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Our dining critic reminisces on her lifelong experience of "Eating Like a Wisconsinite."

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.

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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.


‘Eat Like a Wisconsinite’ appears in the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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