Cheese, cranberries fill Badger State larder

Cheese is a source of pride among many Wisconsinites, nicknamed “cheeseheads.” More than 600 varieties are made in the state, including, from upper left, aged cheddar, gouda with fennel, Juustoleipa cheese with jalapenos and Sartori Black Pepper BellaVitano. Dried cranberries represent another prominent Wisconsin offering. / AFR photo by Carol Guensburg

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

 Got a Wisconsin memory? Favorite food? Tale to tell? Bone to pick? Please share it with us below.

7 Responses to Cheese, cranberries fill Badger State larder

  1. Profile photo of Renee M. Haas
    Renee M. Haas January 24, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Growing up in Colby, WI I always enjoyed the annual Colby Cheese Days and the fried cheese curds I allowed myself during that time of the year. Thing I miss most about my home state has to be the Friday night fish fries.

    • Profile photo of Carol Guensburg
      Carol Guensburg January 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

      Renee, I share your enthusiasm for cheese curds — fresh and squeaky or fried and stretched like elastic. I’ve had my share, but never at Colby Cheese Days. Maybe someday. As for a Friday fish fry, that’s high on my list whenever I’m back in the state. Always taking recommendations ….

      • Linda Reinholtz February 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

        Best fish fry, there are so many! In Waterford, the Cotton Exchange has a fabulous drive thru that we sample every week. We’ve had great ones in Montello at Good Ole Days and in an Irish Pub in downtown Waupaca. Try one most anywhere in the state, you’ll probably come up with a winner!

        • Carol Guensburg February 24, 2013 at 9:11 am #

          Linda, I’m adding your suggestions to my list. I’ll have to find my way to downtown Waupaca, more of a challenge since Hwy. 110 was rerouted. But a great fish fry is always worth the effort!

  2. Barbara | Creative Culinary November 15, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    My sis lives in WI and though I don’t visit often, we make cheese a focus when I do. I’ve had some fabulous ones and last year created a recipe for the Wisconsin Cheese Board using a cheese from their state. It was a semi hard cheese much like Parmesan with a great nuttiness but even better? Was soaked in Merlot. Oh my, my kind of cheese!

  3. Ron Otto November 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    Tomah advertises itself as the Gateway to Cranberry Country. Warrens is the Cranberry Capital with 6500 acres in cranberry production. They have an annual Cranberry Festival in September. When in the Tomah area check out Humbird Cheese.for the best aged Cheddar (one year or 8 year they have it) and various other cheese; they also ship and are on the Internet.

  4. Visit Warrens November 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    The Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center in downtown Warrens has an exhibit hall detailing the history of cranberry production in Wisconsin. In their gift shop, you’ll find all kinds of Wisconsin-made cranberry products, from cranberry ice cream to locally made cranberry wines. Learn more at