Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Getting Fat in Wisconsin
Part One

We did not eat our last meal in Wisconsin as planned. Leaving the Door peninsula for the near perfect farmland (yes EVERY barn is red) and occasional industrial town that is Wisconsin 42, we passed a couple of good looking and seemingly crowded supper clubs, but I was supper clubbed out. We also passed the good looking and seemingly crowded Kewaunee Custard shop, but I was oddly enough, frozen custarded out—well, I had eaten frozen custard not that much earlier at Malibu Moo’s in Fish Creek. And while the Condiment Queen pined for a drive-in offering bison burgers right across the street from a bison farm, I asked for the favor of moving on to Sheboygan. I wanted a quick brat, a Sheboygan brat, at Sheboygan’s famed Charcoal Inn. I figured, how often does one pass through Sheboygan during dinner time, or even make it a point to drive through Sheboygan at any time (and having now driven through Sheboygan at dinner time, I can see why it is off the radar, a sadly deteriorated town). Yet, I will return one day to Sheboygan because the Charcoal Inn closes on Sunday. This forced us to the next closest eating place, Annabel’s Family Restaurant.

I did not think much of Annabel’s, but it provided me with the perfect dish, the dish that perhaps sums up eating in Wisconsin. I knew for a while that the theme of my Wisconsin report, the theme of four visits to Wisconsin this year: Getting Fat. Now, many people have seen me at various Chowhound/LTH events over the years, and they know that I am surely on the Hardy side of Laurel and. If I spent more time up there, I’d look even more like Ollie. Why? In Wisconsin if you go to Annabel’s Family Restaurant, a “local greek” with the standard big menu and ordered the local greek with the big menu standard, spinach-feta pie, you would get a pie, compact from being pressed and cooked on the griddle like a burgers. The griddle adds a bit of flavor, however, it would not be enough flavor to make it Wisconsin worthy. In Wisconsin, your flattish, spinach-feta pie comes with a golf ball sized knob of melting butter on top.

You get fat in Wisconsin because when you visit Findlay’s Holiday Inn on Washington Island for breakfast, they point you to a bar for fresh made donuts to relieve the morning pang (before ordering). Of course, you may be like me and have already snuck a donut from a small stash of buttermilk donuts sold once a week at the Washington Island’s Washington Hotel (more on this in another post). You get fat in Wisconsin because it is quite hard to resist eating either of these two sets of donuts. And you get fat in Wisconsin because after finish your donut you eat a breakfast of farm fresh eggs cooked in Wisconsin butter, and with your butter-eggs you get outstanding hash browns. Hash browns with the wonder of being equally greasy and crisp. Or, you try the special of the day, French toast with a Door County cherry sauce. If you want instead, to have Swedish pancakes with lingonberries on Washington Island, there is Lenny’s, which is also an arcade and pizza parlor. (Island commerce is a lot like that, the liquor store doubles as the appliance vendor.)

Not that bad these pancakes, but it was the only food we ate on Washington Island that we’d skip next time. The pancakes needed a few more minutes on the grill. It also bugged me that while maple trees are tapped in Door County, Lenny's served up some tiny packages of “maple flavored” crap. I did not expect anything on Washington Island like an air hockey emporium that dabbled in Swedish pancakes, let alone something as delicious as Findlay’s Holiday Inn, as posh as Washington Hotel, which nightly served a six course gourmet dinner featuring local products (expect a full report soon). I did not expect fresh lawyers and fresh whitefish and fresh perch served up within hours of their being caught.

My request for information on Washington Island produced nada. I expected three days of pleasant seclusion as the kidz swam in Lake Michigan. On the drive up we stocked, in fear of starving, at all the farm stands we passed. We'd survive on berries if nothing else. We detoured just north of the Milwaukee suburbs to Saukville, to an olde tyme butcher, Blaus, who sells a bunch of kinds of blood sausages and headcheeses, bison and brats. Also, as they note, will clean, dress, grind and otherwise deal with anything you catch (taxidermy included if you want). In the interest of honesty, I should point out that Blaus Saukville Meats sells mostly frozen stuff. And we never got around to cooking any of it because we enjoyed too much getting fat at Washington Island’s restaurants.

We did eat for breakfast and lunches, our smoked fishes we got from Charlie’s Smoke House, on Gill’s Rock, just about at land’s end. Go for the aroma. Go for the affordability. Go for all of it. Charlie’s smokes whitefish from local waters, chubs caught near Milwaukee, lake trout from Superior, farm raised Atlantic salmon and wild Pacific salmon. We got one of each. Needless to say, it was all good. We could contrast it to Bearcat’s, a smoke fish shop along the river in Algoma because the Fish Creek General Store, where we picked up lunch on the way home sold Bearcat’s fish. We sampled whitefish and whitefish-cream cheese spread. Bearcat’s whitefish was much saltier, intense, but not really in a bad way, the spread ideal. We hear Bearcat has some great pickled fish, and hopefully next time we pass Bearcat’s store, it will still be opened. Except for those cold meals, we were getting fat on restaurant food.

We tried the Swedish pancakes at Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay, no goats on the roof at 7 AM. Better cooked pancakes than those we had a day earlier on the Island, slightly less good lingonberries and still no local syrup. Lousy meatballs though, gummy and excessively salty after the cardamom taste wisps off. I’m convinced I’d get fat next time at the Sunset Resort on Washington Island that offers, for breakfast, Icelandic pancakes and something called barkram pankaka (which produced zero hits on Google).

If you take the obvious turn-off to 42 at Manitowoc (and most people seemed to skip this for highway all the way up towards Green Bay), you will quickly find yourself at the Penguin Drive-In (a real car-hoppin’ drive-in by the way), home of the ½ pound “Big Penny” burger. I skipped the burger for the local brat. Seems Manitowacans compete with Sheboygan over bratwursts the way certain towns in Southern France battle over cassoulet recipes. In Manitowoc, you eat the Cher-Made brat, a brat with a strong dose of nutmeg. Alas, as noted, I failed to make the direct comparison between brats made in Sheboygan and brats made in Manitowoc. At Penguin, I did get a taste of Ms. VI’s small penny burger. But people get fat in Wisconsin because with their brats and penny’s they eat a side of fried cheese curds (yes quite good). And frozen custard, we sampled two cups of Penguin’s custard, not the best I’ve had in Wisconsin, but is that like saying Veuve Clicot was not the best in Epernay.

A mistake. If one is in Manitowoc Wisconsin, valuable stomach space should be reserved for Beernsten’s. In a mildly thriving downtown Manitowoc, just north of the river, stands the ancient Beernsten’s candy shop. Even if the high ceiling is covered in acoustic tiles instead of tin, the place remains classic. The booths are walnut and the walls are paneled with the same. The lights seem to glow with museum quality yellow. We were too full to try any of the sundaes and sodas elaborately described in the “Sundae News”, but we did buy some candies. Did I mention that we skipped the ice cream at Beernsten’s because we custarded at Penguin? Well, we fudged at Cook’s Corner, world’s largest cookware store, so they say, located in downtown Manitowoc, and also home to some pretty good fudge.

You get fat in Wisconsin because there is some pretty good fudge. Of course no one is forcing you to eat fudge in Wisconsin. But it seems that people vacation in Wisconsin simply to have the excuse to eat fudge. And we were helpless to resist the call of thousands of candy shops along 42. In Fish Creek I thought I put my foot down. No more candy for us. Until we saw the charming Sister Sweets that stood in obvious contrast to the corporate Door County Confectionary (and I use corporate somewhat loosely). Just a look, no? A taste. More fudge, more caramels, some home made bars with chocolate and raisins and nuts, some almond toffee added to our collection.

To be continued, in which we learn that your fish don’t have to be fried to get you fat in Wisconsin.

Except for Annabel’s in Sheboygan (which you will have no need to try), everything mentioned above, not on the penisula, that is not on Washington Island, is on or right off of Highway 42 in Wisconsin. For the stuff on Washington Island, well, if you go there, you should easily be able to find anything mentioned. Oh, and Blaus is easy to find too. Get off of I-43 at the Port Washington/Saukville exit. Go west just a bit, and it will be there on your left.


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