16 Things Every Wisconsinite Needs to Know

It’s more than just an address. In order to earn your Sconnie card, there is a certain body of knowledge that you need to possess. Use this as a crash course to bring yourself up to speed.

1. A fish fry is a required culinary experience at least once a year.
The rise of the Wisconsin Friday fish fry benefited from the perfect storm of Catholicism’s former no-meat-on-Friday rule, Midwesterners’ penchant for community, a Great Lake full of fish, and the fact that tartar sauce is an amazing condiment.

It may not adhere to nutritional guidelines, or still feature fish strictly from Lake Michigan, but a fish fry is a true taste of Wisconsin. It’s a part of our culture, and you must partake.

“Steeped in tradition, the fish fry is a culinary feast that can feed an entire family on a working man’s wages,” says Russ Klisch, co-founder of Lakefront Brewery. “It’s about relaxing in a comfortable setting that lets the work of the week off your shoulders.”

It’s really hard to find a bad fish fry. But look for one that offers choices besides cod and haddock.

The lively Friday feast at Lakefront also includes walleye, perch and smelt (fried whole and not for everyone). It also features a polka band and communal seating, which is really what the experience is all about.

2. A Fat Boy isn’t a fellow who eats too many Twinkies.
Model Year 2014, MY14, Model Year 14, 2014, Fat Boy, SoftailThere’s a specific language that surrounds Harley-Davidson and its iconic motorcycles. Bill Jackson, archives and heritage services manager for Harley-Davidson, explains the origin of three of the most well-known monikers.

Fat Boy: ➞ “This term is inspired by the fat look of the bike from every angle – tanks, forks, tires, etc.”
Hog: ➞ No sure derivation, but: “In about 1920, the Harley-Davidson racing team had a pig as a mascot.” And “sports reporters would often write that the Harley racing team was ‘hogging’ all of the victories.”
Softail: ➞ “Designates the platform of bikes with shock absorbers out of view, underneath the transmission. This is meant to contrast from the antiques… with no rear shocks… commonly referred to as ‘hardtails.’”

3. The difference between frozen custard and ice cream
The addition of egg yolks and the fact that less air is whipped into it makes frozen custard richer and creamier than ice cream. The fad started on Coney Island and later died out – but it survives here, says Tom Linscott, co-owner of Gilles Frozen Custard (7515 W. Bluemound Rd.).

Polish Fest. Photo by Rebecca Kames.
Polish Fest. Photo by Rebecca Kames.

4. Summer lasts two months.
That’s not much of an exaggeration. According to data from The Weather Channel, the highs in June average a paltry 80 degrees, but the lows can still hover around 58, which is hardly balmy. July and August pay off with average highs in the mid-80s.

What does this all mean? It’s the reason your neighbor dons ill-fitting shorts when it first turns 50, and why we cram 15,237 festivals into summer. It’s a defense mechanism. Unlike those softies who live in more temperate climes, Wisconsinites appreciate what little warm weather we get. Thoughts of sun and any temperature above 40 help get us through February.

5. And winter lasts 10 months.
That’s why it’s best to embrace it. Cross-country skiing burns between 400 and 700 calories an hour. It’s a total-body workout that’s easy on the joints. According to the Wisconsin DNR, there are 700 miles of groomed cross-country trails in state parks, trails and forests. Brown Deer, Whitnall and Minooka parks also have groomed trails. Need to learn how? Ask the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee. “We can teach you,” says club secretary Paula Brookmire. “You also can get lessons on Tuesday nights during ski season at Lapham Peak State Forest, which has lighted ski trails Monday through Saturday.” And the Urban Ecology Center can loan you skis, boots and poles at each of its three Milwaukee locations.

6. How to appreciate and properly eat at a supper club

Supper clubs started popping up in the 1930s, according to Ron Faiola, author of Wisconsin Supper Clubs and Wisconsin Supper Clubs: Another Round. Thankfully, we still have good ones left. “We have a friendly food culture,” explains Faiola. “It’s a perfect combination that led up to… lots of supper clubs¬ — you’d see friends, it’s where everyone met, and the food and the atmosphere were both popular. Each supper club has unique character.” As any good Wisconsinite knows, a supper club menu requires skillful navigation. Start at the bar with a brandy (not whiskey) old fashioned, then follow these pointers, and prepare to be stuffed.

➞ Be careful with the relish tray: Free veggies take up stomach space. Still, Faiola highlights an upside to the starters: “The relish tray is something healthy to snack on while you’re deciding how big a cut of meat you’re going to get.”
➞ Order prime rib. You rarely go wrong with any entrée, but rich and flavorful prime rib is what it’s all about. And order early, because the restaurant could run out.
➞ If you see twice-baked or au gratin potatoes on the menu, get them. The potato is an exceptional vehicle for cheese, sour cream and butter.
➞ Finish with a grasshopper or brandy Alexander – dessert and after-dinner drink all in one.

Tailgating outside Miller Park. Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers.
Tailgating outside Miller Park. Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers.

7. How to tailgate a Brewers game vs. a Packers game
The true Brewers or Packers experience isn’t complete without an hour or two of tailgating, and most Wisconsinites are savvy veterans in the pregame parking lot. Just be aware of the nuanced differences of each.

Miller Park
Food: Brats, summer sausage, assorted mayonnaise-based salads
Beverages: Miller Lite and High Life, vodka lemonade (or some derivative)
Must-haves: Baseball cap, baseball glove, patience
Parking lot discussions:
➞ Who will win the sausage race
➞ How good the farm system looks
➞ Robin Yount

Lambeau Field
Food: Brats, venison sausage, cheeses
Beverages: Miller Lite and High Life, bloody marys, brandy, coffee
Must-haves: Stocking cap, winter gloves, a football
Parking lot discussions:
➞ The current state of the Packers’ offense
➞ Why the Bears still suck
➞ Super Bowls I, II, XXXI, XLV and LI*
➞ *not Super Bowl XXXII

8. How to cook brats.

Andy Fronek, owner of Milwaukee Brat House (1013 N. Old World Third St.), recommends Usinger’s brats, though there are plenty of other respected names. His directions: Boil sausages in Old Milwaukee beer, minced garlic and diced onion, and simmer a half-hour. Then grill briefly until “marked” and serve on a pretzel roll. Head chef Craig Mastalir calls the grilling “adding a little flamage.”

9. How to dress for a formal event in the winter
Brutal weather calls for more function, less fashion. But there are those occasions that call for formality and glamour. Here are tips from Kathleen Crocker, who’s done her share of dressing up as past chair of the board for the Milwaukee Ballet:
➞ Curate a closet full of coats so you have plenty of options.
➞ Wear a dress, but under a long coat. Or, wide wool pants with a silky, strappy top.
➞ Get a cashmere wrap. It’s a colorful accessory and can be head protection in sleet or snow.
➞ For footwear, keep heels in a small, water-resistant tote bag; put them on when you get to your event.
➞ Valet parking and Uber are the fashionista’s best friends.

10. How to shovel snow
Also known as the Wisconsin Winter Workout. The good news: Shoveling can burn up to 600 calories an hour. The bad news: It can injure you if your form stinks. Maurice Dumit, physical therapist and owner of INVIVO (2060 N. Humboldt Ave.), provides some tips so you won’t need his services:

➞ Avoid shoveling first thing in the morning. Lumbar discs aren’t ready for the workout, so warm up with 10 minutes of light exercise.
➞ Use an ergonomic shovel. Bent-shaft shovels reduce stress on the lower back.
➞ Don’t lift with your back. Bend your knees and stagger your feet. Step to turn, and never twist.
➞ Switch sides. Switching arms and legs helps balance the forces on the spine, hips and shoulders.
➞ Stop if you’re tired. Take frequent breaks in order to avoid fatigue and bad form.
➞ Another tip not mentioned by Dumit: Hire the kid from next door.

Four fours showing at Camino on South Second Street. Photo by Rebecca Kames.
Four fours showing at Camino on South Second Street. Photo by Rebecca Kames.

11. How to play bar dice

There’s music in the distinctive rattle of five dice and the thud of a thick leather cup hitting the top of a bar. The friendly competition of bar dice has been the soundtrack to Wisconsin taverns for decades. “Bar dice connects people,” explains Casey Rataczak, owner of Camino (434 S. Second St.). “Instead of burying their face in their phone or watching the tube, they’re interacting with the crowd. Isn’t that why people should be out on the town anyway?” The goal of standard bar dice is to roll ones, which are wild, and string together as many of a like number as possible in a maximum of three shakes. Generally, the game is played with other patrons and the bartender – and the loser buys a round of drinks for the group. Rules can vary slightly depending upon location, but etiquette is universal:

Rule #1
➞ Never load an opponent’s dice cup. It’s common knowledge that the universe doles out bad luck to the recipient of a full dice cup. It’s best to kindly slide the cup and dice separately to the next player.

Rule #2
➞ Keep the dice on the bar. Aggressive rolls can send “sloppy dice” ricocheting into people’s drinks, behind the bar, etc.

Rule #3
➞ Remember your roll. It can be tough after a long night, but if you have a great shake early in a game, remember it. When people ask you, “what do I need to beat?”, it’s best to have an answer.

12. How to make an Old Fashioned

The brandy old fashioned is a Wisconsin staple and a popular libation at supper clubs, dive bars and cocktail lounges. It’s a no-nonsense mix that appeals to both beginners and cocktail veterans. Making a good one isn’t difficult, and it involves muddling — crushing and mashing fruit with a pestle — an act that appeals to our base instincts.

Fink’s (1875 N. Humboldt Ave.) has a reputation for pouring a worthy old fashioned. Here’s how they do it, according to marketing manager Steph Baghai.

➞ 1.5 ounces of brandy (Korbel is the unofficial state brandy)
➞ .25 ounces of turbinado simple syrup
➞ Angostura bitters
➞ Orange slice
➞ Luxardo cherry

Muddle the simple syrup, a couple dashes of bitters, and the orange and cherry. Add ice and brandy and mix. Top with a splash of 7UP, sour or soda. Add a cherry as garnish.

13. Driving to Chicago always takes longer than you planned.
You can get there quickly if you drive like a maniac, but otherwise it can take a ridiculously long time. Google Maps says the 97-mile trip from Veterans Park to Millennium Park typically takes between 2 hours, 20 minutes and 3 hours, 40 minutes on a Friday afternoon. The best way to avoid gridlock is to leave Milwaukee in late morning or late evening. And sometimes Highway 41 is a good choice — plus it saves you toll money. Google Maps or Waze have taken the fun out of guessing which way to go, but they can cut the trip significantly. There’s really one sure way to avoid the annoying brake lights and Illinois drivers — Take the train.

14. When to swim, and not swim, in Lake Michigan.

Bradford Beach on Milwaukee's lakefront. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Bradford Beach on Milwaukee’s lakefront. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Where to swim in Lake Michigan is a personal preference. If you like crowds, head to Bradford Beach. Want seclusion? Go to Atwater or Doctors Park. If you like to gaze at boats while baking in the sun, then South Shore Park’s beach is your thing.

But when to enter the lake requires more thought. Those who charge fearlessly into the surf in late July find out that much of the summer can be bone-chilling. “You can swim in Lake Michigan; we just have a very small window,” explains Sandra McLellan, a professor at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. “People don’t realize how awesome it is to swim in September when the lake is at peak temperature.” McLellan also suggests watching the weather. Her rule: Be cautious within 24 hours of rain. Stormwater runoff can add such treats as dog and bird waste to the water.

15. It’s perfectly normal to put butter on a burger.
Why? Because we can. And as Wisconsinites, we never miss an opportunity to add more calories.
Solly’s is legendary, Kopp’s is an institution and Culver’s has grown into a national chain. The butter burger is the delicious common denominator. The decadent burger at Solly’s Grille (4629 N. Port Washington Rd.) drips with butter that pools on the plate. Thank heaven for the power of juicy innovation.

16. ‘Badger State’ doesn’t refer to the animals.
Gayle Martinson, Wisconsin Historical Society reference librarian, says the earliest reference was an 1879 Wisconsin State Journal editorial that says it described lead miners who burrowed into hills for shelter. A 1992 study by Karel D. Bicha concluded miners likely influenced the nickname, but the exact origin is unknown. Bottom line: “Badger” somehow stuck. Incidentally, miners who migrated to the south (mainly Illinois) and returned every year were referred to as “suckers” (a reference to migratory carp) and those who prospected on Sunday were called “gophers.” So Wisconsin pretty much dodged a nickname bullet.

‘16 Things Every Wisconsinite Needs to Know’ appears in the November 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 31, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Dan Murphy has been reviewing bars for Milwaukee Magazine for roughly 20 years. He’s been doing his own independent research in them for a few years more.