A sucker for the Sucker State (and a plug for a friend's business)
In August, I had the pleasure of returning to my homeland, namely the Land of Lincoln, or as others dub it, the Prairie State. I recall learning as a kid that another nickname for Illinois was the Sucker State. Although my mother offered a throwaway explanation that this had to do with folks sucking on oranges (huh? Most likely she just yanked that out of thin air to ward off my childish queries), it wasn't terribly satisfying. But in this age of instant information, I gleaned this from the Netstate.com site which offers a treasure trove o' trivia when it comes to information on the big fifty:
The Sucker State: There are a few of theories about the origin of this interesting nickname. One has it that the name was the result of a comparison between the large number of miners going to and coming from the Galena Lead Mines in 1822 and the fish. According to Malcolm Townsend, in his U.S.: An Index to the United States of America (1890), "An old miner said to them 'Ye put me in [the] mind of suckers, they do go up the river in the spring spawn, and all return down ag'in in the fall.'"
Malcolm Townsend talks about another possible origin of the nickname. Evidently, the prairies were filled, in many places by crawfish holes. Travelers were able to suck cool pure water from these holes using long, hollow reeds. According to Malcolm Townsend, whenever a traveler would happen upon one of these holes, he would cry out "A sucker, a sucker!"
Yet another theory, offered by former Governor Thomas Ford in A History of Illinois (1854), has it that this nickname referred to the poor folk of southern Illinois that moved into the state to escape the suppression of wealthy landowners in the southern states. According to Ford, sucker was a reference to the sprouts off the main stem and roots of tobacco plants. These suckers will sap nutrients from the main plant and are stripped off by farmers and thrown away. In the same way, according to Ford, "These poor emigrants from the slave States were jeeringly and derisively called "suckers," because there were asserted to be a burthen upon the people of wealth; and when they removed to Illinois they were supposed to have stripped themselves off from the parent stem and gone away to perish like the "sucker" of the tobacco plant. This name was given to the Illinoisans at the Galena mines by the Missourians."
OK, that's more thorough than the sucking on citrus fruit derivation. I tend to think I must have been pestering my mother at the time, and this was as good a means as any to shut me up. Of course, the Sucker State could also relate to the voters of Illinois and the politicians whom they are suckered into electing, with Barack Obama as a welcome exception. The bumbling corruption of Illinois politics was good preparation for living in states who really know what they are doing in terms of political shenanigans, namely Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The purpose of the trips (two successive weekends) was primarily to escort my daughter for an extended visit with her grandmother, she of the sucking oranges explanation. Although my kid is pretty independent, air travel has its vagaries, and my feeling is that my daughter is a little too young for solo sodomization by the airline industry. So that, and some cheap flights from Philly to Midway-Chicago, gave me a good reason to head home with her.
During the first leg of the Illinois sojourn, we attended a family reunion in northwestern Illinois, the stomping grounds of the maternal side of my family. This town has the distinction of being The Hog Capital of the World, or so it designates itself. The high population of hogs in Henry County is celebrated with great jubilation every Labor Day weekend during Hog Days. The festival is replete with many noteworthy events including a 4 mile road race which attracts many local runners (I ran in this, and posted one of my better times as a middle-aged hobbyjogger), a "Hogatta Regatta" (races with remote-controlled model boats, not a crew race), and a beauty pageant. The winners of the pageant were formerly known as the "Pork Princess" or the"Pork Queen" but due to the sensitivities of the corn fed yet svelte contestants, I believe the titles have been changed to the more bland 'Royalty." A true highlight of Hog Days is the featured cuisine, namely barbecued pork sandwiches which are washed down nicely with a cold lemon shake-up.
We arrived at the Hog Capital of the World about three weeks or so before Hog Days, so we missed the Hogtacular Experience and those delicious pork sandwiches. Nonetheless, the family reunion had much to offer. It was great to see my aunts and various cousins, and sample classic Midwestern delicacies such as baked bean casserole, creamed corn casserole, generic canned food casserole and finally, a toxically sweet blueberry cobbler. Not a diet soda was to be found in the cooler, but instead, can after can of cherry cola and Mountain Dew. There was no Budweiser or Old Style buried in the cooler. The park where the reunion was taking place was dry, and with the lingering Presbyterian/Methodist heritage of my family, they aren't a bunch of big drinkers although they have moved well enough beyond prohibitionist Protestant orthodoxy to tipple the occasional glass of wine or beer.
There was nothing high falutin' about the reunion, and the lack of any pretension was exactly the refreshment I needed. I love living on the East Coast, and there are as many salt of the earth types out here as there are in any other region of the USA. I also relish living in college towns because there is a vibrancy about them, and I appreciate the overarching intellectuality which tends to permeate these places. However, there's a flip side to living in communities which harbor academically high octane Ivy League universities, and that is the stifling miasma of elitism and entitlement. Typically, I can hold my own in this kind of environment, but occasionally, it causes me to feel peevish. The cure for this irritability is to go back to my roots in flyover country for a healthy dose of reality and good old Midwestern earnestness.
During my second trip to the Sucker State, this time to retrieve my daughter who was now a bit further downstate than where I had left her the previous weekend, I visited a high school classmate. She left the corporate life in Connecticut to purchase, renovate, and re-open her grandfather's and father's old business which had since passed out of the family's hands. This place was a popular hang out when I was in grade school. It was within easy walking distance from the school so we would wander over for post-class refreshments. The tin ceiling with its elaborate embossed design, the marble topped soda fountain, and the glass enclosed cases for the homemade candy all stick in my memory. My friend and her sister have done a spectacular job with the renovation, retaining those memorable features, and apparently received some financial incentives from the Sucker State since their store is considered part of a downtown revitalization process. Their candy, made in the back of the store, is wonderful, but their milkshakes and malts are thick dairylicious nectar of the gods. They ship their candy in the cooler months, but one must seek out their store and the newly refurbished marble topped soda fountain for the ambosial milkshakes. Here is the link to their business:
An aside regarding the hexagonal motif on the Candy Kitchen web site: this reflects the pattern of ceramic tile floor. I note this because a scientist friend to whom I sent the link asked, "Why are they using figures of cyclohexane to advertise their business?" Har.
And speaking of science and what with all my yammerings above about pleasurable foods, excluding the generic canned food casserole, I recently heard a couple of colleagues present an overview of the link between obesity and inflammation. An obese person is in a chronic state of low grade inflammation. Adipose cells themselves release molecules called chemokines (so far, seven of these are overexpressed in adipocytes a.k.a. fat cells), most notably monocyte chemoattractant protein 1 (MCP-1). MCP-1 then recruits macrophages to white adipose tissue (WAT). Macrophages ("white blood cells," an integral part of the immune system) infiltrate WAT and release mediators of inflammation, thus fueling the smoldering inflammatory fire. This is a simple picture of a complex process, but the pro-inflammatory state of obesity appears to be a contributor to insulin resistance and to an array of cardiovascular problems.
Although the obesity-inflammation connection has been studied and out in the scientific literature for a while now, this was the first time I heard it summarized so well. Even though I am far from obese, it was nonetheless alarming, even for a moderately overweight individual, to realize that a 15 to 20 pound excess of flab might just be enticing macrophages to release inflammatory mediators albeit at a perhaps lower level. WAT is not metabolically inert, and in fact, may be regarded as an endocrine organ with effects on both peripheral tissues and the central nervous system. All the more reason to for me keep on perambulatin', and make those pleasurable foods like hometown milkshakes and pork sandwiches occasional treats.