On Tales from the Midwest this week: Rachael Hanel tells the story of Camilla Hall, a St. Peter, Minn., native who was killed in a shoot-out with police as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974.
Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.
For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.
Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss
Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.
The University of Missouri Press will be re-releasing The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist, in paperback in in September.
I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is a book that I put together while simultaneously working on my dissertation (which later became More than a Farmer’s Wife). It’s essentially a labor of love for Lane, who in life partnered with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to produce the Little House series of books for children. I’m honored that others have enjoyed it, too.
Lane’s always been a bit of a controversial figure in the world of Little House. Driven by arguments over how much she contributed to Wilder’s books, the controversy also extends to Lane’s apparent disdain for her home town of Mansfield, Mo., her tendency to be mercenary in her pursuit of paid publications, and her apparent inability to be personally tactful.
The controversy also extends to Lane’s political ideology. Her political thoughts, best expressed in her 1942 book The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority, make it clear that she believed American ideology to be best expressed through the concept of freedom FROM government interference in the lives of everyday Americans. I can say, with certainty, that Lane did not then, nor would she now, support a police state.
While her work does not explicitly challenge the complications of race in American society, her steadfast belief in individualism, and the rights of individuals to have and use the tools at their disposal to their benefit, permeates much of her popular work as well. I’m currently working on research that analyzes race within her political framework, because it is significant that such an individualistic approach tends to “erase” the societal challenges of race.
The Rediscovered Writings offer readers a glimpse at Lane at her best, and her closing work, an article written from Vietnam and published in December 1965, appropriately finishes on a note that encapsulates her political ideology as well.
Lane remains relevant to the twenty-first century, and I hope this work finds a new audience as it heads into paperback.
News from the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder today: Walnut Grove’s summer pageant will be online, starting tomorrow, July 10.
Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV show, tweeted an announcement about the pageant’s virtual show this morning. Guests at tomorrow’s first performance, via Zoom, will be Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder, and Dale Cockrell, a music scholar whose work focuses on the music of the Little House books. I’m very excited to see it.
More information can be found on the Walnut Grove web site.
I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.
As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.
As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.
I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.
From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.
I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.
I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.
I wish I could say I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the protests taking place, now internationally, supporting #blacklivesmatter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I almost expected it.
This is not about me; this is about my children. I am the white parent of black children, and since my oldest children came into my house as teens, I have been required to use my white privilege to fight for them. I didn’t understand the depth of the difference between the institutional challenges they face and the ones I face as a woman until the first time security followed my son and I around a big box store, finally stopping us to ask if he was bothering me.
Bothering. His. Mother.
As the phrase “the first time” implies, however, it was not the last time security took a hard look at us, and it was not the last time I looked a security person or a police officer in the eye and had to say that my son was not bothering me at all. Sometimes, the officer even looked a little chagrined. Mostly not, however.
I instituted a new rule the first time, though. I made sure my teens had phones capable of video recording, that they knew how to use them, and that they knew how to be respectful to police officers even when they had no reason at all to be. Police make assumptions, and I have no desire to see any of my children under one’s knee. George Floyd’s murder proved that even these measures cannot stand as a perfect defense.
I did my best to help equip them with the tools and skills they needed to navigate a world of white privilege while sporting dark skin. I remain angry that it was even necessary to do so. And I will never be certain that it was enough, because we need a world in which people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.
On a related note: A tweet this week left me breathless with rage. A white follower on Twitter brought Rose Wilder Lane’s name into the discussion, citing her and Ayn Rand as an inspiration in his quest for “freedom,” presumably at the expense of others.
Rose Wilder Lane would be appalled at the police state that surrounds us. Lane espoused freedom from government interference in the lives of everyday Americans, yes, but she focused on the rights of individuals and the need for all Americans, regardless of color, to take on individual responsibility. She would be marching, too. Or, more likely, using her typewriter to make a point about governmental abuse of power.
Be an ally. Be an anti-racist. Use your own privilege to help others. Do your best to be kind, and to question your own assumptions. Try to walk in the other’s shoes, and see how uncomfortably they fit.
I’m trying something a little different today. I’ve been inspired by the numerous artists and actors who are reading aloud online to help entertain those of us who have been stuck at home.
Below, you’ll find an audio link. It’s an MP3 file of me reading a work from my book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. It features Rose Wilder Lane’s article about D.W. Griffith and that famed director’s attempt at creating great cinema from actual battle footage during World War I. It’s sixteen minutes long. Have a listen. Lane had a habit of letting readers draw their own conclusions, but it’s pretty clear what her thoughts are about Griffith’s approach.
On D.W. Griffith and the Great War
The news from Poynter Institute and other media think-tanks is ominous: Local media outlets from around the United States are closing their doors and laying off staff. The economic challenges wrought by the pandemic have sliced that thin line that stood between these newsrooms and their loss.
In a time when local journalism is desperately needed, we are losing it.
When I entered the field as a news reporter for a daily newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Marinette Eagle-Star, I had a newly minted bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a strong sense of the importance of journalism to society as a whole. I’ve lost neither of those. But I realized, soon after I started, that the routine stories I wrote for my local newspaper had significance beyond that.
My fellow reporters and I covered school board meetings, city council meetings, county board meetings, highway commission meetings, and many other gatherings of people who made decisions on behalf of their constituents. We talked to police officers and county deputies, superintendents of school districts and teachers in their classrooms. We haunted the offices of elected officials to find out what issues were being raised at the local, state, and federal level that might have an impact on our readers.
And we related all these stories to those readers. We told them about how a county sales tax might affect their bottom lines; how a move to a welfare-to-work program in the state of Wisconsin might affect not only their pocketbooks, but their neighbors; how a rise in gang violence locally had ties to larger cities to the south of us. We told them about a new thing called the Internet and how it might have potential to change how business is done, how many educational options could be offered, and even how individuals could access to information.
We explored the community we lived in, bringing stories about what our readers and their friends got up to in their spare time. We covered local sports, making sure our student athletes got their names in the paper and credit for their achievements. We shone a spotlight on the arts in our community, and we talked to leaders about transitions in leadership in their worlds.
We told reader stories, too, making an effort to find the interesting, unusual, and fun things they were involved in. We dug deep to record these things for the historical record. We also used that historical record, sometimes, to tell larger stories about the community in which we lived, such as that of the Peshtigo fire of 1871.
Readers let us know what they appreciated, and they let us know what they didn’t. Virulently. Ardently. We did our best to make sure we got it right, and we did our best to make it right when we erred.
In those pages, we told the story of community, of multiple communities. We printed birth notices, death notices, marriage notices. Notably, I typeset my own wedding announcement. I was also forced to write up my own accident report, to the light ribbing of my comrades. All careful, all a record. All a journal of what happened in that place, at that time.
Journalism, at its true essence, is public service. The bastardization of that service for profit has led to untold damage to journalism as a social institution.
As I watch the numbers rolling in of these losses, I mourn the loss of that essential community journal. No one ever got rich as a local journalist. But the impact of what local journalists do has been, can be, and will be immeasurable.
I noticed, the other day, just how many of my internalized Upper Midwest family meal recipes start with, “Brown a pound of hamburger.” It struck me as I was surveying the contents of my freezer, thinking about meal prep while simultaneously considering the restrictions on meat buying that my local grocery stores have implemented.
Hamburger is a stapje of many dishes I grew up with. The most dominant of these is something we obliquely refer to as “hot dish,” but the definition and recipe for hot dish varies by person, family, region, or specialty. Any pot luck dinner will feature as many variations of a hot dish, otherwise known as a casserole in other regions, as there are people to eat them. Each has some kind of meat, some kind of starch, some kind of vegetable, and a sauce to hold it all together. If it’s baked, it usually will also have some kind of crunchy topping.
The quality and type of ingredients often reflect the means of the household creating the hot dish. For example, when I was a child, browning hamburger could mean either cheap, fatty beef, or lean ground venison from the deer my father and his brothers would hunt or every fall. I recognize that in many parts of the world, venison is a luxury food dish; in northern Wisconsin, it is staple winter meat for many low-income families, who hunt for the deer themselves or know someone who can provide one for them.
It requires different handling than beef; depending on the deer and the conditions in which it was feeding, cooked ground venison can give a waxy mouth feel. I learned to brown it, drain the fat, and rinse it in hot water before I added seasonings, to avoid that. Chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover meat of any kind also can be featured in a hot dish. All of the meat is cooked first before being combined with its other parts.
Starches run the gamut, from boiled noodles to rice to hash browned potatoes. Sauces, too, vary widely. As I was growing up, we relied heavily on canned condensed soups for our sauce component, and canned vegetables. (Funny, I just had the random thought that canned vegetables are for hot dish, and fresh are for plain eating alongside meat and potatoes. Interesting what sticks with you.)
Three different hot dishes still find themselves in my own, grown-up menus with a fair amount of frequency, though they differ a bit from the originals. The first, referred to as “Dad’s,” remains a favorite of my father. Originally, it’s just 16 oz of macaroni, cooked; 1 can of condensed tomato soup; 1 pound of hamburger, browned; and 1 can of corn, tossed together while hot and served from the pan.
My grown up, lighter version eliminates the fat and salt of the condensed soup (which I rarely cook with any longer). I also use different shaped noodles on a whim. Often, it’s 16 oz penne pasta, cooked and tossed with one pound of browned lean ground beef and one jar of marinara or other favorite tomato sauce. I top it with parmesan at the table. I’ve also been known to eliminate the meat and mix in a cup of mozzarella, ricotta, or cottage cheese, turn out into a baking pan, top with more cheese, and heat in the oven until everything’s melty.
A second common hot dish, features tuna. For this one, I do use condensed soup: cream of mushroom, actually, but I’ve seen higher-end recipes that use a béchamel with sautéed mushrooms, too. This is a combination of 16 oz. cooked egg noodles, 12 oz (two cans) tuna packed in water, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, and 1 can of peas, drained. Toss together and serve hot from the pan, with or without parmesan on top.
The last one is colloquially known as “Tater Tot Hot Dish,” and there’s as many variations of it as there are families who produce it. It’s a take on a classic shepherd’s pie, but it uses whatever ingredients are in the cupboard. My favorite combination is 1 pound lean ground beef, browned; 1 can cream of mushroom soup; and 1 can mixed vegetables, all tossed together. Turn that out in a 9 by 13 baking pan and cover the top of it with frozen tater tots. Bake until the tots are browned and crispy, and serve.
As meat restrictions remain, I’ll probably have to get more creative with my menus. I know how to cook high-protein vegetarian meals, and I’m afraid my family will just have to enjoy a few of those a week. It’s healthier, anyway. I think it might take some getting used to, but with so much happening in the world right now, it’s a small thing to change in the greater scheme.
I’ve been mulling over an epiphany I had a couple of weeks ago, about fandom and my place in it.
It will come as no surprise to some that I am, apparently, a professional fan. However, it was a surprise to me when I realized it.
First, it’s no surprise to many to find that I am a lifelong fan of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My first book, in fact, is an edited collection of the literary journalism of Rose Wilder Lane. I subscribed to Little House newsletters from the home sites in Laura’s world when I was old enough to use my babysitting money to do so, and my first independent road trip, the week I turned 18, was to see the Pepin and Walnut Grove sites firsthand.
Like many “bonnetheads,” I made an effort to learn how to do everything Laura did in her books. I learned to sew, to cook over an open fire, to churn butter, and to make bread from ground wheat and sourdough starter. I played “Little House” for endless hours with my cousins and friends, almost always as Mary, the oldest, because I had blond hair. As an adult, I bought each new book that came out about her life, and as a graduate student, I used her life experiences and writings to frame my own historic research.
I’ve even cosplayed as Laura or Rose, on occasion.
But somehow, that didn’t translate into fandom for me. It simply was. The work I’ve done with Laura and Rose has become what I’m best known for as a scholar, and it’s led to a degree of me being recognizable in public. The BBC interview I gave when Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition, came out, contributed some name recognition internationally that was cool and weird at the same time. And yet, I still hadn’t connected the dots.
It’s ironic, because I have actually researched fan culture. For my master’s thesis, I explored fan culture and the emerging communities online that supported various subgroups of it. I was fascinated by the collectives that had decided to take ownership of varied media, particularly Lois and Clark, and “correct” the deficiencies fans had identified in the original work’s plots. I finished and defended my thesis in 2001, just a few years after the World Wide Web had entered homes and before social media became a dominating force.
I spent a long time trying to see the thread that binds that research to the work I’ve done in history, and I realized, finally, and with help from the Michael Sheen fandom, of all things, that what ties everything I’ve ever done as a scholar together is fan culture.
So, there lies the epiphany. I’m still exploring fandom and my place in it. There’s something teasing me with notions of celebrity, familiarity, and cognitive dissonance that I’ve yet to articulate. When I’ve figured it out, I’ll write more about it.
(And yes, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Sheen’s work. Especially in Good Omens. It’s brilliant. You should go check it out.)
(And yes, I really am that clueless about my own significance in some ways, and require metaphorical big slaps in the face to “get it.”)