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.

Past and Present in the Wisconsin Dells

The Wisconsin Dells is a funny place. Like Wall Drug, its attractions scream at you from billboards all over the state – magic shows, water parks, thrills, terror (the amusement park kind), music (often cheesy or popular several decades ago – or if you’re really lucky, both), it’s all there.

As a kid, Wisconsin Dells was one of the many Wisconsin places my family visited in the summer. But not for the water parks that often draw people there today. No, we came to ride the Ducks, those amphibious boat vehicles that apparently saw action in World War II before finding a new life patrolling the woods around the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton (And in more recent years, taking tourists around big cities with some kind of duck whistle and/or silly hat. The Dells had them first). Or to take the boat cruise or visit the H.H. Bennett photography studio, Parson’s Indian Trading Post (open since 1914), or one time, to take the horse-driven canyon tour. Only once did I convince my mom to fork over the money for the wax museum.

We ate at Paul Bunyan’s cook shanty, a circus-y restaurant, and the supper club Ishnala; and we slept in motels straight from the 1950s and 1960s with holiday-themed rooms, see-saws and merry-go-rounds out back, or plastic palm trees beside pastel shades more at home in Florida or the tropics than south central Wisconsin.

Did I mention that I loved it?

Wisconsin Dells holds very specific and place-based memories for me, a mythical childhood-and-vacation Wisconsin that bares little resemblance to the Wisconsin I actually live in now.  My adult self cringes at the artificiality of the whole place with its fake Greek columns, pyramids, enormous wave pools, and log structures, and instead longs to see the striated bluffs and rock formations that first drew people to the area in the mid-19th century. And really, a dog jumps across Stand Rock in imitation of that great Bennett photo of his son leaping across the chasm from 1886, purportedly the first stop-action photo taken in the world? A trained dog?

And yet, I can’t help but smile at the sight of a green-and-white Duck driving down the parkway, and sigh with relief that the deer park is still there even though I’ve never been there to actually pet a deer and I frankly don’t like the whole petting zoo concept in any format. And phew, waterskiing shows.


Maybe it’s the place and maybe its nostalgia. It’s both horrifying and fascinating to see the gaudy and destructive infrastructure atop a place so rich in natural beauty and history. But I also remember the delight of being a kid in a place so unlike anywhere else I’d been. It’s one place where my younger and older selves collide, where one idea of Wisconsin meets another, reminding me that I still have a lot to learn about this place and my place in it.

What I Did Today

Inspired by the Creative Fiction Foundation oddly interesting “What We Did Today” tumblr, here’s a very incomplete list of what I accomplished (accomplished sounds so lofty and so well… accomplished) today:

1. Finished the final mix of a Wisconsin Life radio piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg with a dramatic reading of two letters, one from a soldier at the battle and the other from his fiance describing what she read of the battle in the newspaper. Amazing stuff.

2. Watched a delightful Oreo animation as inspiration for a possible animation/radio project, rekindling my childhood ambition to be an animator.

3. Ate a piece of birthday kringle and marveled with colleagues on the possibility of saving money by eating multiple meals a week from the countless birthday/employment anniversary/new employee/departing employee snack-dessert tables alone.

4. Discussed and celebrated the rehanging of bras on the ceiling of a Milwaukee bar after the city backed down from its bra ban.

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.



Historic Green Travel

At a time when everyone and everything is engaged in going green, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s first environmentally-sound tour occurred long before going green was hip.

In July 1858, an anonymous Milwaukee resident and his companion set out to cross the entire state, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, on foot, just for the heck of it. Signing his articles only as “Alpha C.,” he described their “walk of some little romance” in the Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel.

1856 View of MilwaukeeSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1856 View of Milwaukee
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Walking only three miles outside Milwaukee on the first day, the pair walked 23 miles to Delafield the next day, stopping in Oconomowoc, “a very pleasant village, full of pleasant people, on a very pleasant lake, full of very pleasant sail boats,” he wrote.  Every trip seems pleasant at the start, doesn’t it?

At Watertown, floods had damaged the Watertown Plank Road, which made it “risky for the unsuspecting traveler to attempt to cross Rock River after dark.  There was enough of the bridge left to carry a man into deep water, and nothing laid across to stop him;… and my walk to the Mississippi came near ending at the Rock.”

From Watertown, the pair turned north into Dodge County, where they found a well-kept resort on Lake Emily and the “largest field of Fife wheat I have ever seen…I am incompetent to describe it with justice.”

Fort Winnebago, which they examined at Portage, “is not the interesting pile of ruins that some folks expect to find it. Heading for Baraboo the pair needed to cross the Wisconsin River as dusk came on. The owner of the only boat offered to take them across for the exorbitant fee of $3.00, thinking that with the coming dark, the travelers’ only option would be to pay.  “But we showed him there was one thing more we could do; we reduced ourselves to the state of nature, fastened our little effects up our backs over our shoulders… and swam the river.”

1858 map of WisconsinSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1858 map of Wisconsin
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Exhausted and wet, they camped somewhere around Devils Lake and “then, for the only time during the whole journey, some doubt came into my mind as to there being so much romance about it after all; for that evening only, it assumed the aspect of a stern matter of fact; Fancy was overpowered by Experience.” They made a large fire “to keep the wolves and mosquitoes away, and ate voraciously of smoked beef and crackers.

They reached the Wisconsin Dells the following day, “where one might think the whole world was made of rock.” They visited Pilot Nob, admired the gorges, and speculated correctly on the potential of the area as a magnificent tourist destination.

Following the railroad northwest for the next few days they passed through Lemonwier Valley, and the new towns of Mauston, New Lisbon, and Greenfield.  They pushed through to Sparta and then on to La Crosse where they climbed Grandad Bluff and the writer realized “the earliest ambitious wish of my boyhood was at last gratified — I saw the Mississippi!”

Arriving in La Crosse thirty days after they began, the author concluded ” by the roads I travelled, the distance is 302 miles, all of which I walked,” a mighty distance to walk then as it is almost unimaginable today.  And clearly the walking bug and spirit of adventure were still in him, as he planned to continue on to Itasca Lake, Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, excited by the prospects of all that he would see along the way.

For the Love of Custard


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.


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.

Old Photos of New Family

As a kid, I would sometimes purchase new aunts, grandparents, and cousins. No, it wasn’t some kind of mail-order bride-type scheme or human trafficking. It was old photographs to fill a family album.

My dad collects old cameras, and every year, we’d go to a big camera show just south of Seattle. Honestly, I dreaded going. Camera bodies, lenses, straps, red bellows, black bellows, tripods, and other metallic odds and ends filled table after table in what seemed to be a room without end. My dad looked at everything at least five times. Maybe five hundred. Or at least that’s what it seemed to my child-sized patience.

Then one year, my mom and I discovered a side room filled with shoe boxes and milk crates of black and white photographs. Babies in Christening gowns on tufted chairs; head shots of women with braids wrapped several times around their heads; mothers and children standing buttoned up around a seated father in a suit and bowler. I couldn’t stop flipping through the photographs, wondering who these people were and how they ended up anonymously stashed in a box. Most had nothing written on the back.

“Lost relatives,” I declared to my mom.

She was fingering a worn velvet photo album with “Family Album” stamped in gold on the front. Inside, its thick board pages had cut-out windows surrounded by printed flowers, polka dots, and curlicues. It was the most beautiful photo album I’d ever seen. A paper tag inside said it dated from the 1890s.

Soon, we were grabbing photos from the boxes and trying them out in the album. Maybe this beautiful woman in the bustle was my great-great-great aunt? And this toddler leaning over the back of the chair a distant cousin? Maybe, why not? We soon filled the album with our new relatives.

To this day, I can’t stop looking at old photographs, trying to imagine who these people are and what their lives must have been like. Photographs of old sports teams and panoramic view of factories with all the employees lined up out front are some of my favorites. And of course, this photo:

This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect.

This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect. Source: WHI 1994

The velvet album filled with my fictional family still sits in my parents’ living room, the people in the photos separated from their own families but more than welcome in mine.


Out on the Ice

My first step is cautious and distrustful. In front of me are dozens of fishing shacks. Even more fishermen – and they are mostly men – casually stroll around as though they walk on solid earth rather than the frozen top of Lake Monona. The blinding glare from the snow and ice in the winter sun is matched by the glow of the blaze orange snowsuits that constitute ice fashion. Swallowing hard, I step out to join my husband in the crowded metropolis atop Monona Bay.


In the winter, a city-within-a-city forms in Madison, a kind of wintery Christiania fueled by cans of Miller Lite and cases of Leinenkugels. Ice fishermen take to the bay as soon as the ice forms and remain there long after it seems safe to do so. It’s not unusual to take John Nolen Drive on an odd 70-degree weekend in early April and see fishermen wading through the melt of winter’s remains, clinging to their poles and swinging a 5-gallon bucket. With your car windows down breathing deeply of the warm air, the sight of ice fishermen shatters the reverie, reminding you that spring rarely arrives in Wisconsin before late May.

That morning, our friend John had pulled up to our downtown condo in a blaze orange snowsuit behind the wheel of a Jeep. I’d never seen him in anything but his white doctor’s coat. Originally from Hawaii, John had taken to Wisconsin with gusto, and he was eager to show us the ins-and-outs of his favorite winter pursuit.

Like any city, the ice shack community offers its own amenities. Not the least of which is the camaraderie built of hours staring into a hole and jiggling a fishing line. Portable televisions trick out the more luxurious shacks while other people, usually sitting on buckets or in camp chairs, make-do with a scratchy radio signal. But there’s also a hot dog stand.

John helps me find a spot, and I hand-auger a hole through the ice. It’s just as hard as you imagine, and despite the cold, I find myself red-faced, sweaty, and quickly passing the device on to my husband to finish. He also threads the still-wiggling maggot on my hook, his normally placid – despite – what – his -wife – thinks – are – disgusting – bugs – and – critters face screwing up at the task.

The view from atop my overturned bucket is among Madison’s finest. The whole of downtown spreads before me  – the soaring capitol dome topped with the gold Lady Wisconsin statue that so many people mistake for our other lady, Lady Forward, at the capitol’s base; an early 20th century minty-colored boathouse; and the Jetsons-meet-Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace  – strung out along the shoreline of Lake Monona. A similar cityscape is visible from the car on John Nolen Drive and is the one you take new visitors to see, but it passes too quickly to really enjoy at 45 miles per hour.

The real prize, though, is the open expanse of ice. It stretches for a few miles in each direction, broken only by sections upheaved by ice quakes. In a city of familiar streets, a new piece of terrain to explore, albeit temporary and often bitterly cold, is the real magic of the season.

After two hours on the ice, I’m freezing. Walking back toward shore, I smile at the hardier fishermen who got there before me and will leave long after. Nothing about ice fishing seems urban yet here I am, in the middle of Madison clinging to a pole and swinging my bucket.