Say cheese — and cranberries, fish fries and beer.
Wisconsin secured its role as America’s Dairyland with the help of settlers from the East and immigrant groups such as the Swiss, whose government helped relocate some farmers after devastating crop losses in the mid 19th century. The Swiss brought expertise in dairy herds and in making cheeses such as Emmenthaler. Other immigrant groups brought their own specialties.
Colby, a mild cheese that originated in 1885 near the central Wisconsin town for which it is named, is just one of the 600 varieties made in the state today. Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production, and its cheeses, including specialty varieties such as gouda and havarti, win a disproportionate share of honors.
Cranberries have been harvested here since around 1860, and now more than half the nation’s crop each year comes from marshlands in the state’s center and northwest. Fall brings a profusion of red berries and related festivals, such as in Warrens, where cranberry salsas, cranberry breads and other treats fortify visitors on marsh tours. Settlers called these native fruits “crane berries,” because their blossoms looked like the sandhill cranes that flocked to the marshes, the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association notes.
Scandinavian farmers and fishermen settled in northern and western Wisconsin, bringing pickled herring and lefse, a Norwegian potato flatbread. Cornish miners carried meat turnovers called pasties while digging for lead in the southwest part of the state.
Catholics of German, Polish and Italian persuasion spawned popular Friday fish fries. Eastern European Jews arriving in turn-of-the-century Milwaukee smoothed their assimilation through the Settlement House and Lizzie Kander’s popular cookbook of the same name. Settlement houses were opened in the 1880s in urban neighborhoods to provide education, recreation and service programs to immigrants.
Southern blacks bolstered factory production in the state’s industrial southeast after World War II, and Mexican migrants by the thousands began working crops and orchards in the 1950s. Hmong from the mountains of Southeast Asia found refuge in scattered Wisconsin communities beginning in the late 1970s — all adding to the culinary mix.
Nearly half of Wisconsin’s residents are of German descent. They bring out the best of the wurst, including brats and liver sausage, to go with their cole slaw. Scores of artisans carry on a brewing tradition made famous by 19th-century Frederick Pabst, Joseph Schlitz and Jacob Leinenkugel.
Milk? Beer? We’ll drink to both.
– Carol Guensburg
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