Midwest Maize

This is not about Australia–but it is about why I left the corporate world and went to Australia–to transform my life into that of a writer. Today is the official publication day of my book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. Books have actually been shipping for about a week now–all those that were pre-ordered–but now the book will start to go to bookstores and libraries.

The book is a food history–where corn/maize came from, how it diversified and spread, and ultimately how it created the U.S. region known as the Midwest–not just the farms, but the cities, as well–cities that would vanish if they weren’t supported by the region’s sprawling farmlands. But it is also a history of agriculture, of food preparation, of the contributions of different ethnic groups to the food culture of the region, of fairs and celebrations, and of people who raise, work with, trade, process, and cook corn today.

There is more information, plus a few early reviews, on the University of Illinois website, if you’re interested. Plus I’ve started a blog, to relate all the traveling I did and discoveries I made as I drove around the Midwest, pursuing the stories that fill the book. That blog is also named, not too surprisingly, Midwest Maize. I’d love it if you bought the book, maybe even “liked” the Midwest Maize Facebook page, but if all you do is enjoy a bit of the fun I had exploring the Midwest, that would be okay, too.
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Tee Off Down Under

I don’t actually play golf. That’s a sport that belonged to my dad and brother. Their passion and skill, however, led to my having an appreciation of the game and of the courses on which it is played. I used to walk the course with my dad, and I’d often watch tournaments with him. So even without having played more than three times in my life, I do understand what makes a great course — and what makes a crazy course. While I know for a fact that there are many splendid courses in Australia, and some great golfers, I have of late learned that there are also a few really outlandish courses — as one would expect in Australia. I imagine it is only because I never considered a golf holiday in Oz that I never heard of them until now, but simply because of what they reflect of the Australian personality — especially humor and determination — I thought they were worth passing along, now that I do know about them.

The lunar landscape of Coober Pedy in South Australia is home to the 18-hole, 72-par course of the Opal Fields Golf Club. There is no grass at all, just sand and rock, and the “greens” are simply oiled sand, to make them smooth. One golfing site relates: “The grassless fairways create a lot of roll and the oiled sand greens create a surprisingly smooth putt.”

The longest course in the world is also in South Australia — or, rather, starts in South Australia. The 848-mile Nullarbor Links actually stretches across a couple of states and takes about four days to play. But at least there is grass — some of the time.

Hope this gives a few of you golfers out there something to add to your bucket lists.

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Australia’s on the Wallaby

Another of my personal favorites from Slim Dusty is “Australia’s on the Wallaby.”

“The Wallaby” in the title is short for the Wallaby Track–which really is no track at all, but refers to the roads and wilderness walked by itinerant works and dispossessed families in search of work. The term dates to the 1800s, and was even the title of a poignant painting –On the wallaby track — created in 1896 by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. The painting shows a young family alone in the bush, with the wife holding an infant and her husband boiling the billy can over a small fire. So the term predates the Great Depression — but during the Great Depression, people again took to the Wallaby Track, though in greater numbers than ever before.

During the Great Depression, 1 in 3 Australians became jobless, and so a stunningly large percentage of the population was wandering in search of any kind of work that paid. Australia was, indeed, on the Wallaby. A book titled On the wallaby: a true story about the Great Depression in Australia in the 1930s, by William Kidman, reinforces the identification of the term with this period.

The “cooee” in the song is a cry used in the Australian bush to connect with other wanderers, to attract attention, or to indicate one’s location.

This particular video is not in particularly good shape, but you can hear the song clearly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. The song is, like most Australians, cheerful despite difficulties being faced.

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Meat Pies

I thought I’d interrupt my string of Slim Dusty songs with a break for food.

In Australia, there are few foods more iconic than meat pie. This is not just something you make at home. This is sold in shops, off food carts, in train stations, and at sporting events. It is as Australian as the hot dog is American. I became completely addicted to these during my first trip to Australia, and while I haven’t gotten around to making them back here at home, I always manage to tuck into a few on return trips.

The dish seems quite simple, but the fact that it uses two types of pastry — short crust on bottom, puff pastry on top — makes it a bit more labor intensive than one might expect of a food so ubiquitous. That said, I got the pie tins on my first trip, so I’m prepared.

This video notes that it is served with sauce, which is simply ketchup — so you don’t have to look for an additional recipe to finish this off. Just looking at it makes me think it’s time to dig out those tins and finally make myself a meat pie.

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G’Day Blue

Continuing the Slim-a-thon, here’s another Slim Dusty Classic. My dad was still alive when I first went to Australia, and this was one of his favorite songs, once I introduced him to Slim Dusty.

“Blue” is an Australian nickname for guys with red hair. The word can also refer to anything from being glum to a fight to a type of Australian cattle dog, but if you use “Blue” as a man’s name, it means he’s a redhead. (Because calling him “Red” would be too obvious.) If you’ve read my book, Waltzing Australia, you’ll know that I encountered a couple of Blues on my travels, which probably also contributed to my enjoying this song.

In this song, Slim sings of the virtues of a man named Blue, saying he’s never on the bite and never a skite. On the bite means looking for loans, and a skite is a braggart. So, lacking these vices, Blue is a good bloke to have as a mate.

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Dieseline Dreams

As I mentioned previously, Slim Dusty sang as often about those who drive trucks as he did about those who ride horses.

Slim Dusty’s songs about truckers range from the humorous to the romantic to the tragic. “Dieseline Dreams” falls into the romantic category (here meaning “romance of the road,” not “boy meets girl”). I love the sense of hope and joy conveyed by the song.

On the trip recounted in my book Waltzing Australia, I first encountered road trains in a local tourist magazine left in my motel room in Alice Springs. It advised that drives should make sure they have lots of room if passing, as road trains average 150 feet in length, and then warned to never force one to swerve off the road, as the amount of rock and gravel its tires will throw up could shatter your windshield. I would, during my six months in Oz, see many road trains. This video offers several views of this outback monster, with their multiple trailers. They’re only found on long, straight roads with little traffic, as they’d be completely unmanageable otherwise. But they are mightily impressive, and I imagine driving one would be as exciting — and unnerving — as riding a dinosaur.

Oh — and dieseline is a diesel/gasoline blend that is cleaner/greener than standard diesel fuel.

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Walk a Country Mile

Now that I’m in Slim Dusty mode, I can’t resist posting another song.

I bought the album “Walk a Country Mile” during my first trip to Australia. This song in particular became a favorite over the years because it reflected for me what life was like. My favorite lines in the song are “you meet a friend or two along the highway, and you learn a lot you never knew before. And if the journey takes a lifetime when you thought a year or two, well you just don’t give up easy anymore.” It’s a great song to hear when the road feels long — and even when you feel like you’re getting somewhere but it took a while.

The song was written by Joy McKean, considered the “grand lady” of Australian country music — who also happened to be Slim Dusty’s wife. In this video, Joy joins Slim on stage.

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