Bringing Beer Back Home

Source: Edible Milwaukee

Source: Edible Milwaukee

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the summer issue. It’s all about some of the local growers trying to revive the state’s hop and barley tradition.

Let’s just say I jumped at the chance to explore Wisconsin beer, past and present. I remember the first time I saw hops growing at the truly wonderful Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It was actually the hops that led me there – I saw them climbing up the poles in one of the gardens and just had to get out to see what in the world was growing in there! I’ve since been to the American Hop Museum in eastern Washington so hops in their pre-beer state are no longer foreign to me. But I still thrill at the sight of them. There’s something magical about the vines and flowers.

I learned a lot telling this story (I won’t spoil it by telling you everything before you can even read it – something I tend to do to my husband all the time) but one of the things that sticks with me is something brewmaster Grant Pauly from 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan told me. Wisconsin’s long brewing history isn’t just about the beer. It’s also about the equipment to make that beer and that the state’s long brewing history means that many of the things needed to make and sell beer commercially – from the tap handles to the cardboard six-pack holders – can be sourced from local businesses. It makes perfect sense but had never before occurred to me.

Here’s the story. Enjoy!

 

Long before Wisconsin became America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin brewed beer. The state had barley, wheat, ice, and water. It had hops. And most important of all, a beer-thirsty people called Wisconsin home.

So thirsty that in 1839, German settlers in Milwaukee, desperate for a taste of home, mixed whiskey and vinegar with a little limestone to create a head that they called “Essig whiskey heimer” (something like homemade vinegar whiskey or vinegar whiskey of home). The opening of the city’s first brewery – by a Welshman, not a German, alas – the next year hopefully put an end to that frightening blend.

Read the rest at Edible Milwaukee…

Easter Tastes Delicious: Breaking Fasts with Pastries

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From “Vintage Eats” in Edible Milwaukee (Spring 2014)

When the Easter season approaches, the yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread and sugary sweetness of flaky pastries and cakes fill kitchens as cooks prepare the foods associated with this important religious holiday. Easter is steeped in religious practices but also rich in food traditions that stretch back centuries: from the Last Supper, which in Christian theology is the day Jesus and his apostles shared a final meal, to today, when we still gather for festive meals on Easter Sunday.

Growing up in a traditional Polish Catholic home in Milwaukee, Peter Burzynski understood from a young age that Easter was the most important holiday of the year. His parents, both immigrants from Poland, opened Polonez Restaurant in 1983, where Burzynski now works as executive sous-chef.

“Polish Catholics have a unique tradition on Easter Saturday in which we go to church to receive a blessing of our food baskets,” Burzynski says. “The baskets usually feature a small sampling of what we have for the feast the following day.”

While many traditional foods grace the Easter table, baked goods, especially sweet and buttery breads, are essential to the meal. This is, in part, because of the deprivation that precedes it.

In the past, devout Christians observed a strict fast during Lent, the six or seven weeks before Easter, when they abstained from eating animal products of any kind, including red meat, milk, poultry, butter, cheese, and eggs, as a form of penitence. In some parts of Europe, sugar, honey, and olive oil were also forbidden. While few follow such strict fasts today, the tradition of feasting on special foods is still common.

These Lenten fasts make the Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) preceding it and the Easter feast following it all the more indulgent.

The pastry Burzynski most closely associates with the season is one Poles eat the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s called a pączek, but is more commonly known in the U.S. by its plural form, pączki.

“The pronunciation is almost as tricky as getting your mouth around one of these huge doughnuts,” he says.

Burzynski says the correct pronunciation is closer to “pone-chykey,” not the “poonch-key” he so often hears in Milwaukee.

PaczkiCrispy on the outside but soft and yielding on the inside, pączki are made from an especially rich dough of lard, milk, and eggs that is fried and then filled. They were originally created to clear out pantries of fruit, sugar, and fat for Lent.

“We filled ours with either strawberry or prune filling and topped them with either powder sugar or a lemon and orange peel glaze,” he says. “If I’m going to eat a pączek, I’m going to go all the way to my daily caloric limit. That’s the only way to go.”

The earliest Wisconsinites adhered to Easter fasts. In 1661, Jesuit Father Rene Menard complained to his superiors in Quebec of harsh weather along Chequamegon Bay that limited the amount of fish so “those who wished to keep Lent suffered greatly.” Fortunately, the cold did not congeal his communion wine, and an abundance of moose after the holiday helped to refortify the supplicants. Baked goods were also likely off the table.

Easter dinner looked better in the 1830s. General Albert G. Ellis recalled American settlers, army officers, and Christianized Indians strictly observing a Lenten fast. “They ceased gormandizing ducks, venison, and porcupine, only to feast in more epicurean style on trout, sturgeon, and wild rice,” Ellis wrote. When Easter arrived, “the most joyous of the calendar,” they all gathered in the woods amidst the sugarbush to feast on roasted chicken, eggs, and fresh maple syrup.

Easter is a colorful patchwork of customs drawn from pagan and Christian traditions. Celebrations of the spring equinox were common in pre-Christian times. Early Church leaders recognized that eliminating all pagan customs and replacing them with religious ones might devastate the progress of the faith. So Christianity absorbed some of the old traditions as the custom of welcoming spring merged with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The name of the holiday itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre.

This convergence of traditions is perhaps most apparent in the changing date of Easter. Rather than a fixed holiday, Easter is instead governed by the phases of the moon. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Christian bishops set Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox.

Mesopotamian Christians were the first to adopt eggs as Easter food, though eggs had a long symbolic history as representations of rebirth and rejuvenation. Eggs were often exchanged as part of the celebration of spring. Christians were the first to dye the eggs red to represent Christ’s blood and resurrection. These red eggs, traditionally dyed with the skins of red onions, are often nestled in Easter breads, like Armenian choreg.

“It’s the singular pastry of an Armenian Easter,” says Terry Peterson, describing choreg, a triple-braided egg bread.

Her grandparents emigrated to Milwaukee from Armenia in the 1920s. Only minimally sweet, choreg is flavored with mahleb, the ground pits of St. Lucy’s cherry, that give the bread its distinctive flavor. The mahleb is ground so fine that Peterson says it something you can taste rather than see. “And it must be there because it doesn’t taste right otherwise,” she says.

KolaczkiAlthough choreg is exclusively an Easter pastry, it isn’t the only one to appear on the Armenian table. Both Terry and her brother Armen Hadjinian say that Easter is when you “make every pastry you know how to make.”

Both siblings love katah, a flaky layered biscuit similar to a croissant common at most holidays.

“It’s loaded with butter and delicious,” says Hadjinian, chuckling.

Although Peterson grew up steeped in her Armenian heritage, she didn’t learn how to bake these traditional foods until she helped to organize cooking classes with some elderly women at Holy Resurrection Church in South Milwaukee.

“They all had their grandmothers’ recipes and wanted to pass on their knowledge,” Peterson says. “Breads like choreg are fairly labor intensive so it could be a lost art without someone sharing and passing on these recipes.”

Armenian breads are rolled out with special rolling pins called grdnak, a kind of fat dowel roughly three feet in length. Women customarily received their own rolling pin when they became engaged, along with a copy of the 1950s cookbook Treasured Armenian Recipes.

“It’s a rite of passage. It’s how you know you’ve arrived!” Peterson says, with a laugh.

Like a treasured chef’s knife, everyone brings their own rolling pin to the cooking classes. Peterson uses the one that belonged to her grandmother. The tradition of baking bread as a religious offering dates back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians offered small round cakes to the goddess of the moon, each marked with her symbol, the horns of an ox.

The three braids of the Armenian choreg and other bread shapes aren’t just beautiful; they are meaningful. Three strands represent the Holy Trinity. Wreath and ring-shaped breads represent Christ’s crown of thorns while also harking back to pagan fertility symbols. Round breads represent the life-giving sun, rebirth, and resurrection.

The most famous of the round breads may be the British hot-cross buns. Baked on Good Friday, these slightly sweet circular buns often have dried fruit and chopped fruit peel in the dough. The bread gets its name from the cross cut in the top of each bun before baking.

Superstitions regarding bread baked on Good Friday date back centuries. In England particularly, many people believed that Good Friday bread would never mold, so a bun was hung in the house to keep away bad luck for the year ahead. Grebe’s Bakery in Jackson Park and Regina’s Bay Bakery in Whitefish Bay are among the Milwaukee area bakeries to make hot-cross buns.

Greeks celebrate Easter with the sweet braids of tsoureki.

“It’s a sacred, holy bread. The smell of it baking warms you inside and lets you know the holidays are coming,” says Eleni Katrantzis, daughter of Aleka Tsioulos of the eponymous Aleka’s Kitchen in Sheboygan.

Tsoureki is an eggy bread seasoned with mahlepi (the Greek version of mahleb) and mastic, the hardened resin of the mastic tree from the Greek island of Chios, the only place in the world where the tree exudes its aromatic, piney resin. The addition and type of other spices and flavors in the tsoureki varies by region and family. As does the adornment atop the freshly baked tsoureki.

Like choreg, bright red eggs nestle in the braided strands of tsoureki, symbolizing Christ’s blood.

“The red eggs are central to the Greek Easter,” explains Katrantzis. “At midnight, after the Easter service, everyone is given a red egg for a celebratory cracking. You crack one end against the end of another person’s egg, trying to crack their egg.”

The person who successfully cracks both ends of the egg belonging to the other player is said to have good luck for the year. Katrantzis and her sister Demitra Tsioulos grew up in Sheboygan, a town with a strong German, not Greek, heritage. They recall feeling out of place when they stepped out the front door of the home that their Greek immigrant parents had so immersed in the smells, tastes, and perspectives of their home country. Their mom, Aleka, was eager to share her heritage, though, and frequently invited non-Greek guests over to eat.

Cake and kolaczkiBoth women remember helping their mom in the kitchen as children. She usually gave them the mundane tasks, like “stirring milk for 40 minutes without stopping to make a custard,” laughs Tsioulos.

But these monotonous, detailed tasks gave them a deep appreciation of their culture.

“Greek pastries are complicated and require patience to master,” says Tsioulos. “The details make it authentic.”

While tsoureki is the central Easter pastry, it isn’t the only sweet treat on the Greek Easter table. Shortbread-like cookies known as kourabiedes, made with almond paste and covered in powdered sugar, are common at nearly all Greek holidays. Galaktoboureko, a creamy and sweet custard pie baked in phyllo and drenched in lemon and honey is another indulgent favorite of Tsioulos and Katrantzis.

Baking stirs memories and connections to family, culture, and home.

“These pastries have more than ingredients in them,” says Tsioulos. “They are filled with stories passed down through the generations.

Lutefisk, Torsk and other Seafood Traditions Abound

Forget turkey, ham, or even the traditional goose. For many families, the holiday season is not complete without lye-soaked cod drenched in melted butter. Every December diners decked in colorful patterned Nordic sweaters line up at St. Olaf’s Lutheran Church in the Town of Ashippun, one of the oldest Norwegian Lutheran churches in the state, to indulge in the annual lutefisk feast.

Lutefisk is far from the only holiday fish dish. On Christmas Eve, southern Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes; Poles consume a meatless Wigilia of fish, soup, sauerkraut, pierogi, and noodles; carp and herring often appear on German tables; and many Mexicans and Spaniards eat the salted cod known as bacalao. These holiday fish feasts are products of both faith and geography.

Read the rest of my story in the new issue of Edible Milwaukee.

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A Taste of Milwaukee in an Apple

A century ago, Milwaukee had its own apple. The seedling found growing beneath a Duchess apple tree and developed by George Jeffrey in the 1890s yielded a yellowish-green apple with a tart flavor that was a local specialty, one of thousands of varieties of apples known, grown, and beloved in North America.

Apples are one of the most widely grown and eaten fruits in the world. In North America alone, some 14,000 varieties have been named and nurtured over the last four centuries.

The industrialization of agriculture changed that world. By the mid-20th century, the Milwaukee apple along with many other Wisconsin apples had largely disappeared. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote and distribute worldwide, transforming the fruit from a local specialty into a global commodity. Today’s industrial food system has left us with only a meager sampling of the richness and diversity of the bygone apple world.

Read the rest of the story in Edible Milwaukee.

Butter and Dairy Queens

Some girls dream of being a movie star. Me? I’ve got a thing for agricultural queens like Alice in Dairyland. Alice is Wisconsin’s agricultural royalty. Crowned in May, she travels the state during her yearlong reign talking up the importance of farming.

Wisconsin's first Alice Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin’s first Alice
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Alice in Dairyland got her start in 1948 at the Wisconsin Centennial Exposition (she was preceded by the “Dairy Queen”).  Margaret McGuire-Blott had the honor of being the first Alice. Alice’s early years were a bit strange. At the State Fair, a huge paper-mache Alice would answer questions from children, while the real Alice sat backstage and threw her voice. But she also got to travel the country.

Early Alices logged more than 150,000 miles a year. They went to Hollywood, rode in the Rose Parade, and danced with Lawrence Welk on TV. Today’s Alice spends most of her time in Wisconsin but she continues to make appearances worldwide.

I met my first Alice at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2003 where I got to shake her hand. Our bond was cemented when she gave me a cow-shaped air freshener.

This was only my first encounter with Wisconsin royalty, though. I once took a class with Wisconsin’s Honey Queen. She wore a different honey t-shirt every day. I thought at first that she just really liked honey.

Wisconsin’s royalty isn’t just confined to dairy and honey, though. We’ve also got a cranberry queen, a Brown Swiss Queen, and a Cherry Blossom Queen, among others. While they may seem a little silly and outdated today, these agricultural queens have an ancient history.

For thousands of years, women have been associated with agriculture and the harvest. Women have been depicted as symbols of the earth, fertility, and abundance, the very things that people hoped for their crops. The mystery of life, especially birth, was one area that women held deep firsthand knowledge, and fertility goddesses, particularly Mother Earth, were important figures in the ancient world. The correlation of fertility and the goddess found its roots in agriculture. All over the world, from Asia and Africa to Europe and South America, female goddesses represented the fruitful plains as well as the work of tending to them.

The Greeks had Demeter who was said to have invented agriculture and all of the rituals associated with it. The Romans had their own Demeter named Ceres, as well as Pomona who kept an eye on the fruit trees. Hindu goddesses watched over food, the harvest, and nourishment. In North and South America, a Corn Mother gave life to the continents’ staple crop. Corn along with beans and squash were known as the Three Sisters because the plants were said to embody female spirits.

This ancient connection between women and the land extends to real women, too, not just divinities. Women have long been responsible for growing, harvesting, and preparing food for themselves and their families.

So Alice in Dairyland and Wisconsin’s other queens aren’t just some prefeminist holdover from the 1940s and 1950s. They are the modern incarnation of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to people and cultures around the world.

Butter Rules (at least in Wisconsin)

If you eat a meal in a Wisconsin restaurant and want margarine instead of butter, you have to ask for it. Wisconsin law forbids the substitution of margarine for butter in a public eating place. A few lawmakers tried to overturn the law in 2011 but failed in their effort. Under the law, students, patients, and inmates in state institutions will be served butter with meals unless a doctor says that margarine is necessary for their health.  And when you shop for margarine in a Wisconsin grocery store, you must buy a whole pound colored a certain shade of yellow and labeled in letters of a specific size. And don’t even think about making that margarine with imported oil—only domestic vegetable oil can be used in Wisconsin margarine.

Think everything in the Midwest is canned soup, processed and fake? Think again. And Wisconsin’s oleo-war is the ultimate example.

The “Oleomargarine Regulations,” otherwise known as Wisconsin Statute 97.18, are the last fragments of a once mighty law that shielded Wisconsin citizens from the dangers of butter fakes like margarine. Wisconsin was the last state in the country to permit the sale of margarine colored yellow to look like butter. And that was in 1967—nearly a century after margarine was first produced in the United States.

From the start, the artificiality and industrial origin of margarine, or oleo, as it was then known, inspired fear and suspicion. Its main selling point was its low cost. Farmers, not just in Wisconsin, but across the country saw margarine as a phony, a factory-made good contrary to the superior moral values and virtues of farm-produced products. Not that butter being produced on many of these farms was so wonderful.

So bad was the overall quality of Wisconsin butter at the time, that it was known in the Chicago markets as “western grease” and was sold as a lubricant, not for human consumption.  All that began to change after the formation of the Wisconsin Dairyman’s Association in 1872, an organization that quickly recognized that unless butter improved in quality, margarine would drive Wisconsin butter off the market.  Wisconsin passed its first anti-margarine law in 1881, the first of many laws that imposed taxes, licenses, and labeling restrictions on manufacturers.  The most potent weapon against the demon spread, though, was an 1895 law that prohibited the manufacture and sale of margarine colored yellow in imitation of butter.   Grocers and restaurateurs caught trying to palm off margarine for the genuine article faced fines of $50 to $500. Get caught twice and you were sent to jail.

By 1910, margarine manufacturers began to fight back by including packets of coloring  for purchasers to tint the naturally pale margarine according to taste.  Pro-butter interests continue to argue against colored margarine, claiming that yellow was the natural and unique color of butter and that any shade of yellow margarine was an attempt to deceive the consumer.  Colored margarine was banned outright in Wisconsin in 1931—to both buy and to use – though the inclusion of packets of coloring was never outlawed.

Post-World War II conditions favored the repeal of anti-margarine laws, particularly as more and more Wisconsinites began smuggling in yellow margarine from our lax neighbor to the south Illinois because it cost less.  The decades long tussle officially came to an end on July 1, 1967, when Governor Warren Knowles signed legislation legalizing colored margarine using a yellow pen and wearing a yellow tie. While eliminating the color restrictions, the remaining restrictions remind us that in Wisconsin, butter once stood for the good, the true, and the pure.

 

 

For the Love of Custard

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When you live in Wisconsin, it’s easy to take frozen custard for granted. Those outside the Midwest may think of custard as simply soft serve, a lie promulgated by a national ice cream chain that shall remain unnamed. It’s true that custard comes from a machine like soft serve but that’s where the similarities end. Custard is smooth, rich, and dense with the addition of egg yolks and the subtraction of air – spoons stand straight at attention, just like those commercials for Dennison’s chili from my childhood proclaimed. Custard makers work hard to keep the percentage of air in their product low to make for a dense dessert that more extrudes rather than releases from the machine valve. It’s even regulated by law – the FDA requires custard to contain 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolks. That might not sound like many yolks but many ice creams contain no yolks – the yolks are crucial to custard’s satiny finish. Most places offer vanilla and chocolate with a rotating daily flavor or two. Custard is expensive and time-consuming to make, which is why you won’t find dozens of flavors.

Custard machine

Custard machine

On a mission, we set out for Milwaukee to taste some of the state’s finest. While I wouldn’t ordinarily consider temperatures hovering around 50 to be ice cream weather, when it’s been so cold for so long (below 0 on the first day of spring, friends), 50 degrees feels like 80 and you can happily stand in the parking lot of Leon’s Frozen Custard licking your cone. (Vanilla for me and the featured flavor, maple nut, for my husband, in case you wondered.) An added bonus: Leon’s supposedly inspired the drive-in concept for the TV show “Happy Days,” one of my favorites.

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Truth be told, we did not confine ourselves to custard alone – we also had ice cream for our two cone lunch – but being in America’s Dairyland, we figured we still did Wisconsin proud.

A Toast to a Poet

There’s something kind of wonderful about a place that celebrates a long-dead and, frankly, difficult to understand poet with a feast. But that’s Scotland for you.

It’s true that I’m a bit of a Scotland obsessive (sorry to those who have endured my carrying on) so perhaps my accolades mean little. But seriously, a poet?! And one who died in 1796? I just can’t get over it. But celebrate people do. And not just in Scotland.

Every January, people around the world pay tribute to Scotsman Robert Burns through the Burns’ Night Supper on or around his birthday of January 25th. Among his many works are that old New Years’ chestnut “Auld Lang Syne so even if you don’t think you know the name, you probably know his work.

You can find Burns’ Night Suppers everywhere. We went to one here in Wisconsin. And there’s one in Vancouver that combines Burns’ Night with Chinese New Year to make probably the most amazing food event ever: Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

The centerpiece of a Burns’ Night meal is haggis (or the veggie haggis that I made), or as Burns called it the ‘great chieftain o’the puddin’-race.’ The haggis isn’t just set on the table. No, it is “piped in” on a platter to the music of bagpipes during a procession. Then someone reads “Address to a Haggis” followed by a toast to the haggis. Seriously, everyone keeps a straight face (well, mostly).

Besides haggis, there’s neeps and tatties, soup, and dessert. This year for dessert, I made a clootie dumpling, a fruit-studded pudding boiled in a cloth. Sound strange? It is but it tastes delicious.

clootie dumpling

clootie dumpling

The whole thing is delicious really. Food, prose, and piping, and all in tribute to a poet.

 

Applejack Season

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

A few months back, the editor of a new drinks magazine out of Scotland called Hot Rum Cow contacted me to talk applejack for the next issue of his magazine. How could I refuse him? Apples? Scotland? I’m in. We had a great chat and the issue is now out (preview here).

Seeing the story (in an issue dedicated to cider) reminded me that winter is prime applejack season. Applejack is hard cider’s burly cousin, the one with an edge that breathes fire, particularly in its colonial American incarnation.

Early Americans made applejack at home. In the winter. They would fill a barrel with cider in the fall and then leave the barrel outside to freeze. As the water froze, they would skim off the slush leaving the alcohol behind. A few times through this freezing process yielded a highly potent and potentially dangerously impure drink behind. How dangerous? Some referred to applejack as “the essence of lockjaw.”

Applejack like hard cider was vital to colonial life. Apples grew where grains and grapes did not. Everyone had an orchard, and turning apples into alcohol was an efficient and easy way to preserve a harvest too large to consume as whole fruit. Applejack even helped to fuel revolution as Laird (the oldest commercial distillery in the U.S.) supplied George Washington and his troops with applejack.

Today, of course, distillers use more controlled methods of making applejack so we can drink without fear. And thankfully, there’s more of it to drink as applejack seems to be benefiting from the cocktail boom.

There are so many places that brag that George Washington rested his ponytail on their beds – it seems far cooler to me to say you drank what George drank.

 

Feasting on Lutefisk

You may think there’s only one traditional fall feast … but you’d be wrong. Meet the lutefisk supper, a fall and early winter tradition in the Upper Midwest. You can find these pungent fish meals in church basements, community centers, and unsurprisingly, at Sons of Norway lodges all over Wisconsin and Minnesota.

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Lutefisk chef - a very smelly job

Lutefisk chef – a very smelly job (note the plastic-covered walls – this is a smell you don’t want to linger)

Personally, and despite my Scandinavian heritage (don’t tell anyone), I don’t go in for the jiggly lye-soaked cod drenched in butter. Some might say it’s an acquired taste. I’m just there for the lefse. Rolls of it, piled high in pyramids on plates at both ends of the table. A little cranberry sauce spread inside or some butter and sugar, and I’ve got all the tradition I need.

Lefse! Now we're talking!

Lefse! Now we’re talking!

Read my story on the culinary tradition of the lutefisk supper on Smithsonian.com