My mom sewed with Butterick patterns and cooked from recipe cards – things like creamed fish on toast and Swedish meatballs. She supplemented with delights from her dog-eared edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I was 11 when she died, and one of my older brothers had taken over the cooking when she was sliding down the path of terminal illness. So when I’ve said I grew up on casseroles (ground beef was usually the foundation), it’s the truth.
But while there was nothing “gourmet” to what was served on our Formica kitchen table, there was – to my inexperienced eyes – a lot of exotica on the shelves inside our avocado-colored refrigerator. Deviled ham, jarred pimentos and pearl onions, kipper snacks (canned herring) and creamed herring packed locally by the Ma Baensch company. It was decades before I knew much about that delicacy, which had a solid foothold in Germanic Milwaukee. (Interestingly, after years of low population levels of herring in Lake Michigan, there’s been talk of late about work to restore lake herring. Baensch’s herring comes from Nova Scotia.) The dishes and foods of my formative years were probably more a product of the times (chop suey, Jell-O, Velveeta) than reflective of Wisconsin cuisine. But it was there all around me. I just didn’t know it then.
On childhood summer car trips Up North, we sometimes took the slow, indirect, scenic routes, exploring parts of the state where the soil was conducive to raising dairy or beef cattle or cultivating cranberries. We stopped at mom-and-pop ice cream parlors for a cone, and cheese “chalets” to pack the cooler with cheddar and summer sausage. And to everyone in my family’s delight, we had dinner at a supper club – I still remember the eerie one we went to that was reputedly a hangout for gangster John Dillinger. I would try to hoard all the dill pickle spears that came in the relish tray and fight with my brothers over the cellophane-wrapped breadsticks served with a crock of homemade cheese spread. (Sometimes they gave you a Bavarian cheese spread called Obatzter.) The biggest treat would have been a towering German shaum torte piled with vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce. Here was both Wisconsin’s supper club tradition and German heritage at work.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Wisconsin “cuisine” was all around me. I just had to start peeling the onion to see it. A stew of diverse ethnic traditions (from our German, Nordic, Irish, Bohemian et al ancestors) and the topography of our state and proximity to a Great Lake. Fish fries, venison sausage, kringle, cheese curds.
Food writer and Green Bay native Terese Allen uses that onion analogy so effectively to describe her immersion in Wisconsin cuisine. Reared in a family with 10 siblings, Allen describes her 1950s and ʻ60s coming-of-age as at the “crossroads of open-a-package cooking, fresh veggies and milk from nearby farms and all the ethnic traditions in Green Bay.” When she moved to the Madison area, more layers of the onion were revealed in the foraging and farm-to-table movement all over Dane County, with visible proof every week at the farmers market on Capitol Square in downtown Madison. To eat (and drink) like a Wisconsinite means so many things – products made, grown, fished, brewed, foraged, fermented or hunted locally; traditions brought by immigrants and passed down. And thrifty immigrants, I might add, who loved to sit down to a meal together. There’s no Wisconsin cuisine without that German spirit of geniality or gregariousness known as Gemütlichkeit. You’ll see it everywhere from fish fries and boils to beer halls. Maybe it took a path of Velveeta, Tang (!) and Jell-O molds to get me where I needed to be.
1 Supper Clubs
Ron Faiola, Wisconsin’s foremost authority on these enduring institutions, explains the history and ongoing appeal of this culinary treasure.
The allure of a Wisconsin supper club is that each one is unique, and yet you know what to expect when you visit. However, a supper club can mean something different depending on which part of the country it’s in. Its beginnings are far from the Midwest, but it’s easy to see why Wisconsin claims supper club supremacy.
Legend has it that the first one was started by Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank in Beverly Hills, California, in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely true. While Frank was from Milwaukee, the restaurant he opened in L.A. was just a ham-and-eggs diner. The actual birthplace was in the Prohibition speakeasies in NYC that offered supper in a nightclub as a cover for the real business of serving illegal booze. By the late ’30s, the concept went nationwide via Hollywood movies and on radio in the 1940s with the Chesterfield Supper Club variety show.
Wisconsin’s supper clubs started as taverns, resorts and dancehalls where fried chicken and perch were served along with a beer. Eventually these places transformed their food and decor, and as a result, the classic menu we know and love came into being: Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib, Sunday broasted chicken and ribs. Plus relish trays, cheese and crackers at the bar and the undisputed cocktail: a hand-muddled brandy old fashioned.
But it’s not only the food that draws people back. Plenty of nostalgia is served up with each visit: memories of dressing up for dinner and having your first kiddie cocktail, or going to a high school prom, a graduation, an anniversary or a birthday.
It also helps that every supper club is steeped in history, with stories of misfortune, serendipity and mischievous ghosts. It’s fun to imagine that the walls could talk or to go back in time when lobster was a couple bucks and drinks were a quarter. This type of restaurant feeds the soul like no other, and we’re fortunate to have many exceptional supper clubs scattered around the state.
Ron’s Picks: Five Great Supper Clubs
1 Buckhorn Supper Club
With a view of Lake Koshkonong, it’s my favorite for prime rib and homemade desserts. Make sure to attend one of their popular lobster boils starting in May.
2 Colony House
The spot for shrimp de Jonghe. The Friday fish fry pulls out the fin stops, with smelt, baby walleye and bluegill, as well as perch.
3 Copper Dock
Ask for a table near the windows facing charming Friess Lake and make a res early enough to watch the magical sunset. Daily all-you-can-eat specials include Friday fish fry, prime rib on Saturday and snow crab on Wednesday.
A retro rendezvous since 1954. It’s hard to decide which sight is better – the window view of our Great Lake or the dining room that takes flamboyance to a Liberace level. Start with oysters Rockefeller followed by steak au poivre or broiled whitefish.
5 Jackson Grill
Steaks are the star at this cozy club in Burnham Park. Try the 16-ounce “saloon” steak with a grilled Portobello mushroom cap. Finish at the bar with a Jackson Grill snifter.
Some think it’s a bizarre Wisconsin tradition to sit down to a meal of hot
ham and rolls after church on Sunday. Bizarre? No! Delicious? Yes! The genius hack of wrapping the thinly sliced, baked or boiled deli ham in foil-lined packaging keeps it warm on the way home. The sandwich bread is, conventionally, a crusty “hard” roll – the German Kaiser roll, oftentimes. (Some folks like them with mayo or mustard.) Three ham-and-roll must-stops:
1100 E. Oklahoma Ave.
Wisconsin-made Badger ham is the attraction here. The deal is one you’ll often see: Buy a pound of meat and get six gratis rolls. Sun. 7 a.m.-1 p.m.
1011 E. Brady St.
With a bound of boiled ham from the deli, they give you six free crisp-light Italian rolls made by nearby Peter Sciortino Bakery. Sun. 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Iron Grate BBQ
4125 S. Howell Ave.
Not your average deli ham sandwich here. Chef/owner Aaron Patin hickory-smokes his ham and offers it by the pound along with Texas toast. Sun. 8-11 a.m.
3 Cannibal Sandwich
You might know it by its fancy name, steak tartare. Raw ground beef served open-faced on rye bread is still a tradition, particularly during the holidays. The origins of this fleshy (dare we say) delight date to the 19th century, in German and Polish communities, but other ethnic groups serve variations of it. In the old days, home cooks would grind the meat at home, spread it on buttered rye bread and top with raw onion – the sharpness of the onion countering the blandness of the meat. Milwaukee’s Bunzel’s Meat Market offers fresh ground sirloin every day, along with its house-baked salted rye bread. Though some folks question its safety, this sandwich has more than a cult following: Bunzel’s Jeff Zupan reports it sold 1,200-1,400 pounds of ground sirloin, just for tartare, over the 2017 holiday season.
Each week, to produce some 70 varieties of sausages, Usinger’s (1030 N. Old World Third St.) takes delivery of 700 pounds of onions and 200 pounds of garlic. “It smells great!” laughs Fritz Usinger, great-grandson of the company’s founder. “Using fresh ingredients is more cumbersome, but we try to remain as true as possible to the recipes of my great-grandfather.” The German and European heritages in Milwaukee cemented the popularity of braunschweiger and summer sausage, but Fritz says the dairy industry helped, providing veal and lean beef. Another factor helped, too: “Sausage is such an accompaniment to beer!” It was also practical, a way to preserve meat over the winter. Usinger’s produces blood sausage, head cheese and exotic varieties that require hand labor and artistry, but bratwurst is the rock star, achieving national acceptance. “I remember back when people didn’t know what it was and pronounced it brat-wurst,” says Fritz, rhyming it with fat-wurst.
5 Cook Like a Wisconsinite: Beer Cheese Soup
Recipe courtesy of chef Daniel Pope of Miller Time Pub and Grill in the Hilton Milwaukee. Substitute any amber ale or lager for the Killian’s used here. The hotel serves this rich, creamy soup garnished with chopped parsley and bacon bits.
In a large heavy- bottomed stock pot over medium heat, render 6 strips peppered bacon, roughly chopped, then add 1⁄2 lb. unsalted butter, 1⁄2 c. diced yellow onions, 1⁄4 c. diced celery and 1⁄4 c. diced carrots. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are soft and onions are clear.
Pour fat and vegetables through a cheesecloth-lined strainer to separate vegetables from fat. Squeeze veggies until dry, discard them and reserve fat. Pour fat back into stockpot.
Toast 1 c. white medium-grain rice in fat over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1 qt. Killian’s Irish Red beer, 2 qts. water, 1 t. Worcestershire sauce, 1 T. salt, 1 t. white pepper, 1 t. granulated garlic, 1⁄2 t. cayenne pepper and 1 t. Dijon mustard to the pot. Bring liquid to a simmer. Continue to simmer until rice is mushy, 30-40 minutes.
On medium heat, add 2 qts. half-and-half. Add 2 lbs. cubed Wisconsin sharp cheddar a little at a time while stirring. Once all cheese is added, blend soup in the pot using hand-held stick blender. Add 2 qts. water while blending to reach smooth consistency. Remove from heat. Serve.
While it’s now all the rage, we loved this supper club cocktail – made with brandy (natch) and topped with a maraschino cherry – long before it was cool.
7 Butter Burger
As we keep a vise grip on our belief that Seymour, Wis., was the one true place and 1885 the honest-to-god year of the hamburger’s invention, Solly’s Grille (4629 N. Port Washington Rd.) lays claim to making the first butter burger in Milwaukee in 1936 (around the time Green Bay burger joint Kroll’s introduced the same technique). Owner Glenn Fieber, whose stepfather was founder Kenneth “Solly” Salmon, says the key to the gloriously drippy burger’s longevity is “keeping the food as it was 80 years ago.” The beef is 100-percent sirloin, and a “good mounted teaspoon” of Wisconsin butter is globbed on the hot cooked patty so it “leaves a pool of butter on the plate.” Even the “mouthfeel” of the stewed onions is crucial. Imagine someone calling Solly’s to request a burger order for a dying relative. Fieber says it’s happened – and more than just once.
The year 2013 was very good to the Racine kringle. That’s when the oval-shaped Danish pastry of exponentially rich and sweet proportions earned the official title that would make a clan of badgers proud: Wisconsin’s state pastry! O&H Bakery celebrated by making a giant cream cheese-filled version shaped like our fair state. The only contestable detail is which Racine bakery makes it best. There’s 69-year-old O&H, where President Barack Obama got his fix in 2010; Lehmann’s, with locations in Racine and Sturtevant; and Bendtsen’s, oldest of them all, at 84. Whether it’s the blood sugar spike or unstoppable scrumptiousness, you can’t be mad and eat kringle.
In the mid-19th century dairying surfaced as the most viable alternative to wheat, which had dominated this state until then. Rapid dairy expansion followed. Why? Many new farmers were from New York (then a dairy behemoth), plus the University of Wisconsin heavily promoted the dairy industry. A win-win for those Holsteins!
dairy cows in the state
pounds of cheddar cheese produced in Wisconsin in 2016
cream puffs consumed at the 2017 Wisconsin State Fair
awards Wisconsin won at the U.S. Championship of Cheese Contest in 2017
2.45 billion pounds
Wisconsin’s monthly milk production
of milk it takes to make one pound of butter
Data courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture
10 The Grand Curd
Battered or breaded, whisked in and out of the deep-fryer, cheese curds are a Dairy State pride-and-joy. Here are three can’t-miss curds:
434 S. Second St.
The basket holds a half-pound of curds that were made just “350 feet away,” at Clock Shadow Creamery. Hand-breaded and fried right behind the bar, these tongue-singeing babies come with a modern sweet-pickly Russian dressing.
West Allis Cheese & Sausage
6832 W. Becher St., and Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.
A crisp batter encases these gooey, chewy balls of dairy divinity. They’ll even add beef chili to them to make … chili curds. Mmm.
Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St.
These plump battered curds are worth fighting over. Clock Shadow again provides the basis for this golden, crisp snack, served with zesty chipotle ranch.
11 Blue Moon Ice Cream
One of the biggest mysteries in all of Wisconsin food lore is who can definitively claim to have invented the Smurf-colored, enigmatically flavored Blue Moon ice cream. We choose to go with Milwaukee flavor chemist Bill “Doc” Sidon, as if not the creator of said flavor (often described as like Fruity Pebbles), at least the man who gave it wider reach beginning in the 1940s. Canvass the state and you’ll find the lip-stainer in ice cream parlors from MKE’s The Chocolate Factory to Scoops Ice Cream Shop in Chilton, which lists it as an ever-present “Sweet 16” Flavor.
12 Frozen Custard
Time was, you had to be in Badgerland to get more than soft serve (shudder) in your malt. Now that Sauk City’s own Culver’s chain carries custard across borders, even Minnesotans grasp what the heck Wisconsin’s beloved gooey stuff is. Ice cream, it ain’t.
What’s the diff? Ice cream is milk and cream with air churned into it. Custard skips the air and adds egg yolks, making it dense and creamy. Custard melts and drips on your lap faster than does its less-rich cousin.
Milwaukeeans pledge allegiance to custard brands. Glendale’s Kopp’s draws standing-room-only crowds (well, there’s nowhere to sit), Gilles was the first custard drive-in in 1938, and the lines of eager customers at Leon’s on South 27th are legendary. Leon’s son Ron Schneider says it’s not the cows but Leon’s helpful nature that grew the custard businesses in southern Wisconsin. Leon helped future competitors get in their first licks, training them and helping them buy equipment. “All the old-timers got help from him.”
Even Schneider shakes his head at how Wisconsinites will line up for butter pecan in subzero temps. “We don’t run away and hide from the weather,” he says. “Some of these really cold days, I’ve been surprised with how much business we’ve done.”
13 Spotted Cow
If there is a beer that is Wisconsin today, it is Spotted Cow. New Glarus Brewing’s farmhouse spin on a cream ale – sold only in the Badger State but often bootlegged across the border – is as ubiquitous in the state’s taverns as the frolicking bovine on the label is in its countryside.
14 Milwaukee-style Pizza
Our city’s version is modest but distinctive, defined by a cracker-thin crust and square- cut pieces. Leading purveyors:
5025 W. Forest Home Ave.
The crust on these oblong pies hangs over the edge of the baking pans. Just more crust to love! Carryout is an option at
this cash-only place, in business since 1957, but eating in the charmingly kitschy dining room is obligatory. At least once.
5010 W. Vliet St. and 1417 S. 70th St.
Where cracker-crust history began. (A plaque on a Third Ward building recognizes the original spot, which opened in 1945.) Though not run by the founders, it still adheres to tradition. Order a pie with the works.
1724 N. Farwell Ave.
This original location dates to 1954, and it’s the bomb for saltine-thin crust pieces that hold up to a toppings-palooza.
6501 W. Bluemound Rd. and 812 N. 68th St., Wauwatosa
Founder Jim Balistreri cut his teeth at the old Caradaro Club in the Third Ward. The pies here are particularly cheesy, with an exceptional pepperoni special.
842 N. Old World Third St.
Owner Gino Fazzari’s father was part of pizza history with a link to Caradaro Club. His dad opened a joint (since closed) on Bartlett Avenue in 1979. Gino follows his pop’s thin-crust lead, adding fancier toppings like prosciutto and arugula.
Wisconsin produces more than half of the world’s supply of cranberries, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray released a commercial that was filmed in Wisconsin – on a cranberry bog in Warrens. (Collective cheer!) Our state simply rules when it comes to the cranberry. Some of the best and brightest berry facts:
of cranberries are sold as fresh fruit. 95 percent are used in sauce and juice, or converted to dried fruit.
Cranberry harvest lasts from late September to the end of October.
of cranberries produced each year are consumed during Thanksgiving week.
The Algonquin tribe used the term “Sassamanash,” and early settlers called it the “crane berry” because the blossoms on the fruit resembled sandhill cranes.
Date the first Wisconsin cranberry harvest took place, in Berlin, Wis.
16 Broasted Chicken
Fried chicken has intriguing variations all over the South. In Wisconsin, we experienced a singular invention in cooking chicken back in the 1950s with the pressured-fried breaded or battered chicken, cooked in a “broaster” marketed by the Broaster Company in Beloit. What’s special about this process is it combines pressure cooking (which requires liquid and reduces cooking time) and deep-frying (which makes food crispy). When you cut into a piece of broasted chicken, the juice oozes out from under a crackly-crisp crust like no fried chicken you’ve ever had. Sheboygan is a mecca for broasted chicken (the German institution Al & Al’s is one source), with scattered examples in Milwaukee (Filippo’s on 124th and Champion Chicken on 87th and Lisbon).
If you’re from northeastern Wisconsin, booyah is the stuff of legend, of large-gathering-eating lore. The term may or may not have come from the French “bouillon” (broth). Green Bay’s “Bobby Booyah” Callahan likes the failed pronunciation attempt theory and says he learned from a local expert who “agreed to take him on” 30 years ago. For fans, the aroma from the giant kettles conjures up community, folks rubbing elbows while devouring bowls of this colorful, rib-sticking chicken stew packed with vegetables. To carry on tradition means trust earned. This is no booyah-for-two recipe. Callahan’s soup sensei made it for close to 200 people. The recipe, which he’s able to recite down to the minute detail, can feed 35. Callahan, who hopes to pass down the torch to his son, makes it for his own family every Christmas. As for rumors of superstitions related to booyah, he laughs. “No, we just have fun with it.”
18 Sheboygan Fish Fry
One story about the origins of the Wisconsin fish fry is that it started in Appleton as a result of Prohibition. Taverns needed a, er, hook to lure in business, and besides the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays during Lent, Friday was also the day men got their paychecks. And yet fish fries continued even when Prohibition ended, and in heavily Germanic Sheboygan, the fry and all its accoutrements were the epitome of Gemütlichkeit, not to mention affordable. Plus, fishermen could easily get fresh perch from nearby Lake Michigan. Now, in addition to perch (no longer fished locally), cod and walleye are also staples. It’s still a budget dinner out, and there are plenty of great places to choose from. Founded in 1912, Schwarz Fish Co. supplied fish to local restaurants and taverns. It still operates a small fish counter near the lake, where locals line up on Fridays for a Styrofoam container of some of the lightest, delicately crisp perch in town. Other good perch fries: Rupp’s (where sliced marble rye comes buttered) and Al & Al’s, a German bar on Sheboygan’s south side, with a terrific fry that includes salad bar, soups and great homemade spaetzle and German potato pancakes.
19 Cook Like a Wisconsinite: Fish Boil
Recipe courtesy of The White Gull Inn in the Door County burg of Fish Creek. The inn cooks the fish outside over a wood fire, using a 22-gallon pot and two nets, one for the fish and one for the potatoes. This recipe is for cooking at home on your kitchen stove.
Note: You’ll need a 5-gallon pot, preferably with a removable basket or net, for draining. For smaller quantities, one basket or net is sufficient for both the potatoes and fish. If your pot does not have a removable basket for draining, you can make one cheesecloth bag to hold the potatoes and one to hold the fish, or drain the food in the sink, using a colander.
Wash 12 small red potatoes and cut a small slice from each end, for flavor penetration. Bring 8 qts. water to a boil in pot; keep it boiling as much as possible throughout the cooking procedure.
Add potatoes and 1 c. of salt; cook 20 minutes. Check doneness with a fork; they should be almost done. At this point, add 12 whitefish steaks (cut 2-inches thick) and 1 c. salt. Cook approximately 8-10 minutes, until fish are still firm, but begin to pull away from the bone when lifted with a fork.
At the inn, when cooking outside, they toss a small amount of kerosene on the fire when the fish is done, causing the fish oils, which have risen to the surface of the water, to boil over the sides. Do not attempt this at home; simply skim the oils off the surface with a spoon while the fish is cooking.
Lift cooked potatoes and fish from the water; drain. Serve immediately with melted butter and lemon wedges.
*The amount of salt used in the fish boil is based on the amount of water. To expand this recipe, add 1 cup salt for each additional gallon of water.
20 Cornish Pastry
A meal in your fist. That’s a pasty, a meat-and-veg pie carried into the mines of Cornwall and brought to Wisconsin in the 1830s by lads looking for work at Mineral Point. Dwellers in states not invaded by the Cornish are baffled by the pronunciation (past,
not paste) and impressed by how the turnover retains heat half the day, keeping hands warm and miners’ tummies full. Perhaps due to Cornwall’s proximity to Ireland, pasties are utterly bland. Controversies abound over how to cut the meat – cubes? shredded? – which veggies to add or avoid – carrots? rutabagas? – and whether gravy might help matters (for goodness sake, dip it in something!).
Hit the Kettle Range Meat Co. (5501 W. State St.) or Honeypie (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), where nontraditional ingredients add shocking bits of actual flavor, or try The Cornish Society of Greater Milwaukee (What? You didn’t think we had one of those?) annual pasty luncheon each May. For 60-plus years, Reynold’s Pasty Shop (3525 W. Burleigh St.) has produced them from scratch for grocery stores; stop in and take one home. Yinka Adedokun, general manager, praises the pie for being easy for anyone to cook. He’s from Nigeria, not Cornwall, but says “anywhere the British colonized, there are pasties!”
21 Real Chili
Tarik Moody defends Wisconsin’s claim as the home of chili with spaghetti
His first breaths taken in Louisville and many more in Atlanta, Moody is an architect-cum-deejay, intrepid cook and self-described food geek. His time in the South exposed him to regionally defining dishes like shrimp & grits and Brunswick stew. Living here in Milwaukee for 11 years, Moody was driven to find the dish that best defines our city. He keeps coming back to the bar-time and hangover staple, Real Chili:
Moody: I have tried to make this chili from recipes found on the internet – to no avail. Apparently, only two people know the recipe, which even makes the chili more special. … The idea of putting chili on top of spaghetti was foreign to me until I moved to Milwaukee. Some might say Real Chili stole the idea from its sweeter cousin in Cincinnati. Actually, they would be 100 percent wrong! Real Chili and its recipe has origins at a spot called Chili John’s in Green Bay, established in 1913. An employee of Chili John’s left to start Real Chili in Milwaukee in 1931. According to the website What’s Cooking America, Cincinnati chili was invented in 1922 – nine years after Chili John’s.
Look out, butter burger! Saucy meat and simple ambiance. Real Milwaukee. ◆
With contributions by Pamela Hill Nettleton
Illustrations by Cornelia Li
And photos by Adam Ryan Morris