Today I’m going to be writing about one of my greatest passions and that’s the cuisine of the US state of Wisconsin. Before I unveil the top 5 delicacies that I have experienced, I want to write a little bit about what Wisconsinite cuisine is and what makes it so special.
To understand the culinary map of the Badger State, you have to start in the 1850s and understand the shift that occurred in its demographics thereafter. Wisconsin was admitted to the union as the 30th state in 1848, existing from 1836 until that date as the Wisconsin Territory. The first permanent settlers of this territory (which had been explored in generations previous by French fur trappers) were actually the Cornish, who began mining in the southwestern parts of the country. That’s where Wisco got the nickname “The Badger State”; the badgers being the Cornish miners. If you go to Mineral Point, WI today you can get pasties and other Cornish delicacies that don’t exist in the United States outside of other Cornish enclaves. The next settlers to come after the Cornish were the Yankees, folks of predominantly English ancestry from New England. They quickly established themselves as the ruling elite, taking jobs in politics, law and finance. But it’s the next group that’s significant. Not long after Wisco achieved statehood, there came a massive influx of Germanic peoples. By the end of the 19th century the Yankees had been displaced, moving on to other parts of the US as they became outnumbered by the Germans. Between 1850 and 1900 the ethnic makeup of Wisco as we know it today took shape. It’s a heavily Germanic state but not exclusively so. It has the highest percentage of residents with Polish ancestry of any state. There are large groups of Poles, Norwegians, Danes, Belgians, Swiss, Finns and Irish. And it’s from the Germanic element that the state draws its cuisine.
Wisconsin is proud of its German heritage, and in 2012 I went to Oktoberfest in Chippewa Falls. There you can get schnitzel and sauerkraut, authentic burgers and all kinds of German sausage. There’s Polka Dancing and spilled beer from clattered steins. But I could talk all day about that. Here are my top 5 Wisconsin delicacies!
I was attending a wedding reception at a bar in Denmark, WI in the summer of 2014, when my roommate’s mom told me I ought to try a Kneecap, saying that not only was it a Wisconsin dessert, but one specific to the northeast region of the state. My love of cultural assimilation brought the pastry to my lips. It’s basically a fried donut with a depression in the center that’s filled with whipped cream. It’s also covered with powdered sugar. I’ve got a sweet tooth so it definitely suits me. It’s interesting that I’ve tried this, and yet I still haven’t tried Wisconsin’s most famous dessert- the Kringle. But it’s on my bucket list!
#4 Deep-Fried Cheese Curds
Most Wisconsinites will tell you that the best and purest way to eat cheese curds is when they are “squeaky” to the bite after being refrigerated. As much as I do love them, I think I prefer them deep-fried and battered. I had them once at Curly’s Pub- a restaurant that used to be found in the atrium of Lambeau Field (or, as I call it, The Sistine Chapel of the West). They’re great as an appetizer and perhaps best paired with a cup of ketchup.
We really are getting local now. Booyah is a stew that’s made with vegetables and the bones of meat (chicken, beef, pork or ox tail) and it’s specific to the Bay Area of Northeastern Wisconsin. It’s a staple of things like church picnics and is usually only made for such social events, since it’s cooked for 2 days in a cast iron kettle with a wood-burning fire and serves a whole army of people. I had it at a high school graduation party near to De Pere, WI in 2015. The smell of Booyah is amazing. The whole yard was thick with the scent of chicken broth, and it was tasty but super-hot. I actually burnt my tongue eating it. My roommate’s grandfather took it upon himself to tell me the history of this mysterious dish, which cannot be found outside of the Badger State’s borders. He told me that the stew is Belgian in origin, and I have since confirmed this online, with articles telling me that the name “booyah” is a Flemish or Walloon Belgian spelling of the French word “bouillon”, which translates to “broth”.
This really is a great example of the German influence on the state. The immigrants of the 19th century brought the recipes of their homeland with them, and Wisconsin is one of- perhaps even the best- places to go in the USA for sausage. Summer Sausage, Kielbasa and Venison Sausage are extremely popular, but perhaps none is more quintessentially Wisconsinite than the Bratwurst. In the rest of the USA the hot dog reigns supreme at summer cookouts, but in Wisco they prefer Brats. Wisconsin is actually the nation’s largest producer and consumer of this sausage. I’ve had it dozens of times during my time living there, and there are so many variations. I spent July 4th in Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions we grilled Brats. We chose these beer-battered Brats with chunks of cheddar inside. I miss them…
#1 Fried Fish
Remember, this is a subjective power ranking, and it’s based on which delicacies I tried and which I liked best. And undoubtedly the most pleasing entry to my taste buds is the fried lake fish I ate in 2015 whilst spending some time at my roommate’s cabin in the Northwoods. We had a blast catching some trout at this trout hatchery an hour’s drive away, and we took our catches back to the cabin where my roommate’s dad deep-fried them. I have a picture of our fried trout from that day which you can see above! It’s not only my favorite Wisconsinite meal but it also stands as the best fish I have ever eaten.
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