Fish fries, beer, farmer's markets. We're known for a few things.
by Michelle Wildgen
When I moved to Wisconsin, the first thing I noticed was the fish fries. It was heartening, the way even the red-sauce Italian joint and the terrifying biker bar welcomed the weekend with a slab of cod. But that’s the thing about a food tradition: at some moment or another, it will likely appeal to everyone with an appetite.
I grew up in northeastern Ohio, a place I always tell people is a suburb of a suburb of a suburb but if I’m being honest is really a suburb of Akron. By the time I arrived in Madison to go to UW, I had spent years yearning for some kind of food tradition—any kind, really—because I knew I was supposed to carry forth some special food memory from my childhood. But I kept coming up empty. I grew up eating well--and this is no small thing, I realize now--but not with much distinction, for my genetic heritage is a mishmash and my home town was mostly a burger joint. At least Cleveland had a clear ethnic stamp of pierogies and kielbasa, and I knew one Italian family who made their own wine and cured meats, though I never successfully wrangled an invitation. But they were rarities. The rest of us were eating chicken grilled with bottled barbecue sauce, like any other small town in any other region.
And so I was ripe for a place that had food traditions of any singularity. I’d also started reading MFK Fisher and Laurie Colwin, who often wrote about getting the freshest tomato here or the finest spinach there, which were no help to a nascent cook who knew the tomatoes and spinach at the grocery store had all been trucked in from the same commissary on some nameless, windswept plain. There was no freshest or best or even different. There was only what was there.
But then I came here. Finally, a certifiable local food tradition! Although I didn’t actually consume a fish fry for several years—the 80’s fat phobia had caught me at an impressionable moment—I was delighted they existed.
Then there was the beer. I was used to faintly beer-esque liquids, which meant that when I swapped my Coors Lite for a hefty dark bottle of Sprecher I had no idea what I was dealing with. Let’s just say there were some incidents.
And while everyone jokes about Wisconsin and cheese, I’d assumed this was just a hoary old myth, and I was delighted to realize the state wasn’t messing around about its cheesemaking heritage. Not one bit. Plus, in the late nineties, and cheesemakers were just branching out. You could buy soft, chalky little coins of fresh chevre rolled in ash or suspended in jars of olive oil; weighty rounds of sheep’s milk beneath a sylvan robe of dark dried herbs.
But the most life-changing thing of all was the farmers market. Though Madison was a bigger city than I had lived in before, it was so close to farmland that we could buy fresher and better products than I’d ever had the chance to. The market’s aesthetics pleased me deeply then and still do: the shift from soft spring light on sweet green pea shoots to the swaggering glare on the August peppers and the frosty sun on the apples in October. But best of all, here was that elevated tomato, a tart green striped one or a seductive, bursting midnight-colored one. I could get zucchini blossoms and ground cherries. Here was corn, or apples, or any kind of ubiquitous vegetable, but juicier, tastier, more delicate and quicker to rot if I didn’t make smart use of them. These foods were not completely magical—it’s an eggplant, not the helmet of invisibility—they were simply, markedly, better. So this was what Fisher and Colwin had been talking about.
And yet no one made a big deal of it. Shouldn’t the farmers be lofty and judgmental, if they were going to be providing these previously unattainable glories? But no one seemed to over-think the process. They had grown it, and now I bought it. The heavens did not open, but I loaded up my bags and went home to make a great pasta.
There is something particularly fitting to me about this, the democratic and homespun nature of the Wisconsin markets. It would be understandable, if not precisely forgivable, to wander through and miss the point. To wonder where the Buddha’s hand is, or the pig’s blood soup, since we food lovers are now all so global (and there is kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass and duck egg and more to be found here now, anyway), but I think the state’s farmers markets are deeply Wisconsinite at heart. Their offerings are varied if you want them to be, or straightforward if you don’t. The point is less about amazing you—Here is something you have never seen before!—than about saying simply, Here is something good.
Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels Bread and Butter (Doubleday), You’re Not You (Picador) and But Not For Long (Picador). Wildgen’s work includes fiction, essays, reviews, and food writing. She is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, and an executive editor at the literary magazine Tin House. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photos by @dancofm