at least three places. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set up two racks in your oven. On the bottom rack, place a small baking dish. Add two cups or so of boiling water to that baking dish, then close the oven while it heats. Brush the top of your bread with beaten egg, and when the oven is hot, take out the baking dish with the water and set the bread inside. Watch closely. It will take between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on your oven and your steam bath. The loaf should look golden brown and be very crusty when done. Use your oven light to check on it; do NOT open the door while it’s baking, as that will slow the process and make the bread tough.

Good luck!

As Lincoln said, “A nation divided…

….cannot stand.”

I spent my morning touring Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln Continuing Education Center in DC.

The site of Abraham Lincoln ‘s assassination, Ford’s Theatre now is run by the National Park Service. A free tour includes admission to an excellent museum featuring the story of Lincoln and his presidency, with vintage photos and artifacts, including the gun used to shoot Lincoln at the theater in 1865.

A tour of the theater itself includes a ranger on stage, telling the story of April 14-15, 1865, from both the perspectives of Lincoln and his killer, John Wilkes Booth. After the talk, the tour continues across the street at the Petersen boarding house, where Lincoln was taken after he was shot, and where he died. An interpretive center next door offers more Lincoln artifacts and exploration of his impact on future generations.

One of his best remembered quotes, which started this post, framed the tour for me. It made me consider the current culture war with different eyes. Is it a continuation of the argument we as a people have been having since the beginning? Who has a right to call themselves American? What does that mean?

In the beginning, only white, male, property owners were considered for citizenship in the fledgling republic that would be come the United States. Fierce debate rang out in the state houses and taverns over who, exactly, should be allowed citizenship. The question of whether the nation’s slaves should be considered a part of the populace for taxation purposes was settled with a compromise, under which each was considered three/fifths of a person.

According to the Lincoln exhibit at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln, himself, detested slavery, but could see no legal, constitutional way to end it prior to the declaration of war. His Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment passed in 1868 restored full personhood and citizenship to the formerly enslaved. It also invoked penalties for states who disallowed the vote to all their male citizens.

Women did not get the right to vote as citizens in the United States until 1920.

My point is that the current cultural argument over who should be citizens is not a new argument. The vitriol involved isn’t new, either. But the grand experiment of the Republic does require those conversations to be ongoing, and paths to citizenship to be addressed. The only current residents of the United States who are not descended of immigrants are the Native Americans.

The rest of us have to accept that we are citizens by accident of fate and the hard work of our ancestors. Should we deny others the opportunities we take for granted today? Should we deny asylum for those fleeing desperate situations? Can we, in good conscience, deny others the opportunity to become citizens?

As wealthy as the U.S. appears to be, it does not have infinite resources. Most objections to new immigration can be firmly rooted in economics and racism, rather than philosophy.

But it’s worth a second look at the philosophy, too.

In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he finishes by explicitly stating his resolution for the future of the country. He was speaking on a battlefield that had seen enormous carnage in the deaths of United States citizens from both sides of the divide at the time. He tells the assembled audience this:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

Are we building up, or tearing down, by engaging in this cultural war?

News from Washington …

Ah, that’s the iconic line. And as I sit today among my fellow educators of future journalists and media professionals in Washington, D.C., it seems a particularly good title.

The free press, one of the institutions the United States was founded upon, has been under concerted attack by lawmakers in power in the U.S. A little more than a month ago, journalists were killed in their own newsroom. Everyday, voices on all parts of the political spectrum voice anger over views expressed in different media: blog posts, social media feeds, varied news outlets both print and electronic. Each difference of opinion can be paired with an accusation that the other side isn’t presenting facts clearly, or, in some cases, at all. Some, in fact, think “disagreeing” with facts as presented is actually fine.

(It’s not. A verifiable fact is not an opinion, and thus cannot be disagreed with. Acceptance of the facts, of course, is another issue.)

When I talk about training future media professionals, I obviously discuss skill sets. Beyond writing and technical skill, however, media professionals need to think critically. They need to ask good questions, verify the accuracy of the facts they’re presented with through unbiased sources, and present the information they received in a compelling, easy-to-understand story that misleads no one.

This is a skilled profession that requires smart, critical thinkers. The ability to use a camera and a microphone does not make one a journalist.

Thomas Jefferson had his share of problems with the press of his time, too. As president, he faced down numerous scandals in the press. But he also firmly believed that a free press was essential to the maintenance of liberty:

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

And he was against any restriction thereof:

“I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” –Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

You might not be a journalist. But if you’re angry about the things you hear through media outlets, blame the source, not the person presenting it. And if you have something to say, well, a free press has literally never been so free as it is today.

Recipes from Grandma’s “Test Kitchen”

It’s funny how many of the recipes Grandma Elsie passed along, family favorites, incorporate particular commercial products.

It’s absolutely clear from the recipe that it originally came from the back of a package to share, and became a favorite. The two I’m posting today are perpetual favorites that still show up at family occasions. My son particularly loves the Spinach Dip, and requests it for every major holiday.

They’re not hard. They’re delicious. And they remind me of family every time I use them.

Grandma’s Cold Vegetable Pizza

Spread two packages of crescent roll dough on an ungreased 12 by 19 jelly roll pan. Bake 8 minutes in 350 degree oven; cool.

Blend 2 8-oz packages of cream cheese, 1 T. dill weed, ½ t. garlic salt, ¾ c. salad dressing, and ¼ c. of half and half until smooth. Spread this over the baked crust.

Mix together: ¼ c. chopped onion, 1 c. chopped cauliflower, 1 c. chopped broccoli, 1 c. grated carrots, 1 c. chopped green peppers, and 1 c. sliced black olives. Spread evenly over cream mixture and refrigerate.

Keep refrigerated until service. Can be made ahead the day before serving.

Grandma’s Spinach Dip

1 8 oz pkg frozen spinach, thawed

8 oz mayonnaise (NOT salad dressing)

8 oz sour cream

1 pkg. Knorr’s vegetable soup

1 sm. onion, finely chopped

1 sm. can water chestnuts, slivered

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate at least three hours before serving. Serve with cubed artisanal bread, such as French or rye, for dipping.