Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - By Ann Chris­ten­son With con­tri­bu­tions by Pamela Hill Net­tle­ton Il­lus­tra­tions by Cor­nelia Li And pho­tos by Adam Ryan Mor­ris

Not only do we show you how to do what our story ti­tle sug­gests – which, gosh, in­volves so many dreamy del­i­ca­cies – we serve it with ex­tra sides of lore and deep love for our culi­nary his­tory. By Ann Chris­ten­son

My­mom 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.

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