It’s a central irony of Wisconsin’s place in the American food revolution that Dane County boasts a central farmers’ market that makes the Top 100 in Saveur magazine and yet Wisconsin (and, by extension, the whole Upper Midwest) is generally either ignored or ridiculed by the food cognoscenti in print. There are notable exceptions—Sanford D’amato’s Milwaukee eateries, Madison’s L’Etoile, a handful of others scattered across the State—but an important question remains, framed in sharp relief by the menus of these restaurants: Does Wisconsin have a native cuisine that can live up to its agricultural splendor?
Well, it’s an open question. As our society begins its long march towards a sane relationship with the natural world, the concept of “local food” has taken center stage. Four or five generations ago, eating local was not an educated or heroic gesture, it was what you did if you were hungry—much like eating organic. When Americans were introduced to the food of Italy, China, Mexico, France (there are many others, I’m just hitting the big ones here), one of the things they were experiencing was the paradigm shift of an old culture that had evolved its food in response to a particular environment. Immigrant cooks had to figure out how to make dishes that were the artful and loving distillation of the best of their agricultural alphabets-with only a few of the original letters. To a great degree, as recent cookbook authors have pointed out, this meant not a reformation of the old idioms but the creation of entirely new ones that are appropriately judged on their own merits and not in contrast to the original.
Speaking with Jeff Orr, co-worker, fellow chef and longtime culinary practitioner in Madison, about his experience cooking with Wisconsin ingredients, he says “My cuisine is basically personal and American. I took the ingredients available to me locally and applied French technique and sensibility—so, in that sense, the menus were probably closest to the French idiom, but really not tied to a ‘Wisconsin’ concept of cuisine.” Reflecting on this and our discussion about the history of food in America generally, I felt similarly about my experiences writing menus, not only in Wisconsin but in other regions of America as well. In the urban contexts I had worked in, the influences and the supply of ingredients were too manifold to really shape a uniform character. In the country—where, ironically, the potential for regional food diversity and native culinary character should be at its height—food has often become marginalized to the drive-through window or reduced to the selections dictated by a chain grocery.
A native cuisine, in the sense of a cooking style that is a reflection of the best judgments and preferences of the people in a particular ecology, needs time and, to some extent, isolation to develop. In every great world cuisine, we see a long history of people becoming better acquainted with a particular list of ingredients than they would probably prefer. Cooking, not for most of human history a televised celebrity event, was a necessity, to be sure, but also a powerful way to draw social groups together—perhaps a group as small as a couple thinking of marriage, perhaps as large as a small village celebrating a harvest or a holiday. As such, food preparations that reflected the habits and customs of a particular group of people represented a constant refinement and expression of their sense of who they were and what they did. Things changed very little over time and a great deal over geographical distance, as Henry Glassie said of traditional music. Invasions and trade would inevitably exert colossal influence, as new sensibilities and flavors were encountered and either absorbed into the native canon or rejected.
Modern life in Wisconsin finds us with a gigantic emphasis on our agriculture and justifiably so. The possibilities available to the home or restaurant cook in Wisconsin in high season rival those available anywhere in the U.S., with a few truly unique exceptions—the Gulf Coast, Central California, New Jersey (had to throw an underdog in there). In the final reckoning, though, I think the relative youth of the European habitation of the area has meant that the culinary character here has been too much in motion to settle into a distinctively regional pattern separate from the mass of American society. To be sure, the emphasis on certain ingredients and food preparations—sausage, beer, corn, maple syrup—is hard-wired and will be for the foreseeable future. As well, some ingredients sought out by cooks to fulfill a recipe—ocean fish comes to mind—might be prudently rethought. But, in the main, the cook in Wisconsin faces a thriving and ever-growing catalog of ingredients produced within 100 miles of their kitchen and, within seasonal limitations, can consider their imagination and good judgment the only boundaries on the menu.