Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Getting Fat in Wisconsin
Part Two

I warned you last time that you get fat in Wisconsin because even something as seemingly healthy as spinach-feta pie comes with a little extra buttah, but I did not warn you of some of those more insidious uses of butter. Surely, to prop up the prices, support the family farmer, Wisconsinites make sure that everything is buttered. I told you that the Manitowoc made brat and Little Penny at Penguin were nice. I did not reveal the secret that made them nicer. Butter. Both sammys get served on a buttered Wisconsin “semmel” roll. I love the way the semmel is dressed for the brat brown mildly spicy mustard on the bottom, buttered on top. It is not just your sandwiches that come buttered. Nearly all the bread in Wisconsin comes buttered for you, relieving the stress of such physical activity (actually relieving the stress of dealing with often cold butter, no?). At Penguin Drive-In, the Chowhoundintas got the chicken finger deal; which included, buttered bread slices. All the time, our meals came with buttered bread. At the end of the line at the Washington Island Fly-In Lion’s Club annual fish boil (see below), after getting our fish, potatoes, onions doused with melted butter, we were handed tiny slices of cocktail rye, slathered, of course, in butter. KK Fiske’s house made bread underneath the butter was so good; I had no choice but to consume butter. I am this week, much fatter than last.

You get fat in Wisconsin because you visit a fish fry on Friday. We did. A tough call. Washington Island has a surprisingly number of good restaurants. What makes eating fish on Washington Island especially good is that the fish on your plate was in the water not that long ago. Boats bring in daily catches of perch, whitefish and burbot, more commonly called lawyers. OK, perch may not be there every day, but KK Fiske offers nuggets of fried lawyers daily. This is a fish that purportedly cannot last in the market more than 2 days, nor can it be effectively frozen, and the rest of the nation’s loss is Washington Island’s gain. Since we ate at KK Fiske already and Findlay’s Friday fish fry featured nothing but fish (and the kidz sadly do not want to eat fish), we decided to try Carly’s Cellar. Fine, fine choice. Carly’s expertly deep fried the perch, offering it up with sweet cole slaw and hash browns. I never reported on my last Friday fish fry in Wisconsin, at Historic Turner Hall, in the gentrified in a good way, 3rd Street area of Milwaukee. Turner Hall perch cannot reach the sweetness of Washington Island perch, but the highly preserved 19th century hall makes this a Friday fish fry worth trying.

Not all fish in Wisconsin comes fried. They broil whitefish all the time. Granted, at the Sister Bay Bowl (supper club) they top broiled whitefish with yummy crunchy fried onion bits (which combine nicely with the paprika fish coating). Broiled whitefish in Illinois seems like an afterthought, something old Jewish couples still order for some long forgotten reason. It is not a fish with young fans. Today’s Chicago Tribune food section notes that at Shaw’s Crabhouse, whitefish does not sell nearly as well as Atlantic salmon. While I doubt this is explains it, but if you eat broiled whitefish in Wisconsin, you get spoiled to other broiled whitefish. At Sailor’s Pub on the southern harbor on Washington Island, the broiled whitefish is as thick and plump as a swordfish steak. You might stay thin(er) with this fish, but Sailor’s Pub serves some pretty good crinkle-cut fries with the broiled fish.

Boiled fish seems safely dietetic, but who eats boiled fish plain. Everyone sez that Door County fish boils are excuses to drink in vast quantities of melted butter. At the LTH 1000 member gala, a few people talked down the fish boil. A New England clam bake without the benefit of clams or lobster they said. Well, let me tell you. I happen to like fresh lake whitefish better than clams (a rather over-rated foodstuff in my opinion). And I think the fish boil was unfairly maligned, at least the fish boils we tried. They, the mythic they, also say that fish boils are strictly for tourists. I think not. KK Fiske on Washington Island boils fish a few times each week. I would not call this place touristy at all. I also noted at some point, that we had the VERY good fortune of being on Washington Island the week of its annual Island fish boil held at the Island airport (nothing more than a big patch of mowed lawn with pylons delineating the runway). A lot of people gathered under big tents for fish, potatoes, sweet onions (the boil really brings out the sweetness in the onions), potatoes, cole slaw, and assorted cakes baked by the moms of Washington Island.

You know what fish boil reminded me of? Don’t laugh…Texas BBQ. Surely they differ in approach. One is cooked with extreme violence, water so hot it explodes in famous flames, the other cooked low and slow, some Texas brisket taking over a day to finish. Yet, both products are elemental yet complex in flavor. Each method of cooking makes the product exactly right, and the butter enhances just right as BBQ sauce enhances Q. Of course, watch out for bones with the fish boil.

You get fat in Wisconsin because you eat dessert. The Washington Island annual fish boil ended with cake, a surprise. Mostly you eat pie or pie-ish things. KK Fiske had a cherry crisp and Carly’s Cellar had cherry-raspberry pie baked, so we were told, a few hours earlier. On the way home on 42, we stopped at Sweetie Pies, which sells whole fruit pies, pie slices and mid-sized “cutie pies.” All the pies featured butter-shortening crusts. You get fat in Wisconsin because if you skip the pie, you stop for frozen custard.

Several months ago, we tried Gilley’s and Leon’s in Milwaukee. Gilley’s was good, a little too much like softserv. Leon’s was greatly dense. Now, it does not have to be frozen custard. Wilson’s has been serving large scoop ice cream in Ephraim for almost 100 years. We wanted to try, but our motel proprietor in Sister Bay suggested Not Licked Yet custard in Fish Creek as better. We pulled into Not Licked Yet’s troll guarded lot at a bit after 10:30 on a Sunday morning just as Al Johnson’s Swedish pancakes were moving past our gullets. Custard would make a nice mid-morning snack. We thought we heard them say 11 as the opening time, and we waited, feeding ducks. When it turned out that it was 11:30, we decided to move on to lunch. After lunch we custarded at the closer to where we then were, Malibu Moo’s. Malibu Moo’s does the “granite griddle”, their version of the cold stone. Cutesy but effective as I really enjoyed the plain vanilla custard with Door County tart cherries. The night before we tried Door County Ice Cream Factory, Door County cherry, cherry ice cream. Another reason why I got fat in Wisconsin, although as good as this cherry ice cream was, I preferred the interplay of plain custard against plump cherries compared to cherry ice cream.

Perhaps I’ll spend the rest of the year dieting, making room to get fat again on Washington Island, in Door County, and all over Wisconsin. There is the Norwegian restaurant to try in Sister Bay, supper clubs to compare. Carly’s Cellar had the requisite relish tray with dill dip but Sister Bay Bowl did not. What is THE supper club? I will make it sooner than later to Charcoal Inn and pronounce my judgment on Sheboygan brats vs. Manitowoc brats. I’ll get to Not Licked Yet when it is open and try Wilson’s fer sure. I like getting fat in Wisconsin.
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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

7th Market - Hat Hammond reports
Oak Park Farmer's Market 7/16/05

As I noted last week, I was outta town for this week's market. Thus, I recruited David "Hat" Hammond to report. He submitted a nicely coded report for me to copy and paste into the blog, but I could not get one thing to work, his expandable images. As the pictures are a big part of the "fun" in his report, I decided to just link instead to his write-up on

Hammond Pulls An All-Nighter
Shop Whole Foods Now!

I have (very) mixed feelings about Whole Foods. There are a few things I really like about the store, mainly the milk and bread. The value of Whole Foods is, that on any given day, I can get the outstanding milk produced by Amish farmers from Iowa called "Farmer's All Natural Creamery", and I can get a pretty decent loaf of bread (not the best but as they say, more than decent). What I almost always skip is, the produce.

While I want organic produce, I really deplore the way that Whole Foods does it. I know it is not accurate to call it faux organic as organic is organic, but the corporate and imported fruits and vegetables that make up Whole Food's inventory surely violates certain ideas behind "organic". For one thing Whole Food's produce does not support "regular" farmer's. For another thing, another thing, how good can all of this shipped in produce really be? It aint farm fresh. Yet, there is hope.

Yesterday at Whole Food's in River Forest, they were selling Illinois peaches. I know, I know, where exactly do we define local? Is something close to St. Louis local food for Chicago? Well, for me, yes. My boundaries for local basically follow the Big Ten Conference. Alas, I digress. Whole Foods was selling peaches from Eckert's Farms in Bellevue, Illinois. I grabbed a bunch just to help convince the Whole Food's powers that be that there was a market for this stuff.

But you know what really infuriated me? An employee was poo-pahing the peaches to another customer, essentially, as far as I could tell, because they were still mostly hard. He decided to offer samples to this customer, and then since I was there, to me too. Turns out he was quite wrong. I thought he should have been pitching the peaches just to get people to eat local. Seems he should be pitching these peaches because they are pretty good too. Shop now, who knows how long they will be there.