Bishop Hill Beef Roast

Oh, I don’t think this is from Bishop Hill at all.

The colony church. By Kepper66, on Wikimedia Commons (CC license).

Bishop Hill, Illinois is a small town about 40 miles Southeast of East Moline. To explain why a recipe that probably isn’t from there would be named after it, we need to talk about Bishop Hill. And to explain that, we need to start in 19th century Sweden.

Eric Jansson was born on a farm near the parish of Biskopskulla, Sweden in 1808. He developed a belief that God had cured him of his childhood rheumatism in an instant by giving him a religious vision. This started Jansson down a path of religious exploration and revelation that, by 1844, had him professing to be a prophet of God, preaching that anyone could be delivered from sin and suffering by following a life of biblical devotion.

This was a problem for the Church of Sweden, a state-endorsed Lutheran institution. The crux of Jansson’s doctrine–that living by Biblical principles could deliver you into a state of grace on Earth–was heretical to the Lutheran belief that perfect grace only existed in the next life.

Jansson worked selling flour, traveling from farm to farm and preaching his doctrines. His followers, the Janssonites, were hounded for heresy and for not permitting their children to attend schools, which all taught Lutheran doctrines at the time. Jansson was arrested six times; the last time, in 1845, he got free and skied into Norway.

He convinced his followers, numbering somewhere around 1,200 to 1,500, to follow him to the United States. Some died in transit; some chose to stay in New York; and when they finally arrived at their destination, sixty acres of land in Henry County, Illinois, some people found the conditions too hard and left within the first year. Jansson named the colony Bishop Hill, the English translation of the place he grew up.

The followers who remained viewed Jansson as a divine messenger and followed his will to the letter, including surrendering their personal property and living as a commune. When they had food shortages, Jansson would declare that God had imposed a fast on the faithful. But after the first year, the Janssonites built stone homes, made their own bricks, planted flax, and made textiles for sale.

Families would live in one room and eat in a dining hall where men and women were segregated. Their food, as you might imagine, was not particularly extravagant, and it wasn’t even especially Swedish. They did eat beef, at the rate of a cow per week; they also ate pork, gruel, bread made with pumpkin meal, fruit, and a low-alcohol form of beer. Still, they probably didn’t eat anything quite like this. Jansson’s doctrines were not particularly oriented to pleasure–for example, he felt that musical instruments were the work of the devil.

Part of what made the colony so successful is that they were more interested in being Swedish-Americans than they were in being Swedish. They rapidly adopted American farming tools and techniques, kept court records in both Swedish and English, and only used English in the colony school, with the idea that their children would have no particular need to remember the language of the country that drove them out. So while they were driven by a religious fervor, they didn’t hesitate to interact with the outside world and adopt its ways.

The steeple building in Bishop Hill, photographed in 1976. Notice the one-handed clock faces. By Roger Wollstadt, on Flickr (CC license).

In 1848, John Root came to Bishop Hill. Born in Sweden and well-educated, Root had come to the United States years earlier and had fought in the Mexican-American war. He was a strange mirror of Jansson in some ways: both were intense and well-spoken, but the time Jansson had devoted to religious exploration, Root had spent on adventures, working variously as a hired gun, a translator, or a hunter. He was from a well-heeled family, but nobody really knows why he left Sweden in the first place.

Root was welcomed to the colony and quickly fell in love with Charlotta Jansson, Eric’s cousin. Whether it was the speed of the courtship or the recency of his conversion, Eric Jansson approved of the marriage only under a special contractual condition: that if Root ever wanted to leave the colony, Charlotta would have the option of remaining (essentially, promising a divorce).

Life in Bishop Hill was not precisely suited to Root’s taste, as anyone could have predicted. Apart from the twice-daily devotionals (three times on Sundays) when it wasn’t harvest season, it was expected that able-bodied males would take on some physical job connected to the communal textile business. Root had no interest, working as a hunter, tracker, or translator depending on his whim, leaving for weeks at a time. During one such job, his wife gave birth to a child.

Upon returning, Root wanted his wife and child to leave with him, but Charlotta wasn’t interested. Twice, root kidnapped her and the child; twice, colonists brought her back. After the second time, Root managed to bring a mob to the colony and threaten to burn it to the ground (telling them, in essence, that a veteran’s wife had been kidnapped by communists, which was one way to look at it, I suppose). Neighbors came to the defense of the colony.

On May 13, 1850, Jansson had to appear in Cambridge, Illinois, the county seat, as the colony’s legal representative for a number of cases. As it happens, Root was there as the plaintiff in a trespassing case. At the lunch recess, Root called Jansson’s name from a doorway. Jansson turned and was shot twice, dying there in the courthouse.

Root would be indicted for murder the same day, but was ultimately convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison in 1851–before being pardoned by the governor in 1852, serving only half his sentence. (Precisely why is hard to say, but remember that it was only six years before the death of Jansson that people suspicious of the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo had killed Joseph Smith and his brother while they were awaiting trial for the destruction of a newspaper’s offices.)

But for all of that, Root died soon after his release from injuries sustained in a saloon fight. He lingered for a few days before dying, and sent for a Methodist minister, at the end.

Without Jansson’s charismatic leadership, Bishop Hill moved to a somewhat more democratic form of leadership, but remained a functioning communal society until 1861, and even sent a company to fight in the civil war. Once a court case over the division of the communal property was resolved, the followers moved into other religious traditions, becoming Methodists, Shakers, and even Seventh Day Adventists. But Bishop Hill retained its quintessentially Swedish character.

Today, about 130 people still live in Bishop Hill, where four surviving original buildings are a national historic landmark. The most visible of these is the steeple, with four clock faces, each only having one hand. As the story goes, this is because the Janssonites measured work by the hour, never by the minute; but as a practical matter, it’s far easier to construct a clock with one hand than it is to make one with two.

For such a small community, Bishop Hill is lucky to have four places to eat, and two of them could easily have served something like this in the last 50 years. Here are the advertisements for the most likely candidates from this year’s Bishop Hill tourism brochure:

Don’t be fooled by the “questionable service” in The Filling Station’s advertisement–it just means that it’s true family style, which is to say that, if you want a cup of coffee, you have to get it yourself. P.L. Johnson’s serves many classic Swedish favorites, including Swedish meatballs. But traditional Swedish meatballs, svenska kottbullar, wouldn’t be made with mushrooms (not that you’d offend anybody by adding them, but it’s just not part of the recipe). P.L. Johnson’s doesn’t appear to, either.

So my guess is that nobody in Bishop Hill made a recipe like this, and it was merely called Bishop Hill to evoke images of what people considered Swedish meatballs in the 1960s. Like this version from the January 16, 1964 edition of The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press:

Meatballs Ala Sweden Bound To Be Praised

Here’s a recipe for Swedish meatballs that will be praised by family and guests.

Swedish Meatballs

1 pound lean ground chuck
1/2 cup California Dip
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 cup soft bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon butter or shortening
1 (1-1/2 ounce) envelope cream of mushroom soup mix
2-1/4 cups cold water

  1. Blend together meat, California dip, egg, bread crumbs, allspice and nutmeg. Shape into 1″ balls.
  2. Blend flour and paprika, then roll meat balls in this flour.
  3. In large skillet melt butter or shortening; brown meat balls.
  4. Meanwhile, empty soup mix in bowl, blend in water. Pour over meat balls. Cover and simmer 10-15 minutes. Makes 4 servings. Nice to serve over rice.

If you don’t know where the onion soup mix is in this recipe, then perhaps you need to revisit the post for beef and mushroom casserole or saute from Sun City, Arizona, where we learned how to make California Dip.

In fact, in that entry we posted a recipe that’s basically identical to this one, when we were speculating what that recipe was for. Here it is again, from the from the August 18, 1972 edition of the Oskaloosa (Iowa) Daily Herald:

Easy Beef Roast
Mrs. Carmen Phillippe

4 pound roast
1 can mushroom soup
2 envelopes onion soup mix

Take a large piece of aluminum foil. Place one envelope onion soup mix in center. Place roast on top. Add the can of mushroom soup, then another envelope of mushroom soup mix. Wrap securely, but loosely, so juices do not escape. Bake in 300 degree oven, 1 hour per pound of meat.

Now, beef stroganoff has mushrooms, and like Swedish meatballs, it’s served over buttered noodles; so why pin this on Bishop Hill? I’m guessing it was the closest frame of reference the author had. Probably aren’t too many Russian colonies near East Moline, I’d guess.

From a box sold in East Moline, Illinois.

Bishop Hill Bef Roast

1 arm chuck roast
1 pkg. dry onion soup mix
1 can mushroom soup

Wrap in foil–place in pan.

Bake at 275 deg. for 5 hours.

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