Tag Archives: traditions

Reflecting on Wisconsin’s earliest Thanksgivings

The story sounds familiar: In the 1600s, starving Europeans, new to the continent, were rescued with gifts of food from Native Americans, with whom they joined to give thanks.

Except this particular Thanksgiving story didn’t happen near Plymouth Rock. It happened in Wisconsin in 1659, just 38 years after the Pilgrims’ feast.

That’s one example of the rich Thanksgiving history held by the Badger State. Mary Spielman Roller, a resident of what became Milwaukee’s south side, even claimed to have introduced turkeys as the Thanksgiving bird in the state of Wisconsin, in 1835. She brought four birds from Buffalo, New York, when she settled in Milwaukee at the age of 18.

“Mrs. Roller assisted her husband in cutting down huge trees to use in building a log hut, and to make a clearing in the forest wherein to plant some grain and build a coop for the turkeys,” according to an early newspaper account. As the animals multiplied, “The Indians were constantly trying to steal them. Although not openly hostile, the Indians were apt to show anger when opposed by a woman.”

Of course, Roller could only claim she was the first to distribute turkeys to others for Thanksgiving — the bird is native to Wisconsin, and common. The Wisconsin State Journal recalled in 1930 that in Madison’s early days, turkeys “ran wild over the present university campus.” White settlers had great difficulty hunting them, however. Mark Twain later wrote of his own frustrating experience, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey.” 

Roller’s daughter recalled that Native Americans were invited to her mother’s first Wisconsin Thanksgiving. They “came in their native costumes, adding a touch of bright color to the monotony that pioneer decoration has always assumed.”

Native Americans here already had their own thanksgiving ceremonies. The Ojibwe celebrated in early spring, however, as a “first fruits of the season” event. Any food caught, collected or harvested had to be first offered to what white settlers called their “Great Spirit.”

As a federal holiday, Thanksgiving is fairly recent. Far from a banquet, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln set aside Aug. 30 as “a national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer.” The Civil War still raged and the occasion was decidedly spiritual, “so that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high.” It continued as a semi-religious observance for decades. 

Wisconsin’s first official observance of Thanksgiving was in 1830, when it was still part of the Michigan Territory. Gov. Lewis Cass declared that a day of Thanksgiving be observed on Nov. 25.

“I recommend to the inhabitants of the Territory that, refraining from all labor, inconsistent with the duties and solemnity of the day, they repair to their respective houses of public worship,” he proclaimed, “and unite in suitable acknowledgements to the ‘Giver of every good gift.’”

As late as 1876, the State Journal reported that much of the day was spent in church, although dining also was celebrated. In Madison, former Gov. Cadwallader Washburn and other nabobs ate in hotels. “There was good skating on Monona Bay, which was well enjoyed by a large number of youth.” Evening brought a fireman’s ball and several plays — one of them starring a young man soon to be known as “Fighting Bob” LaFollette.

Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848 and the holiday afterward roamed the calendar; the present national date wasn’t fixed until 1939. In 1844, Gov. James Duane Doty even named Dec. 12 as Thanksgiving.

But Wisconsin’s earliest-recorded meal of thanksgiving was that celebration in 1659. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, the first French explorers to enter the state after Jean Nicollet ran out of provisions during a hard winter in what is today Bayfield County.

They ate their dogs. They backtracked to their previous camps and dug the refuse of past meals from snowbanks. They boiled guts, skin and sinew and consumed it. They crushed and ate powdered bones. Some of the hair from hides was burned for fire, “the rest goes downe our throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred,” Radisson wrote later. “We went so eagerly for it that our gums did bleede like one newly wounded.”

They started to eat wood.

“Finaly we became the very Image of death. We mistook ourselves very often, taking the living for the dead and ye dead for the living,” he wrote.

They were rescued by the Odawa (Ottowa), who fed them wild rice, turkey and other foods. Groseillers gave a speech of thanksgiving. The pair were later reclothed and underwent a series of Odawa ceremonies they did not understand.

“After this,” wrote Groseillers, “they weeped upon our heads until we weare wetted by their tears.”

And so it was, just a few decades after Plymouth Rock, that Thanksgiving came to Wisconsin.

Framing the conversation | Milwaukee’s gallery owners build an art community

“Everyone has to do their own bit. Not sit back and wait for other people to do it. Get up off your ass and do it yourself, you’re an artist for f**k’s sake. Get creative.” 

So says Clive Promhows, owner of Milwaukee’s Live Artists Studio, one of several galleries in the city’s artist community. It’s advice that illuminates the energy of that community, unified by tenacity and passion. 

The Milwaukee art scene is rich with a diverse array of galleries and art venues, but there are distinct changes afoot. The closing of the DeLind Gallery of Fine Art after 46 years, and the forthcoming shuttering of Elaine Erickson Gallery this June will create voids in the wake of their long-established presences. Yet, there are new locations for exhibitions that suggest transformation in the way art intersects with a public audience, and other established galleries are changing too.

But regardless of change, one thing remains the same: Each gallery has its own distinct feel, an individual expression of its owners’ vision.

The Gallery Tradition

Most conventional, in Milwaukee, are the Tory Folliard Gallery and Dean Jensen Gallery. These two mainstays developed in the Third Ward in the late 1980s, growing as the neighborhood did.

Folliard’s interest in art was nurtured by her work as a docent, and she started to take her work home with her — her earliest shows, featuring the work of Guido Brink, took place in her own house. When things got to the point that she was moving furniture to make room for more art, it became clear that a dedicated space was in order. 

After several successful exhibitions in Fox Point, Folliard moved to the Third Ward. She has remained there for the past 25 years. 

She attributes her longevity to the deep sense of enrichment visual art gives her. “It makes life so enjoyable,” Folliard says. “It inspires you, it makes you happy, it changes everything. I can’t imagine a blank wall. It just makes your life full in a different way.”

Jensen came to gallery ownership from a different direction. Originally a newspaper reporter, his life took a sudden shift after a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan, studying Renaissance painting. Returning to his newspaper job, he had an awakening: “From the instant I got off the elevator the first day after that wonderful year in Ann Arbor, I made the decision that I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he says. “Before the year was out I had a gallery.” 

Jensen’s career as a novelist also demands his attention, but the gallery remains important. “This has been wonderful coming in here each day, sort of like coming into my own little chapel. You get visual stimulation from the work. I spend time with the pictures and everyday see them anew.“

The longest-running gallery in the city is the David Barnett Gallery, now in its 48th year. Initiation into the art business came early for Barnett. When he was 16 years old, his family’s factory closed, derailing his assumed future with the business. His interest in art took over; three years later he opened his gallery. 

Initially, Barnett’s focus was on local artists. But several years in, he took out a loan and flew to New York, where he purchased works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Mió, Salvador Dalí and more: an inventory to grow from in subsequent decades.

Barnett’s gallery is in a Victorian house on the East Side, and visitors will note the extraordinary diversity of works on view — from historical pieces to contemporary art. 

He says these works serve as a reflection of his individuality, rather than diversity for its own sake. “It’s based on my own personal beliefs in collecting, philosophy, instinct and passion. … It’s perhaps not a very business-like model but it’s the honest one for me which is why I have such a big collection.”

Bending Conventions

In 2008, the Portrait Society Gallery filled a 300-square-foot office on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Director Debra Brehmer helped it grow, pushing her exhibitions out of that room and sending them sprawling into the hallway. As they continually increased in scope, they eventually made the leap into adjacent areas as they became available for rental.

These spaces have coalesced into a flexible, multi-room venue, all dedicated to Brehmer’s expansive interpretation of portraiture. “I curate the shows out of my own interests and that’s the way it’s always been,” Brehmer says. “I think it’s the only thing you can really do to grow and get people used to the idea that there is a sort of a center and a vision. It gives the gallery an identity.” 

Other art venues take a different approach. Green Gallery, now located on the East Side after a fire destroyed its primary space, has expanded considerably since its establishment in Riverwest in 2004. Director John Riepenhoff began the endeavor while still a student at UWM. “In essence, no one was doing the type of gallery I wanted to see so I just made it happen,” he says. “My brother started a recording studio in one room, the gallery was in another room and a music venue was in another room.” 

One of the guiding principles of Green Gallery is to create a sense of community, and to form a place where ideas can be explored and developed. 

“For the Green Gallery we don’t narrow what it can be, we open it up,” Riepenhoff says. “Sometimes we don’t know what the work looks like until we’re actually in the space. The opening is happening and there’s a certain kind of presence in the air and in the work. Sometimes it’s years later that I really learn about the depths of what a show was about. For us it’s about a nowness, being very current, being present, and very open to the possibilities of what art can be and not what our expectations have been.” 

Clive Promhows’ Live Artists Studio is driven by a model of deliberate scarcity. Promhows embraces visual culture, drama, music and all manner of creative endeavors, but many of them are only held for a single day or a couple of nights. “The real good stuff, you gotta get in there quick,” he says.

These single-night and limited-run engagements, growing more common among other galleries and groups as well, have become important for showcasing his work and promoting many other artists in often monumental exhibitions. In the last five-and-a-half years, Promhow has hosted 45 to 50 shows in the studio, on the fourth floor of an old industrial building in Walker’s Point. It intrigued him from the start. “I thought, I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but I’m going to do my best,” he says.

Being outside of a formal gallery structure is also a point of liberation. Promhows says, “We’ve got nothing to lose, we’ve got no one to please. There’s so much hidden talent in this town. Huge. With art, with music, with acting, with film. It’s just a question of elevating people’s attitude.”

Recent Ambitions

Making a physical location for things to happen also motivates some of the newer galleries on the scene, including Usable Space, initiated by Keith Nelson about two years ago in Bay View. 

His background as an artist, as well as 10 years spent as a preparator at the Milwaukee Art Museum (where he still works freelance), gives Nelson a unique curatorial approach. He calls himself a “facilitator,” offering exhibition opportunities for others. 

“I started Usable Space knowing that it’s not going to be a profitable business that can generate its own funding,” Nelson says. “Another thing that was important to me was to have artists curate, and bring in artists from outside of Milwaukee. I didn’t want it to just be a local scene thing. I’ve had artists from New York, Chicago and L.A. alongside artists from Milwaukee, so it shows that what is going on in Milwaukee is relevant to what is going on in all the big art centers, too.” 

Six shows are held at Usable Space yearly, monthly from April to September. The location’s logistics (the gallery is a converted garage) preclude winter exhibitions.

Equally inventive is the new gallery space opened by Mike Brenner, a veteran of the local scene still known for his edgy Hotcakes Gallery, which was open from 2004 to 2008. Brenner’s recent ambitions offer another alternative for the promotion of art. He’s opened a new brewery in Walker’s Point, Brenner Brewing Company, that features and facilitates an adjoining art gallery and studio space: The Pitch Project. 

Overseen by Jason Yi and Sonja Thomsen, The Pitch Project serves as a network of 22 artists’ studios, as well as exhibition space. It’s an effort by them and Brenner to integrate art spaces into the community. Brenner is also incorporating original, contemporary art into the packaging of his beer, with designs by artists including Sue Lawton, Erin Paisley-Steuber and James “Jimbot” Demski on new products.

Brenner says there are challenges to this joining of art and commerce, but he sees this as something more than product promotion. “You hope that eventually people do see the value in it and it pays off. And then we can continue to do it and grow it and make even more good for the community.” 

It’s a mission that echoes the missions of so many other gallery operators throughout the city, even as each frames their galleries in their own individual way.

Current/Upcoming Gallery Exhibitions

Tory Folliard Gallery 

233 N. Milwaukee St. 

‘Mark Forth: Modern Ballads’

‘Harold Gregor: Midwestern Master’

May 29 to July 4 

Dean Jensen Gallery 

759 N. Water St. 

‘Great Impressions IV: An Exhibition of Contemporary Prints’

‘Gérard Sendrey: Constantly Inconstant ‘

Through June 14. 

David Barnett Gallery 

1024 E. State St. 

‘Kiki’s Paris’

Through July 18. 

Portrait Society Gallery 

207 E. Buffalo St., Fifth Floor

‘Wis-Con-Sin’: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, Charles Van Schaick

June 12 to Aug. 30.

Green Gallery 

1500 N. Farwell Ave.

‘Kim Miller’

‘“Democrats, Republicans, Capitalists and Creeps” … and You’ 

Through June 13. 

Usable Space 

1950b S. Hilbert St.

‘Where Does It Go Now? New Paintings by Annie Hémond Hotte’

Exhibition opens May 22. 

Live Artists Studio 

228 S. First St., Suite 302 

‘The Carol Show 2: Pastel Drawings by Carol Rode-Curley’ 

Exhibition opens May 22. 

Brenner Brewing Company 

The Pitch Project

706 S. 5th St. 

‘Pyrite Suns, Miner’s Dollars’: An Installation by Aspen Mays

June 12 to Sept. 12

Go For the Food: Coney Island hot dogs in Detroit

To New Yorkers like me, going to Coney means hopping on a Coney Island-bound subway train to an amusement park at the beach. But on a trip to Detroit, I learned that “coney” means something entirely different.

In Michigan and a few other places, coney is a generic term for hot dogs topped with onions, mustard and chili.

Brooklyn’s Coney Island has its own hot dog culture thanks to Nathan’s Famous, which has been selling dogs there since 1916. But chili is not a typical New York topping for a dog — we mostly stick to mustard and sauerkraut. Still, I try to sample local cuisine wherever I go, and in Detroit that means trying coneys sold by two long-time rivals: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

The stores stand side by side on West Lafayette Boulevard in Detroit’s downtown, which is in the very early stages of attempting a revival following finalization of the city’s bankruptcy. Streets are clean, there’s abundant private security, and cheap real estate is attracting investors and entrepreneurs. Lafayette and American are near many downtown attractions, including the famous sculpture of boxer Joe Louis’ fist, the historic Westin Book Cadillac hotel, the Riverwalk and Campus Martius Park. It felt perfectly safe as I arrived for my taste-test, and yet, my visit was marked by a series of memorable moments that you wouldn’t expect at, say, a suburban diner or trendy cafe.

For starters, in the foodie world, photographing your meal is so routine that it generally attracts no attention. But when I began photographing my coney at Lafayette, I got a long, bewildered look from the pair of somewhat scruffy gentlemen seated next to me. And when I asked our server for a receipt, he looked at me blankly, then tossed his notepad on the table, muttering, “Write it yourself.” Believe it or not, this all added to the charm of the place.

The dog itself at Lafayette was a surprise to my palate. The flavors were stronger than I’d expected — quite a bite to the onions and chili. On the advice of my dining companion, a 20-something Michigan native who recently moved to Detroit, I also had a Vernors ginger ale, a brand that originated in Detroit in the 19th century. It was fantastic, better than big-name brands and artisanal sodas. We also shared some good french fries.

But boy, was I full when we went to American for the second dog. Our near-dread at another round must have been apparent from our expressions, because the woman who came to take our order took one look at us and said something like, “You’re doing a comparison, aren’t you?”

We nodded guiltily.

“You should have come here first!” she scolded, then added: “Actually it’s good you came here second. You’ll leave with a better taste in your mouth!”

Turns out this wasn’t just a waitress — this was American’s co-owner, the brassy and dynamic Grace Keros, whose grandfather, a Greek immigrant, began selling hot dogs from a pushcart on the site in 1917. His brother opened Lafayette next door in 1924, but Lafayette is no longer owned by the family, and Keros wants it known that the dogs and chili are completely different.

Everyone I met in Detroit seemed to agree, saying that by tradition, locals only ever go to one place or the other. But in the name of investigative journalism, I had to try both, even though I wasn’t really psyched for the second round. But a funny thing happened on the way to my stomach: I liked it. To my palate, American’s coney had a slightly milder flavor, a bit more like the dogs I’m used to, dare I say, at the REAL Coney Island in Brooklyn. Not that Lafayette was bad, mind you — and as a non-local, I’m not pledging lifelong allegiance to either place. I later learned that Anthony Bourdain visited Detroit in 2013 and declared the best coneys to be at a spot called Duly’s, but there was no way I could handle a third.

When I later circled back to take exterior photos, a man was pacing back and forth outside both stores, raging incoherently at the skies. I dared not enrage him further by whipping out my camera, so I had to come back a third time for pictures. It seemed like a fitting coda to an only-in-Detroit adventure.

If You Go…

AMERICAN CONEY ISLAND: 114 W. Lafayette, Detroit; 313-961-7758, http://www.americanconeyisland.com/home.htm .

LAFAYETTE CONEY ISLAND: 118 W. Lafayette, Detroit, 313-964-8198.

5 things to know about the State of the Union

State of the Union night is coming up on tonight (Jan. 28). Time to set the record straight on a few things: Yup, Bill Clinton really was the most long-winded. Nope, it doesn’t have to be a speech. And, in truth, this “annual” event doesn’t happen every year.

Five things to know about what White House insiders call the SOTU:

1. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A SPEECH. The Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington and John Adams did it in person. But Thomas Jefferson thought that looked too much like a British monarch issuing orders to Parliament, so he decided to check in via written report instead. Presidents stuck to that strategy until 1913, when Woodrow Wilson decided it was too impersonal, according to Gerhard Peters, co-director of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s typically been a speech ever since, with the exceptions of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon: What modern president would give up all that free TV time?

2. CLINTON TAKES TOP HONORS – SORT OF. Clinton’s reputation for being long-winded is deserved. The Presidency Project tallied up the length of every State of the Union delivered via speech since Lyndon Johnson, and Clinton’s average is tops: 1 hour, 14 minutes, 51 seconds. But lots of presidents have gone on far longer if you go strictly by word count – spoken or written. Clinton’s average word count was 7,426. William Howard Taft, who reported in writing, routinely topped 22,000 words. That’s a whole lot of mission creep from Washington, whose first State of the Union speech was 1,089 words.

3. AN ANNUAL EVENT: NOT EXACTLY. Nowhere is it written that the State of the Union has to be done yearly. That’s just what evolved from the constitutional directive to report “from time to time.” The last four outgoing presidents – Bush, Clinton, Bush and Reagan – all skipped doing one just before leaving office. The five most recent incoming presidents, including Barack Obama, addressed Congress shortly after taking office, but technically those speeches weren’t State of the Union addresses.

4. SOMEBODY GETS THE NIGHT OFF. The State of the Union is one of those things that Cabinet members generally are expected to turn out for. But somebody always gets the night off – with extra security. That’s to ensure there’s a designated survivor to run the government if something catastrophic wipes out everybody at the speech. Last year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu got the bye. Clinton Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, who sat things out in 1995, once said it’s best not to think too hard about why you’ve got the night off. “The thought goes through your mind, even for a tenth of a second, and you think, ‘Who knows?’,” Pena said. “But then you say, ‘Don’t be silly. This is just a precaution.’”

5. RONALD REAGAN STARTED THAT WHOLE SHOUT-OUT THING. The presidential habit of making a strategic shout-out to someone in the congressional balcony dates to 1982, when Ronald Reagan paid tribute to Lenny Skutnik, the federal worker who dove into the freezing waters of the Potomac River to rescue an Air Florida crash victim. Reagan highlighted Skutnik as an everyday hero. Now, presidents routinely recognize guests in the balcony to underscore all sorts of points. Last year, Obama recognized: the parents of a Chicago girl killed by gunfire, a New York City nurse who cared for newborns during Hurricane Sandy, a 102-year-woman in Florida who waited six hours to vote during the 2012 elections, and a Wisconsin policeman who was the first to respond to a mass shooting at a Sikh temple.

The path to prosperity in the new year is through your stomach

In keeping with what’s considered a good-luck tradition in northern Europe, Kim Wall will toast the new year with pickled herring, marinated either in wine sauce or with sour cream and chives. Wall owns Baensch Food Products Co. in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, which has produced Ma Baensch’s Marinated Herring since 1932. 

The tradition has its roots in the Baltic Sea region. Herring is an abundant food source in the region, and it’s thought to bring abundance in the upcoming year for people who consume it on New Year’s Eve. The silvery color of the fish resembles coins, which adds to its aura as a harbinger of riches.

Good-luck traditions surrounding food are common throughout the globe. Consuming a whole fish on New Year’s Eve is traditional in China, at least partly because the word for “fish” sounds similar to the word for “abundance.” According to Chinese lore, serving the fish whole — its head and tail intact — assures a bountiful New Year from start to finish.

Other cultures also see fish as a good-luck food, largely for its constant forward motion. Conversely, serving lobster and crab on New Year’s Eve is thought to bring bad luck because of the crustaceans’ sideways and backward movements. 

In Asian cultures, serving long noodles on New Year’s Eve is the key to longevity and prosperity. Although “long” is a relative term, the good-luck tradition requires that the noodles must never be broken during preparation, so stir-frying is the most common cooking method.

The American South has its own regional good-luck food traditions — the best known of which are collard greens and black-eyed peas. The greens symbolize dollar bills and the peas represent coins. But these foods also have historical significance.

During the Civil War, marauding Union troops took most of the food as they scoured the countryside. They left behind only collard greens and black-eyed peas as animal fodder. But those foods are rich in nutrients, and they helped Southerners survive during the four years of warfare.

Cornbread also is considered good luck. It was produced when wheat was scarce in the South. The most authentic kind uses little sugar or flour and often features “cracklings,” crispy meat bits derived from rendered lard.

Southern cooking features dishes that combine the various good-luck components. “Hoppin’ John,” a Carolina low-country dish, combines black-eyed peas and rice simmered slowly with bacon fatback, onions and salt. “Skippin’ Jenny,” as the leftovers are called, demonstrates frugality on the part of the diner, who is then sure to enjoy greater abundance in the New Year.

“Pot Likker,” the nutrient-rich juice left behind when cooking collard greens, is considered not only good luck, but also an aphrodisiac. Some recipes mix it with collard greens, cornbread and bits of pork to create a comforting and healthy soup.

In Austria, Cuba, Hungary and Spain, eating pork on New Year’s Eve is considered lucky, because pigs move ever forward, their snouts to the ground in pursuit of food. Pig-shaped cookies also are part of this tradition.

Eating fowl is considered good luck by some cultures, but bad luck by others. Birds scratch backward when searching for food, and a life lived backward does not imply progress.

Consuming round fruits — apples, oranges, grapes and others — on New Year’s Eve is considered good luck in many cultures. In the United States and Europe, eating 12 such fruits at a sitting is the best bet, while in the Philippines the lucky number is 13.

Pomegranates count as round fruits, but they take on special significance in Turkey. The fruit’s red color, which brings to mind the human heart, symbolizes life and fertility. Its medicinal qualities represent good health, and its abundance of seeds represents an abundance of wealth.

In Italy, lentils represent wealth. As the beans are cooked they grow in size, which means greater prosperity for those who consume them.

If all else fails, try eating gold-colored foods, a popular good-luck talisman that signifies increased wealth in many countries. Adding saffron to anything will do the trick. And what is a premium Champagne if not golden to the eye?