Category Archives: History

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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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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Filed under Australia, History, Lore, Travel

Slim Dusty and Waltzing Matilda

In Australia, this will be a long weekend, as Monday is Australia Day, the celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which initiated European settlement of the land Down Under.

In the spirit of that celebration, here is Australia’s legendary Slim Dusty (whom we lost in 2003, sad to say) performing Oz’s “unofficial national anthem” at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It’s fun to see everyone sing along so enthusiastically. If you watch the video, keep an eye out for a few other Aussie icons.

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Rex, Albert, and Bobby

I’ve posted previously about Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira and his remarkable, evocative work, and I mention him as well in my book, Waltzing Australia. I had seen his work even before my first trip to Australia, when, in addition to seeing more of his paintings, I also visited some of the sites Namatjira had painted. But I hadn’t encountered any information on how he learned to paint.

Because he too loves the Outback, I follow the blog of Bobby Dazzler, who does a nice job of highlighting iconic elements of the “back o’ beyond.” His most recent post is about Rex Battarbee, the artist who taught Namatjira. I can only imagine how delighted Battarbee must have been to find so gifted a student. Anyway, if you’re interested in Namatjira and would like to read the article, you can find it here: https://dazzlerplus.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/rex-and-albert/

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Reflections on Life, Travel, Work, and Australia

I feel I should mention that, despite the sadness expressed at leaving Australia, I have, since my first trip Down Under, created a fulfilling life focused on things I love: writing, sharing, history, food, culture, travel. I’ve been to dozens of other places (see my The World’s Fare blog for some non-Aussie travel tales), and I’ve had an additional two trips to Australia (which I’ll be sharing here). I had some amazing experiences on those trips.

But home is not bad, either. Like most people who are self-employed, I work harder for less money than many in the corporate world, but I’ve had the joy of being able to pick work that I find rewarding. I feel as though I’m living my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” (I have become insanely frugal, however, which allows me to live better on less money than many people do who earn far more than I do.)

While I’ve written books (including, of course, Waltzing Australia) and hundreds of magazine articles, a large part of my writing has been in the realm of education: history, geography, and language arts. I’ve worked for every major educational publisher in the U.S., including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and National Geographic Learning. Sharing what I’ve learned in my travels and research is always a joy. I’ve even gotten to write student readers on topics related to Australia (one of the Great Barrier Reef, one on the platypus, and a couple on Captain James Cook).

For the last 20 years or so, in addition to education, I’ve been working in the arena of food history. Much of my travel has focused on place where food history is anchored: Mexico, South America, China, India, the Spice Route, and so on. More recently, I’ve been focusing on history closer to home. The combination of food history and home focus has resulted in my newest book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. If you look at the list of links at right, you’ll see I’ve also started a blog to support that endeavor.

So it did hurt to leave Australia, but I’ve found that joy can be found anywhere. It is not a place; it is a mindset and a journey and a feeling that one is contributing. Still, I will never stop loving Australia, and I delight in sharing its beauty, wonder, and friendliness with others–something I do not only through this blog but also through slide shows and speaking engagements. Australia is the anchor of my current life. It will always be part of me.

And there is still vastly more I want to share about it. So please do keep coming back.

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Filed under Australia, Book, Food, History, Thoughts, Travel, Writing

Monday, September 16

This morning, Judy and I headed for Australflora and Gum Nut Village, a nursery that specialized in Australian plants, plus craft gallery and tearoom, all run by a charming, lucid man named Bill, who obviously knows Judy well. (Not too surprising, given how focused on indigenous plants Judy’s garden is.) We browsed for a few hours through the fabulous flowers, and I bought a few packets of seeds, to see if I can raise a few Aussie blooms in a pot back home. We chatted with Bill for a while, about local events, local folks, and how to care for a few plants Judy recently obtained. Then we headed for the giant “gum nut.” A gum nut is the hard, woody fruit of a eucalyptus tree—though in this case, it is a replica of said fruit the size of a small cabin. This gum nut houses the craft gallery as well as a lot of May Gibbs books and paintings.

May Gibbs was the artist/writer who, about 100 years ago, created a world of fairy folk that she dubbed gumnut babies. These delightful little creatures, who lived among and dressed in the flowers of gum trees (eucalypts), populated a series of children’s books, the most famous being Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which appeared in 1918. Gibbs’s creations became part of Australians’ childhood heritage. In fact, so iconic was Gibbs’s work that she was honored with a Google doodle on her 136th birthday.

And in case you haven’t seen a gum flower before, here is one of the many varieties—and one can see how easy it was to imagine it as the attire of tiny fairies.
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Judy and I had lunch in the tearoom then we headed back to the house. Geoff was waiting for us. We chatted for a little while over tea, then I finished packing. At 3:00 pm, it was time to head for the airport. Judy and Geoff have been so gracious and generous, as well as a lot of fun, that I really hated saying good-bye. However, I’m sure part of that is also realizing that the trip is nearing its end—too soon, I’ll be saying good-bye again to Australia.

It was dark by the time I landed in Sydney at 6:15. I caught the bus to the city then hiked the rest of the way. Fortunately, I have a suitcase that can convert to a backpack, and when the walk turned out to be longer than I’d anticipated, I made that switch. Still, even with the suitcase worn as a backpack, I was fairly weary as I climbed the stairs to reception at Sydney’s Traveller’s Rest Hotel. However, I was pleased to find that, though a bargain accommodation, Traveller’s Rest was clean and cheerful and quite comfortable.

After settling in, I walked toward nearby Chinatown, stopping at a place that offered an all-you-can-eat Cambodian buffet. Glass noodles with tree ears, curried eggplant and pumpkin, meat with chilies, tofu with veggies, and several other dishes made for an interesting and tasty meal. Then it was back to the hotel and early to bed. Tomorrow, I get to find out how Sydney has changed.

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Filed under Australia, History, Literature, Travel

September 14, part 2

Judy was free to join us for the afternoon, so after lunch, the three of us headed off again, along the winding roads and amid the towering trees and abundant ferns of the Dandenong Ranges. This time, our drive took us to Emerald Lake, where Judy and I would be able to catch the famous Puffing Billy, a beautiful, century-old, narrow-gauge steam railway. The train and its original 15 miles of track are considered to be among the finest preserved steam railways in the world. Famed for the beauty of its setting as much as for its handsome antiquity, the Puffing Billy is now run for tourists and train enthusiasts.

Puffing Billy Station

Puffing Billy Station

Puffing Billy arrives.

Puffing Billy arrives.


The train ride, through forest and mountain, past handsome farms and green valleys, was a delight. The whistle would toot as we neared a town, farm, or station, and everyone would turn and wave at the passengers. At the old trestle bridge—considered the best place from which to photograph the train—we saw dozens of cars and a fair crowd of people waiting to watch the train pass, all waving to us as we went by. Finally, after about an hour ride, the train dropped us in Belgrave, where Geoff was waiting to pick us up.

Another scenic drive returned us to the ranch, where we had afternoon tea. Then Geoff drove me to the top of Mount Dandenong, so I could see the sunset from the mountaintop. Wonderful.
At 7:30, Robert, a friend of the family, arrived. Robert was quite a character: big, burly, blond, open, effusive, clearly delighted with life. He has worked oil rigs all over the world, but has now returned to Melbourne to run the family business. Great fun listening to his tales.

Judy, Geoff, Robert, and I were all dressed for an evening out, and we headed to restaurant in Sherbrooke that Judy and Geoff save for special occasions. Had a beautiful evening of champagne, great food, and delightful conversation. For dinner, I had tortellini al pesto to start, pork and seafood Wellington for my main, and a ginger-crisp basked filled with sliced strawberries for dessert. Very nice.

We finally returned home by midnight, over full, slightly giddy from the excellent company, and definitely happy.

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