A Cheesehead Ripens: What It Means to Be ‘From Wisconsin’

With so many different ways of life contained within our state’s boundaries, what does being a Wisconsinite really mean?

Being from Wisconsin, I have lately been reconsidering the phrase “Being from Wisconsin.”


Not renouncing.

I’m still a cheesehead. Happily, goofily so. I’ve heard the nickname disparaged as undignified, but so am I. Have you seen me in my size XXXL blaze orange hunting cap with the earflaps set for final approach? If you’re really bothered by the terminology, go with cheddarhead, which I reserve for formal occasions. I haven’t just eaten my way into the moniker; back in the day, I earned it, lugging pail after pail of Grade B milk fresh from our cows to the cooler, where can by can it began its journey to life as a slice. We milked those cows in a little red barn across the yard from a white farmhouse, the whole works neatly set between fields of green.

For years, that postcard image was my Wisconsin. In my memory – and the memories of many – it still is. It is why, if I stand before any given audience in any given rural Wisconsin library or Legion Hall or (just this week) the local fire hall and utter the phrase, “Never stand behind a sneezing cow,” you’ll not only hear a lot of laughs, you’ll see many vigorous nods of affirmation, because if you grew up like the head-nodders you know that in a sneezing situation, the rear end of a cow is likely to launch what might best politely be described as organic artillery. (An old farmer once approached me after an event to tell me cows don’t sneeze, they cough. As a former farmboy, I admit he was right, but as a humorist, I stand by the fact that “sneezing cow” gets a whole bunch more laughs than “coughing cow.”)

I don’t know how I would compare to other born-and-raised Wisconsinites, but for the first two decades of my life I didn’t get around the state much. A few trips south each year to buy shoes in Chippewa Falls, or visit grandma in Eau Claire, where we marveled at the four-lane boulevard and the stoplights and the neon bowling alley sign upon which the bowling ball actually moved and the pins actually fell. There was a yearly church gathering over by Menomonie, and we attended gospel meetings up in Rice Lake. In my teens I accompanied my Mom to the university hospital in Madison where my little sister underwent heart surgeries. I also recall a trip to the state capital with the high school forensics team, prior to which my teenaged buddies and I leaned against our pickup trucks and advised each other knowingly and manfully about the “hookers” on State Street, our dumb innocence rivaled only by our dumb ignorance, especially since the only firsthand hooking experience we possessed at that point came courtesy of bluegills off the dock at Axehandle Lake. As for Milwaukee, it existed only in the form of County Stadium on the radio, and was populated with citizens surnamed Lezcano, Vuckovich, Cooper, Molitor, Gantner, Yount, Thomas, Hisle and Bando. I remember cleaning the sheep barn, pausing as I forked the eye-watering ammonia-laced manure into the spreader to celebrate as Ben Oglivie sent another home run over the wall. It was also my understanding that other than Walter’s and Leinenkugel’s, Milwaukee was where beer was from. And in a subcategory of Milwaukee baseball and brewing, from a very early age I memorized the joke that culminates in the punchline: “That’s the beer that made Mel Famy walk us.”

In my teens and early 20s I departed the farm and began to travel; a few western states, all over Europe. A fishing foray into Canada. Eventually, Central America. When someone asked me where I was from, I was happy to say Wisconsin, happy to nod when they grinned and said, “You’re a cheesehead!” happy to describe our beloved curds (squeaky or deep-fried, two versions of the same heaven), and happy to do the bit about sneezing cows. Tell them about red barns and green fields. By then I knew “my” Wisconsin wasn’t all of Wisconsin, but those images still remained foremost in my mind. Then in the year 2000 I received my copy of the local phone book, the cover of which featured a beautiful stylized rendition of a red-barned farm just like the one I grew up on. In that instant I realized the image belonged far more to the past than the present. This was followed a few years later by the great Wisconsin quarter controversy, in which various factions quarreled over the images best suited to represent our state. As I wrote in an essay at the time, “Both sides were proud to be from Wisconsin. They weren’t so sure they were proud to be from the other guy’s Wisconsin.” In that same essay I described driving through the heart of Milwaukee and trying to draw a thread from that Wisconsin to “my” Wisconsin.

Re-reading that piece today, I hear myself re-examining my red barn reveries, but tones of blindered blitheness persist. Benign or otherwise, we are all provincialists. I like to say I am from Northern Wisconsin when in fact many of my friends in the wood products industry insist that region doesn’t commence until you cross to the Canadian side of Highway 8. Certainly my claim would make the folks in Mellen or Superior roll their eyes. And even after all these years, every time work takes me to Bayfield or to the Lake Michigan coast, I am always a little startled to be reminded of Wisconsin’s maritime history. Furthermore, time and marriage regularly place me at family reunions with relatives and fellow citizens born in Panama and Ecuador where we eat homemade ceviche whilst roasting the bratwurst. At these times I am reminded of my childhood neighbors, two hardworking and neighborly Norwegian bachelors who spoke with heavy accents and subscribed to a Norwegian-language newspaper, which somehow we did not find suspicious.

Over the past couple of election cycles I have been in receipt of various forms of correspondence best summarized as “What are you people in Wisconsin thinking?” As if A) we were all thinking the same thing, and B) that kind of comment is of any help at all. This is a fractious age, to put it politely. The days of friendly regional needling seem tenuous at best, every hair-trigger sensitivity countered with chest-thumping bravado-barf. Experience has taught me that even an essay as innocuous as this precipitates an onslaught of comments accusing me of idiocy, weakness, and ignorance, to which I flare up and respond: “Well, I coulda toldja that.”

Being from Wisconsin for over half a century now, I am still grateful to be from here. Happy to shoot, butcher and compose my own venison sausage, then enjoy it with a side of arroz con frijoles, just the way mi cuñado taught me. Still happy to call myself a cheesehead, but also happy to let my perception of that term evolve along with reality. I’m not interested in leaving my fingernails embedded in the past. I still enjoy telling that sneezing cow story, but I tell it with Milwaukee in mind. Calibration, not capitulation. If, one day, I do depart the state, it may well be for simpler reasons. Right now off our dead-end road it is 14 degrees below-zero and I have just crawled under the plow truck to attach the oil pan heater. The snow is still melting down my neck and I am thinking one day it might be just fine to say, “Being from Panama…” ◆

‘A Cheesehead Ripens’ appears in the March issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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