Food a big part of Wisconsin’s history

Gloria Hafemeister
Karl Kaphengst, the Foodways Coordinator at Old World Wisconsin, shared stories with students at SAGES school in Fox Lake about the history of some of the students’ favorite foods.  Dressed in traditional Norwegian clothing, he challenged the students to think about how food has changed over the years and why.

FOX LAKE - Spring may be just getting started but things are different for modern-day families waiting for the arrival warmer weather then they were generations ago when pioneer families arrived in Wisconsin.

“At least we have things like radio, television, and shopping online to keep us from pulling out our hair as winter drags on,” said Karl Kaphengst, the Foodways Coordinator at Old World Wisconsin. “Cooks a century or more ago were busy all winter preparing meals.”

He described to students at SAGES charter school in Fox Lake, that when early settlers came to this country there were no box mixes or convenience foods to warm in the microwave. There were no electric or gas stoves, no refrigerators or freezers and no bakery shops or convenience stores.

There were wood stoves that required carrying wood and everything was made from scratch with mostly home-grown ingredients.

Historical path of food

He challenged the youngsters, “Think about the path your food has followed and the changes it has gone through. Ice cream, for instance, was not as common when the settlers came to Wisconsin as it is now because there were no freezers.”

He pointed to school lunches and described that in a one-room country school a few generations ago, lunches were brought from home in a metal can or box.

The original hot lunch program originated when students brought jars of homemade soup from home during cold winter months, and set the jar with those brought by other students in a pan of water on top of the stove that heated their classroom. At lunch time the soup was warm and went well with the sandwiches that were made with ham cured in the smoke house and home baked bread, he said.

Kaphengst asked students to name some of their favorite foods, and received answers of S'mores, pizza, candy and tacos.

Regarding S'mores, he noted that marshmallows were not around until about 1900. It was possible to make them at home but folks generally didn’t have the ingredients or the time to make them.

“The original marshmallows were actually square cubes, made with sugar and gelatin and other ingredients and formed in long tubes, and then cut into small cubes.” he said.

Mint typically used to flavor candy canes at Christmas was used for other purposes. Kaphengst noted that mint plants grew wild in Wisconsin, but many of the mint varieties were brought to Wisconsin from European countries and the greens were generally used for tea. The Norwegian area at Old World Wisconsin features a mint garden.

He went on to describe many of the popular foods that had their origin in European countries. Most of these are not around today except during ethnic festivals and celebrations. Why? Because they take time to make and most families are too busy with other activities to spend a lot of time preparing food.

No time for rest

The the life of a typical pioneer woman was hectic. Her jobs included giving birth, churning butter, making cheese, wine and cider, cooking and baking, brewing ale, preserving food, shearing sheep and weaving wool, producing candles, doing the laundry and cleaning house. All these things were done without electricity and modern appliances.

The equally hard-working husband spent his time tending to the livestock, repairing equipment and laboring in the fields, using oxen to pull plows and threshing machines.

One of Karl Kaphengst's jobs at Old World Wisconsin is to prepare ethnic foods and serve them to the staff at the living history museum.

“The word ‘leisure’ was not part of the vocabulary,” he says.

Among the ethnic foods that were once popular but rarely found on today’s menus were Zwiebelkuchen from the Germans; a hearty lunch pie made with steamed onions, diced bacon, cream and caraway seeds, popular with the Pomeranians; rye bread made with grain raised on the farms; Polish dumplings; Irish soda bread and sugar cookies.

Kaphengst who is of Norwegian descent, described Krumkake (crumb cake), a favorite Norwegian treat originally made over an open fire.

“Krumbkake takes a lot of time to make and even if it is made today, it may not taste the same," he said. “Flavors of food change as we use more modern ways to make things. A food cooked over an open fire will take on the flavor of the wood that is burned but that flavor will not be present if it is prepared in an electric oven.”

Researching food

One of his jobs at old World Wisconsin is to prepare ethnic foods and serve them to the staff at this living history museum.

Hanging in the open chimney above the fireplace in the house’s “black kitchen,” (called that because of the soot coating the bricks) a ham from one of Old World Wisconsin’s own hogs is smoked. The slab of meat, together with foods raised in the many ethnic gardens around the historic farm, will be prepared and served to the workers.

“I love the challenge of making our threshing dinners and our harvest dinners,” says Kaphengst.

All the foods made at Old World Wisconsin have been carefully researched, with ingredients and prep practices gleaned from settlers’ notes, publications from the appropriate eras and other historical resources.

When researching recipes for any exhibit at the historical farm, Kaphengst considers the time period of the restoration, the family’s exposure to American ideas and the length of time they had been in America.

“One other consideration is literacy. Is the immigrant able to read and is she able to read in English? This can really define the limits of a food program for an exhibit,” Kaphengst said.

In addition, he says, “It is important to have recipes for the seasonal foods that we have available from our gardens and farms. For example, our visitors will not see potatoes being used in the summer because they aren’t in season.”

Food is a big part of Wisconsin’s history. He points out that the state’s earliest pioneers hunted, fished and foraged. As they settled into their new homes, they planted gardens from seeds carefully carried from their overseas homelands. They followed the practices they learned growing up in their homeland and changed their food preparation and recipes as more modern ways of doing things were developed.

Following Kaphengst’s presentation, students spent the rest of their school day visiting with others involved in Wisconsin’s food industry in an effort to get a better understanding of how food gets from the farm to their table.