Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Memories and Nueske’s

Growing up in Illinois, it seemed as though our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, was almost as big a part of my life as my own state. I spent summers for nine years camping in the North Woods. Cousins of my mother’s had a cabin in Wisconsin, and we visited them. Vacations when my brother and I were very young (even before my camping days) often involved Wisconsin, both at “attractions,” including the Wisconsin Dells, and relaxing escapes to small lakeside cottages, where swimming and fishing were the big delights. Much later, my parents lived in Wisconsin for a few years, when my dad was sent there to help build up a small candy company (it was during this time that I discovered the joys of Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin). And I have always found something to draw me northward, from the Wisconsin State Fair to the House on the Rock to the places mentioned previously in this blog.

Food was also always part of the fun. Many folks may think first of cheese when they think of Wisconsin—after all, it is the dairy state, and it does create some absolutely sensational cheeses. A stop at the Mars Cheese Castle is a requirement. But many of us think just as frequently, and definitely as fondly, of the German influence so evident everywhere, including in the making of sausages and smoked meats. My dad loved dining out, and the famous German restaurants in Milwaukee were a big draw. I can still remember my first dinner at Mader’s—and I still have the cookbook dad got me on that visit. (We won’t talk about how long ago that was.)

On a recent drive across Wisconsin, as I neared Wittenberg, I turned my wheels toward one of the many German-influenced culinary delights the state offers: Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats. While Nueske’s is probably best known for their bacon, they make a wide range of smoked delights, some of which are only available at their handsome headquarters. Here, the original smokehouse, used by the first generations of Nueske’s nearly a century ago, has been kept as a memento of their history, because they smoke far too much meat these days for it to handle the demand. Still, it is a fairly small company, family owned and true to its heritage.

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In addition to an impressive array of meats inside, during the summer, there is a “mobile home” out front, a log cabin on a truck bed, that serves up great sandwiches and smoky baked beans for those who stop by.

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So while it’s not a “destination” in the sense that anyone would plan a trip there, it is definitely a great place to stop if you’re in the area.

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International Crane Foundation

Normally, when I get an issue of National Geographic, while I might be sent dreaming, I rarely have the opportunity to just jump in the car and follow up on a feature article. But then there was the issue where the lead article and cover photo were from the International Crane Foundation (ICF), which is in Wisconsin, just a few hours north of where I live. So the next weekend found me heading northward, to the only place in the world where you can see every species of crane there is.

I had seen the brolga (Australian crane) during my several visits Down Under. The African gray crowned crane was familiar from a number of zoos, but they’re so fabulous looking, it’s always fun seeing them.

African gray crowned cranes

African gray crowned cranes

I was familiar with sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, but seeing them up close was grand. Many of the cranes, however, were unfamiliar to me—the demoiselle crane, blue crans, wattled crane, hooded crane, black-necked crane, white-naped crane, saurus crane, and the African black crowned crane, rarer than his gray cousin.

Wattled crane

Wattled crane

Blue cranes

Blue cranes

There was a tremendous amount of information available, from guides, bird handlers, and displays. The visit ended up triggering other trips, to places where cranes nest or flyways that they stop during migration.

In addition to the cranes, the ICF has man acres of restored savannah, open wetland, and restored prairie, where one can hike for hours, admiring indigenous trees, flowers, and birds in the wild.

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

Wild lupines on the ICF prairie

If you’re fortunate enough to be there in the spring, when eggs are hatching, you might get to witness the teaching of chicks to drink and eat. A crane will only hatch one egg, so the staff will rescue the unhatched egg, hatch it in an incubator, and then use a puppet to seem like a parent bird when teaching the chick basic life skills.

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

Hatchling learns from a hand puppet

The ICF website includes photos, background, and information for visiting. https://www.savingcranes.org/

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Old World Wisconsin

If you’ve been following my blogs for any length of time, you’ll probably have noticed that I not only love history, I happily visit it—traveling to places that combine historic buildings with costumed interpreters who demonstrate what life was like in the past. I’ve posted on Michigan’s amazing Greenfield Village on my The World’s Fare blog, about Sovereign Hill on my Waltzing Australia blog, and on this blog, I’ve offered multiple posts on both Iowa’s Living History Farms and Chicagoland’s Kline Creek Farm. Now it’s time to look north, to delightful Old World Wisconsin (OWW).

Like most of the Midwest, Wisconsin’s history stretches back into the days of voyageurs, fur trappers, and explorers, but with serious settlement starting in the early 1800s, after the United States had come into existence. Wisconsin was heavily enough settled by 1848 to obtain statehood. As with most of the Midwest, settlers came in waves, first from New England and then from overseas, especially Germany and Scandinavia. This varied settlement was reflected in everything from the cuisine to the architecture.

As the state grew, rather than destroying log cabins or leveling antique towns, researchers began documenting the old buildings—and then bringing them here. So when you go to Old World Wisconsin, you don’t learn a general history of what a typical Dane or Yankee might have been like; they can tell you exactly who owned the home, where they were from, and what their lives were like.

Iron Stoves cooked food and heated homes.

Iron Stoves cooked food and heated homes.

In some cases, the original furnishings have been preserved. As would have been the case with early settlement, so too at OWW, buildings are clustered by nationality of original owners. You can visit settlements of Poles, Germans, Finns, Danes, Norwegians, and Yankees (New Englanders).

Even the bathtub was kept in the kitchen pantry, as water would be heated on the stove.

Even the bathtub (back right corner) was kept in the kitchen pantry, as water would be heated on the stove.

In addition, there are fields and farms where you can watch traditional types of farming or see early breeds of livestock. Aside from farming, exhibitions range from early forms of baseball to classes in a one-room schoolhouse, from cooking to a working blacksmith shop, and much more.

New England's influence is seen in the 1880s village. The red building is the blacksmith shop.

New England’s influence is seen in the 1880s village. The red building is the blacksmith shop.

Old World Wisconsin is not merely historic, it’s also beautiful, nestled amid forests and dotted with ponds. Even as I type this, I’m planning a return trip. OWW id located in Eagle, WI, west of Milwaukee. For more information, from directions to scheduled events, you can visit their website: http://oldworldwisconsin.wisconsinhistory.org/

OWW-Cabin

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And the Nation’s Top Brandy Market Is…

Wisconsin.

Who’d have imagined? Well, probably folks in Wisconsin, but it was certainly a surprise to most of us at this weekend’s Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance (GMFA) conference on Wisconsin Supper Clubs.

And how much brandy are we talking about? Wisconsin consumes one third of all the brandy produced in the United States. According to one source, that’s roughly 650,000 cases of domestic brandy per year.

Top drink, sometimes half-jokingly suggested as a candidate for official state cocktail, is a brandy old fashioned. (They mentioned that if you simply order an old fashioned, without specifying preferred liquor, you’ll automatically get the brandy version.) In the number two spot is the brandy Alexander. But a toddy or a simple snifter with good brandy are not ruled out.

These drinks are all staples of Wisconsin’s multitudes of supper clubs, where locals and tourists gather for good food and a friendly evening of conversation—and brandy.

Another interesting fact that was shared is that supper clubs (usually places out in the country) did well because Wisconsin had more paved rural roads than any other state, so supper clubs and American car culture grew together.

Supper clubs are family owned and food, which is generally locally sourced and seasonal, is made from scratch. Menus can be ambitious, but certain elements are immutable: Friday-night fish fry and Saturday prime rib topping that list.

We also learned that broasted chicken was invented in Beloit, Wisconsin. There is a machine called a broaster, and broasting is a proprietary technology that cooks chicken very quickly, while minimizing the amount of oil to which the chicken is exposed.

While supper clubs are not clubs now, they did require membership during Prohibition.

So much more to share, but perhaps I should leave that to those who were presenters:

Mary Bergin, journalist, syndicated columnist, and author of The Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook.

Teresa Allen, culinary historian and author of The Flavor of Wisconsin.

Dave Hoekstra, award-winning Chicago journalist and radio personality, and author of The Supper Club Book (which strays outside of Wisconsin).

Holly De Ruyter, documentary filmmaker and creator of the charming film, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club.

As for the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, it is an organization that has as its goal the study and preservation of foodways found across a far-too-often ignored region—the American Heartland. GMFA supports research, hosts heirloom recipe contests at state fairs, and puts on conferences.

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