Archive for the ‘Did you know’ Category

Itcotton_600px‘s Indian Summer here in the Midwest although the official First Day of Autumn was last week. Pumpkins and Indian Corn popped up at the farmers market several weeks ago and I broke down and made my first batch of pumpkin-inspired baked goods this weekend (Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing).  I have successfully denied myself the bags of Halloween candy in the supermarket so far but my resolve is waning.

Each year around this time, our school garden hosts a “night out” to invite families and kids into the garden, to picnic and watch a movie out-of-doors. And each year I’m asked to do a short presentation on something exciting in the garden. This year, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but fluffy, white, puff balls of cotton in the Land of Lincoln. Yes, cotton can be grown as an annual anywhere with approximately 120-180 days of warmth. Our cotton plants have grown to at least 7′ high and about as much wide! Not your typical variety grown in the southern states, but certainly the same end product. I remember seeing my first cotton field in Alabama, a sea of white, and thinking it was so beautiful. I’ll give you the cliff notes version of my garden lesson:

  • evidence of cotton cloth has been discovered as far back as 7,000 years ago
  • the U.S. produces over $25 billion of cotton annually and is a major world producer
  • 95% of all cotton becomes clothing or textiles
  • cotton seeds were first planted in the colonies in the late 1500’s and cotton was considered a specialty crop because it was so labor-intensive
  • in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which revolutionized the separation of seeds from lint (fluff) and created a huge demand for labor to pick ever more cotton
  • the demand for slave labor increased as the production of cotton exploded throughout the southern states
  • production of cotton rose from 156,000 bales to 4 million bales in just six short years following his invention
  • our garden variety has both yellow and pink blossoms which flower, die back, and leave a green boll that looks like a venus fly trap to me
  • the fibers inside the boll expand pushing out the seeds as the boll ripens until hard and brown and the lint literally pops out

It’s still a little early for the cotton harvest in the South but here in Central Illinois ours will need to be picked soon and will be carded, spun and used in fiber art by the kids at school. Nature creates such amazing things on its own that I don’t need to work too hard to find something “exciting” in the garden.


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pie_HMI have a chalk board I made out of an old frame that says “New Beginnings” at the moment.  It’s a rotating message board reflecting whatever pops into my head when I feel it needs to be changed. I simply open my mind and voila. It’s become a barometer of my life at any given time. New. Stress. Beginning. Stress. That makes perfect sense to me.  Change seems to be all around me at the moment. I try to control things by giving it a time frame of today or after next week or ’til things settle down … but really things change all the time; every day, every hour. And my crazy need to be in control and corral all that change leads to stress (I’m pretty sure someone really smart and insightful came to that conclusion before me). The shadow of excitement and anticipation briefly appears but is quickly swamped by the dark clouds of anxiety and fear.  What does this all have to do with pie you may be thinking?  Well, David Mamet said it best in the title of this post … and I took his advice. If you haven’t been to Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Evanston (or Chicago) it’s a great place for perspective … and pie.  I met my long-time high school and college friend there recently, who is incidentally going through her own major life change, to re-connect and de-stress.  It wasn’t an intentional choice of venue but, like opening my mind for chalk board sayings, it just came to me.  What is more comforting and re-assuring and instills a feeling like the warm breath of your Mama than pie.  Apple raspberry and blueberry were our choices out of about 8-10 available that day and close to 40 options available to order online (sorry, only pick-up. no delivery). If you don’t feel sweet, try a savory option instead.  The Evanston location is paired with Dollop Coffee & Tea Co. so you can get a decent cup ‘o joe too.  Swapping stories and sharing concerns and memories with a friend over pie is living in the moment even if that moment is full of great uncertainty … and you’d rather be hiding in the closet.  Take a breath and eat a piece of pie. Ahhh.


Thanks to EJM for the photos!

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Anyone interested in the Peoria Harvest Food Co-op – here’s an update I just received via email that indicates they will be moving forward pending funding.

“The Co-op was selected as a Senior Consulting Project for senior business students at Bradley University in January.  Throughout the spring semester, our team conducted a feasibility study and market research for us.  The study found strong community support for a co-op, with the majority of people already being familiar with the co-op concept.

We are therefore moving ahead with fundraising this summer.  The date the store will open depends on how fast the funds are raised.

We are looking for new members.  However, the bulk of the fundraising will come from members who make loans to the Co-op, which it will pay back with interest over time. 

We need a few new Board members (if you have experience being a member of a co-op in the past, or have business or financial experience), and we need volunteers in general to help with the fundraisers.”

Like their Facebook page for regular updates at

Learn more at Peoria Harvest Co-op

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Area food enthusiasts, local farmers, and sustainable food advocates are certainly enthused about the possibilities being discussed for the old Hanna City prison.  About 20 minutes from Peoria, the site could be a perfect Midwest training ground for a whole bunch of sustainable food efforts.

Peoria County acquired the 38.5 acres from the State of Illinois several years ago with strict stipulations on how it could be redeveloped.  I guess no one had any BIG ideas until now!  Previously utilized as a prison work camp, a home for boys and a 1950’s Air Force radar base, the walls could certainly tell some stories. The acreage includes residential buildings, classrooms, an institutional kitchen, a greenhouse, and a gymnasium as well as some pretty fertile soil. Most all of the buildings are structurally sound but the place has been empty since 2002 so it would take some serious clean-up and probably some demolition to get it up and going again.

Now for the BIG ideas …. the County hosted a planning charrette on December 8, 2012 to explore three different business models for redevelopment of the property:

1. Develop the property, utilizing the existing structures for development of a small farms incubator or training center.

2. Create a cooperative food hub with area producers, utilizing the buildings for aggregation and distribution.

3. Utilize the property for a farm to school laboratory, working with area schools to provide hands on learning opportunities.

There should be recommendations and a report based on the December planning meeting available soon.  For email updates, contact Kathie Brown, Extension Educator – Community & Economic Development at

Read more about the history and possible uses of the property:

This old prison in Illinois may be transformed into a farming paradise, grist, 12/20/12

Peoria County is working with ideas of how to use old prison at Hanna City, Peoria Journal Star, 12/3/12

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I used to work in the Pilsen neighborhood, the home of Chicago’s Mexican-American population, and one of the things I miss most is the food … Nuevo Leon, El Milagro and the many bakeries that lined Blue Island.  Well, one of those bakeries moved to Peoria, yes Peoria.  They moved into the old Peoria Bread Company building owned by Dave Koehler.  Thanks, Senator Koehler for being willing to support local foods and sorry about the Bread Company.  My mom doesn’t know where to buy bread now.

So the panaderia in the ‘hood.  It’s open from like 5 in the morning to 9 at night so you have no excuse for not going.  It’s a traditional Mexican bakery with glass cases and cooling racks of breads, croissants, American donuts, Mexican cookies, cakes, and a bunch of stuff that I have no idea what it is, but it all looks fresh and pretty, especially the bright pink cookies with powdered sugar.  Walk in and take a metal tray and some tongs and have at it….choose what you want, take it to the counter, and pay up.  How ingenious is that – giving the customer the power of the tongs – to choose themselves without having to feel embarrassed for asking for 1 of this, 1 of that, 2 of this, and 5 of that.

My advice is just choose what looks good to you and try it.  Come back next time and try new things.  Nothing is marked so it’s a big surprise every time.  Here’s what I got:

Pink cookies with powdered sugar – tastes like a traditional sugar cookie dough but not as sweet
Custard Looking Cake – a layer of traditional yellow cake and a layer of custardy-cake, but not quite custard, and not really sweet (it’s a theme)
Sugared Croissants – good for dunking in coffee
Bolillos – soft, crusty bread for sandwiches or just butter and eat  (go for the ones on the cooling trays)
Tamales – pork with red or green sauce; I liked the green better, but both were hot, homemade and ready to eat from behind the counter


Panaderia Ortiz Bakery
1404 NE Monroe St.
Peoria, IL
5am-9pm everyday

Serving Pizza Now … Call to Order in Advance and Pick up

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I Never Knew That …

I’m forever reciting a combination of “I didn’t know that” or “No one told me that” or “Where did you hear that”.  And it’s not just at school or at family gatherings or at neighborhood parties or at work or, or, or  … it’s all of those situations.  Thank God for the mom’s at school who reliably know EVERYTHING; for my own mother who can fill me on important family gossip; and neighbors who actually have met each other and know each other’s names.  Well, it’s my turn now.  I get to be the one “in the know”…maybe.  I know stuff.  I just don’t know that stuff.

I Never Knew That – Somewhat Relevant Tidbit #1
If a recipe calls for room temperature eggs and you only just realize it after you’ve begun mixing, you can cover eggs with hot tap water (not boiling) for five minutes and drain.  Your eggs will be room temp and ready to go!

Please don’t immediately comment with “You didn’t know that?!” … I will be crushed.  Just give it a day or two.

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How often do I think about how food arrives at the grocery store?  Um, never.  It’s magically re-stocked with all my favorites every time I arrive, except maybe on Monday nights at Schnucks when it’s a ghost town.  Then I’m simply annoyed that I can’t buy what I need and irritatingly think “why is there no food at the grocery store ?”.  Food tends to have a long and circuitous route.  A recent article, “From Farm to Plate“, in the September issue of iBi, stated that “…the average fruit or vegetable purchased in the Midwest travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate,…”.  So how does it stay looking so fresh and lovely?  Well, often it’s picked early so it ripens on the way or it’s been bred to death.  In the end, looks have replaced flavor.  The iBi article optimistically explains that the interest in local food is on the rise among not only restauranteurs but the average consumer.  That said, we go back to how it conveniently gets to my grocery store down the street.  Not an easy answer come to find out.  In my very basic understanding of the issues, Farmer John has 3 tomatoes to sell and Gi-normous Grocery Store needs 5,000.  GG can’t be bothered.  Alas, Farmer Bob has about 4,000 tomatoes but GG needs them washed, packaged, labelled and delivered by tomorrow.  FB has only 5 field hands, a couple of kids, and a farm dog.  For local food to really take hold, there needs to be infrastructure in place to support it –  aggregating (bringing all the food to one place), processing, distribution, and then marketing and sales.  Most small farms don’t have the resources or the staff to put that kind of system in place so we need “Food Hubs”.  A network of these aggregating/processing/distribution centers to help them.  Then GG buys from the Hub, Farmer Bob gets a fair price, and we the consumer get a high quality product which supports our own economy, not Venezuela.  I think we just need a few CAT logistics people to figure this whole thing out – build a structure for Illinois – and then model it across the country.  But I don’t claim to know the whole story.  I’m having lunch with a local farmer this week so I’ll ask her for the real Farmer scoop.  Like most things in life, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we know (or tend to think about).  More later . . .

Additional Notes posted 9/15/12:
My  lunch with two local farmers and food activists this past week was a treasure-trove of ideas, thoughts, opinions, and, oh, good food!  It was a beautiful day to eat outside.  Here’s more. . .
So the food hubs are important in their opinion and Heartland Community College in Normal is working in partnership with Edible Economy to try to make that happen with the help of a USDA grant.  But at least one other key piece of the puzzle in their opinion is consumer education.  People don’t know how to cook – they don’t recognize ingredients – they don’t go in the kitchen anymore except to eat their frozen entrée from the microwave.  Part of the challenge is to get the average consumer back cooking in the kitchen.  Maybe it’s time or maybe it’s education, or fear, or lack of interest, or picky kids, or a combination of all and more, but any movement back to a local food system needs to get more than a subset of consumers on board.

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