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The Food Ways of Wisconsin: An Overview
2007 Copyright by Terese Allen

What does “Wisconsin eat”? It’s not just meat and potatoes---or cheese, brats and beer, for that matter. The image of the state’s food culture is one of plain, hearty fare; still, more than any other Midwestern state (and many others outside the Midwest), Wisconsin boasts a considerable diversity of crops, products, and culinary traditions.  Wisconsin’s “foodways” are expressed in many ways and places: at farmers’ markets, community festivals, and church suppers; in cheese factories, butcher shops and specialty markets; and in restaurants, cafes, and home kitchens.

The state's geography and climate has produced an array of foodways connected to crops and wild edibles. Morel mushrooms, for example, are beloved in the rolling, wooded, unglaciated hills of southwestern Wisconsin, while in Door County, Lake Michigan’s tempering influence yields bountiful fruit crops, displayed at roadside markets throughout the peninsula.

Wisconsin’s historically diverse economy has created culinary traditions associated with numerous industries: Cornish pasties, for instance, are icons in towns like Mineral Point, where lead mining lured Cornish immigrants to the area in the 1830s and ‘40s. That Wisconsin is a fishing state is reflected in the fish markets of Algoma and Port Wing and other Great Lakes communities. Manufacturing in Milwaukee brought a strong association with beer, tourism has cultivated the cherished fish boils of Door County, and international trade has bolstered the ginseng fields in the center of the state, where the bulk of the U.S. crop is grown. Above all, Wisconsin is a farming state, and we love to eat what we grow and produce: cranberries, corn, cheese. Apples, cherries, cabbage. Potatoes, tomatoes, sausage.

 
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The Badger State’s most heartfelt food traditions are, perhaps, those which stem from our ethnic roots. Tribal members enjoy hull corn soup, wild rice and fry bread at Native American powwows, while German festivals and restaurants feature bratwurst and sauerbraten, and of course, beer. Still, when it comes to foodways, neither the native nor the "majority" heritage dominates: diversity is the theme. Dozens of ethnic populations that grew from 19th- and early 20th-century immigration still have significant concentrations in the state. Growing numbers of more recent immigrants have added Latino and Asian flavors to the mix. Wisconsin's food traditions include bratwurst and fish fry, but they also include Hmong egg rolls, chiles rellenos, barbecued ribs, chicken booyah, kielbasa, and kringle—and a whole lot more.

Wisconsinites don’t just eat to live, they “live to eat.” Annual food celebrations--crop, harvest and ethnic festivals--number in the hundreds around the state. In a time when regional flavors have fallen prey to a fast-food world, many residents still attend church suppers, frequent small-town cafes, or gather on Friday nights for fish fry to get a taste of regional history, culture, and camaraderie. If we’re a region that loves to party, it’s in part because we love to honor the bounty around us.

 

Wisconsin has long been a great state for food and cooking, but lately it’s getting even better, for the trend is towards buying organic ingredients sourced from close by, and dining with an emphasis on the seasons. The region, particularly a number of southern and western counties, is recognized as a leader in a local foods movement that promotes flavor, nutrition, a fair shake for small farmers, and earth-friendly eating.

The movement is manifest in a vibrant, growing network of farmers’ markets, community supported (subscription) farms, and food cooperatives within the state. Vernon County has more organic farms than any other in the nation and is home to Organic Valley, the country’s largest organic farmers cooperative. Madison boasts the nation’s largest and highest-rated producer-only farmers’ market, and is home to such sustainability-geared organizations as Slow Food Wisconsin and REAP Food Group. 

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What does Wisconsin eat?  To sum up, the Dairy State offers an exceptional array of edibles: produce from apples to zucchini; artisanal cheeses and dairy products; quality meats and ethnic sausages; fish from lake and stream; wild foods; and specialties like horseradish and maple syrup.  The state’s food traditions and practices stem from its varied climate and geography, rich tapestry of ethnic backgrounds, deep-rooted history of dairying and mixed agriculture, and diverse economy, both past and present.  In recent decades, Wisconsin’s legacy of progressivism endures in a cutting-edge “local, sustainable foods” movement, particularly in the southern half of the state.

These days, as in times past, Wisconsin doesn’t just celebrate with food, it celebrates because of food. From Limburger cheese and cream puffs to heirloom vegetables and grass-fed beef, Wisconsin eats very well indeed.

First published as “How We Feed Ourselves: Overview,” in Sustainable Wisconsin, Building the Legacy, Great Lakes Earth Institute, 2008