Any sentence containing the words “Wisconsin” and “food” should probably contain “cheese” as well. Wisconsinites are not called “cheeseheads” for nothing. When scouring the state for what is unique about Wisconsin’s regional cuisine, it’s hard to avoid cheese; it’s everywhere. Of course, other states have cheese producers as well but the amount of artisanal and farmstead cheese being made in Wisconsin is impressive. There are about 600 types of cheese made in Wisconsin, and it’s the only state in the U.S. to require cheese makers to acquire a license and do extensive apprenticeship training before selling their cheese. They are very, very serious about cheese. And we are glad.
It Starts with Curds
Wisconsin cheese lovers are obsessed with cheese curds. They head to their local cheesemaker at 8:00 in the morning to get the freshest cheese curds possible, so fresh they squeak when you bite into them. (The squeak is the result of the resistance from interlocking proteins which are broken down by lactic acid after a few hours.) In this dedication to freshness they resemble Neapolitans going to market for fresh bufala mozzerella first thing in the morning. Rennards, an artisan cheese factory near Door County begins their production process at midnight to ensure fresh curds go out every morning to their customers. In restaurants, the cheese curds are usually tossed in a beer batter (or course) and fried to be served as appetizers. When fried they are a symphony of textures– crispy, chewy, yet giving and a bit stretchy, more salty and not as dense or gooey as mozzerella sticks–and they make an outstanding poutine.
Speaking of Rennards, they sell a cheddar, aged 10 years, that is a powerhouse of flavor, as well as a 2 yr. aged bandage cheddar. Bandaging involves wrapping cheese in cheese cloth and sealing it with fat. The molds that form around the bandage give the cheese it’s distinctive flavor, which in this case includes buttery and fruity notes. Rennards is still making cheese by hand, although they produce about 3.4 million lbs. per year.
For real cheese nerds, Fromagination in Madison is like Christmas morning. Among the Wisconsin artisan cheeses, you can taste the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a nutty, grassy, raw milk cheese that is the most awarded cheese in U.S. history and the creamy, nutty, Marieke Gouda Mature, a 2013 world champion that’s aged on planks of Dutch pine that absorb liquid. After sampling should you still have a desire for more cheese, the beer cheese soup is a Wisconsin staple, combining two things Wisconsin is best known for (besides the Packers). The Old-Fashioned in Madison has a good beer cheese soup.
Settling the Controversy over Beer Brats
Cheese is not the only thing for which Wisconsin is known. German immigrants brought their sausages with them from the old country and it’s the Bratwurst (cooked in beer naturally) that has survived and flourished as the all purpose tailgate/outdoor barbecue staple. But alas, the good folks of Wisconsin argue endlessly about the proper way to cook beer brats. Do you cook them in beer first and then brown on the grill? Or do you brown them first and then cook them in beer? A tour of the Internet will show you there is no real consensus so I did my own test. Starting with genuine Sheboygan Brats I grilled one group first until brown and then gently simmered them in a good lager with onions, mustard and a bay leaf. The second group was simmered first for about 15 minutes in a fresh pot with identical ingredients and then browned on the grill. [Do not poke holes in your sausage, and simmer them them gently so the skin remains intact] The results were—equivocal. The brats that were grilled first and then simmered were drier and the skin was not as crispy as I would like. But they developed complex flavor as the onions, beer and mustard seemed to influence the flavors of the meat. The brats that were simmered first and then grilled were more moist with crispy skin but the flavor was more “porky” and less complex. If I lived in Wisconsin I would experiment with cooking times, temperatures and quantities to see if I can build more complexity in the “simmer first” method. And by the way, always use genuine brat buns if you can find them, not hot dog rolls. There is a huge difference; the brat buns have a crisp crust with a soft crumb. They are more substantial than a hot dog bun and will not fall apart under the onslaught of fat that bursts from the sausage as you bite into it.
Butter Burgers are a Revelation
If you’re concerned with cholesterol you might want to skip this. But in Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee, they slather a “glop” of butter on a toasted hamburger bun, slap a patty with melted cheese on the bun, top with grilled onions and serve. When I first heard of this I dismissed it as a gimmick but when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be good? The butter melts into meat and onions, and comes streaming down the side of the bun puddling on the bottom of the plate, turning ordinary ground beef into the most glorious mouthful of fat you have ever eaten. Solly’s Grille, along with Kroll’s Diner, made these famous in the 1930’s and they are now an institution. I watched carefully to see how much butter they used. It was indeed a “glop”—it looked to be about 4-5 tablespoons, and I’m sure they mix more butter into the meat while making the patty. Leave it to Wisconsin to figure out how to get more dairy products on your plate. At any rate, Solly’s has a full menu of items to chose from, but on a busy weekday at lunch I didn’t see anyone order anything but butter burgers (except for my wife who was sensible enough to order a BLT).
Fish Boils and Fish Frys
After butter burgers, brats and cheese I feel the call of something that swims. As you move up into Door County on the shores of Lake Michigan fish boils become a thing. I must admit that boiled fish doesn’t sound exciting. But in fact it’s quite tasty and the accompanying show mildly entertaining. Fish boils are a Great Lakes tradition originating apparently with early Scandinavian settlers who needed a way of serving the local catch to large groups. They are now a tourist attraction.
At Pelletier’s, a restaurant in Fish Creek specializing in fish boils, patrons buy drinks at the bar and then go outside to stand around the fire pit to witness the fish boil. The so-called “boilmaster” brings salted water to a boil over an outdoor, open fire pit and adds red potatoes to the pot. Several minutes later onions are then added and when the vegetables are nearly cooked, large chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish, skin and bones included, are lowered into the boiling water. About 1/2 lb. of salt per gallon of water is used. The salt raises the specific gravity of the water thus allowing the oils from the fish to float to the top of the pot as the fish cooks. After about 10 minutes, when the “boilmaster” determines the time is right, he warns the crowd to stand aside, and douses the fire with kerosene causing the flame to spike and the water containing the oils to boil over leaving a clear broth behind.The basket containing the fish and vegetables is pulled from the pot and the patrons head to the dining room as the boiled food is whisked away to be plated and served along with a selection of side dishes and salads with a finale of Door County cherry pie. The fish is drizzled with lemon juice and butter.
The fish and potatoes are actually quite good if you don’t mind poking through whitefish looking for the ubiquitous small bones. If you’re fascinated by conflagrations and cheap theatrics this might even be exciting; it does beat listening to bad music and jawing with a surly waitress while you’re waiting for food to be served. Cheap thrills have their place. As far as I can tell, the only skill a “boilmaster” needs is the ability to keep on schedule, chat up the customers, and not set the house on fire. All worthy skills to be sure but mastery seems a bit of hyperbole.
As to the Fish Fry, this is also a long-standing Wisconsin tradition again started by European immigrants, often Catholic, who wanted to avoid meat on Fridays. Today, it seems like almost every restaurant in Wisconsin serves fried fish on Fridays. It’s just perch in a light batter, deep fried, and served with fries and coleslaw. Many restaurants use cod since fish stocks in the Great Lakes are being depleted but lake perch is the more authentic version. At Fred and Fuzzy’s in Sister Bay, the view of the lake was lovely, the beer was cold, the fish—meh. It’s just fried fish fingers dipped in tartar sauce.
The Wisconsin Supper Club
Of all the food experiences we had in Wisconsin, the Supper Club seemed the most authentic. Wisconsin Supper Club’s are independently-owned restaurants that serve traditional, yet high quality, made-from-scratch dishes. The menu options are often limited, the décor retro, and supper clubs are typically found in rural areas although I did notice some in cities as well. What makes supper clubs distinctive is that patrons spend the whole evening there. They come early for a drink and socialize with other patrons at the bar with interactions extending beyond the people you came in with. At some point they will place their order with the wait staff and when their food is nearly ready are escorted to their table. After dinner they return to the bar for more drinks (especially a boozy ice cream-based drink) and socializing. It’s all very slow-paced and communal.
Our meal at Gibbs on the Lake near Kewaunee was delicious. Since we weren’t locals and tend to be anti-social we skipped the bar routine, although I did start dinner with the canonical Wisconsin cocktail—the sweet old fashioned. During prohibition you had to drink what you could find which often wasn’t very good. So people started adding sugar, soda, and fruit to their cocktails and the sweet old fashioned was born. It’s probably the most popular drink at supper clubs. As for dinner, the poutine made with local cheese curds, and a mushroom gravy was outstanding. The lasagna of house-made noodles, beef, Italian sausage, spinach and 4 cheeses was as good as it gets. The broasted chicken was moist and without grease. (Broasting is common in Wisconsin. It’s a method of cooking requiring special equipment in which the chicken is coated in batter and deep fried under pressure which prevents the oil from penetrating the batter.)
Supper clubs are a throwback, their menus and ambiance deeply influenced by tradition. But their recipes and preparations are updated to reflect contemporary tastes. A lasagna from 1955 would not have been made with four cheeses and spinach. Some attempts to preserve tradition can be kitschy and merely nostalgic but the supper club seems not only authentic but a vibrant part of social life in Wisconsin.
The Remnants of Tradition
Two other Wisconsin food traditions are worth mentioning. We have encountered pasties throughout the upper midwest and Wisconsin is no exception. Pasties are shortcrust pastries in the shape of a semi-circle filled with meat, potatoes, and in Wisconsin rutabaga, and then baked. They allegedly hail from Cornwall, Ireland and were brought here by Irish immigrants although there is much debate about their origin. At any rate, I keep trying them, this time traveling about an hour to the Red Rooster Café in Mineral Point which has a reputation for making authentic versions. I just don’t get it. The filling has little flavor, the crust is a bit tough, and they’re served with ordinary red chili sauce. That’s a meh.
And then there is Booyah. Booyah is a meat and vegetable stew, of Belgian origins, that has been a traditional staple of fairs and church picnics in the Upper Midwest. It’s usually made in huge kettles to serve multitudes and can take two days to prepare if the quantities are large enough. Chicken, beef bones and oxtail are simmered until the meat can be deboned. Then beans, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and onions are added according to schedule along with seasonings. It’s very similar to Brunswick Stew although ingredients differ according to region. I tracked down Booyah at The Rite Place in Green Bay. It’s just an ordinary homemade chicken and vegetable soup, warming and satisfying, but nothing I crave.
Some foods you just have to grow up with to appreciate. Their virtues are tied to memory and identity rather than intrinsic flavor.
After all this research into local traditions, it’s liberating to dine on food on the cutting edge. Chef Justin Aprahamian’s tasting menu at Sanford’s in Milwaukee is highly recommended. After fried fish, a cucumber/sorrel gazpacho with sea scallop has a certain appeal.