Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Delicious, Wisconsin

On the excellent Heavy Table website last week, editor James Norton took the author of a recently published cookbook to task for what he saw as a serious misrepresentation of the history of cheesemaking in Wisconsin. He carried the argument beyond mere factual error, ascribing the off-hand dismissal of a long history of artisan cheese in the state to the condescending attitude of the coasts toward the middle of the country in general:

Artisan cheese is haute cuisine, an art that is most naturally associated with Italy and France. These are places that the California and New York gastronomic communities look up to.

California and New York look down upon the Midwest on general principle (and not totally without reason, if you’ve ever dined poorly in a large Midwestern suburb). Midwesterners who move to California or New York are often the worst offenders on this front — no one wants to be seen as an apologist for something uncool.

Therefore: World-class fine food cannot come from the nation’s heartland. Burgers, fries, smoked fish, and other folk food; fine. Raw materials for California and New York chefs, fine. But world-class cheese? No; that would be a disruption of the natural social order.

There was a lot about that article, the response of the cookbook's author, the comments on Heavy Table, that got me thinking. My first reaction was almost one of shock, to think that folks elsewhere would look down upon the amazing food resources that we have access to here in "flyover-land." I must have assumed that since I, and many others, have been extolling the virtues of our local, seasonal delights for so long, with such enthusiasm, our impassioned hymns of praise must have been heard the world over(!).

Personally, I eat so well, every day, relying almost entirely on our local bounty, that I would tend to respond to any coastal slight with a satisfied little burp and a smile, acknowledging that, yes, you there in New York, in California, you've far more Michelin stars to gaze upon than us bumpkins, it's a shame we suffer so, and I'd wish them well, and then get back to my meal.

And then there was the whole question, the distinction Jim Norton raises, of "haute cuisine" versus "folk food," and his assertion that artisan cheese belongs to the former category. And now, I'd have to agree that artisan cheese is surely looked upon as exalted foodstuffs, it has the price tag to prove it, but at heart I think it's one of the folkiest foods you can find. I mean, take some milk, make it curdle, stick it in a cave to get nice and moldy...? Does it get any more peasant than that?

I think it points up, once again, a profound and meaningful paradox that runs through the whole history of cuisine both haute and basse, which is: Many of the most sought-after, priciest, most rarified ingredients in the world of "high cooking" come from the lowest of places, and have traditionally been fare not for princes, but for peasants. Wild mushrooms that spring from the forest duff, those cheeses moldering in dank country caves, wild game and fish and shellfish--these are often abundant and common in the places where they arise, and only take on the patina of luxury in the context of the gourmet table. Any culinary cook would drool at the chance to cook with ruffed grouse and pheasant and fresh venison, but in the hunters' kitchens lots of fine game birds get the cream of mushroom soup treatment, and tons upon tons of venison wind up as terriyaki jerky sticks....

I guess it's really a question of perspective, as to one person the scent of a black truffle is the world's sexiest, most exquisite perfume, while to the next it evokes nothing so much as a pair of sweaty socks left in the gym bag over winter break. It's a shame to see the whole fascinating history of Wisconsin cheese tossed-off in one ill-considered headnote; on the other hand, I really could not care less about what anyone else thinks about this region, our food, our goofy accents, or even our Jell-O salads. I know we've got it good, and as to the question of high cuisine and low, in my own life and cooking I don't see the paradox I described above--I don't even recognize the distinction.

I'm as happy with a great piece of smoked fish as with a finely wrought dish at a gourmet restaurant (my home-smoked herring turned out really well, by the way). On the cheese plate we set out for a Bide-A-Wee brunch in honor of our friend Pete visiting from Montana, we had a sort of fancy cheese ( Marieke gouda*), a lovely but not pricey, nonetheless "brand-name" one (Black River Blue), and a no-name aged white cheddar that we often buy from our friend Renee Bartz at Bolen Vale. All were excellent, but the cheddar was especially good, to me. I think Pete really liked the blue.

And on the pickle plate, while chanterelles are generally considered a delicacy, milkweed is generally considered...a weed, go figure. And ramps, while they now enjoy a vaunted culinary reputation, are almost a symbol of Appalachian peasant food. A green bean is generally considered a green bean, and that one was a salt-brined fermented version thereof.

Used to be the aristocracy ate white bread while the hoi polloi bitterly gnashed away at their grainy loaves, but what goes around does come around, and now it's a sign of culinary sophistication to enjoy whole grain sourdough breads. What was traditional is new, the low becomes high. I'd have to say, when push comes to shove and my back is up against the wall to make the judgment call:

It's all good.

And pretty much everything on that table came from Wisconsin--by which I do not mean to slight Minnesota, don't want to start another fight! Great Hope butter from Minnesota, and Whole Grain Milling, Natural Way Mills flour in those "peasant loaves." Pickled green beans, Minnesota grown, right here on Princeton Avenue. I love it when everyone gets along, so deliciously.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


* When I originally posted this I said it was Roth Kase "gruyère"; that was incorrect. But that's another excellent Wisconsin cheese.


Martha said...

Tom and I were recently discussing something similar... the way fresh foods are prized today by food elites but canned and frozen foods were once considered a delicacy (due to their former rarity).

Jen (She said.She said.) said...

Great post Brett. Such an interesting paradox. I always laugh when people call me a food snob. I relish whatever game my husband brings home and I have never been as joyous as when a friend brought me chicken of the woods mushrooms. All of which are prepared simply without much fuss and without the cream of mushroom soup.


Macaroni said...

Nice entry, Brett. It reminded me of some passages in the introductory chapter of my first book, in fact, where I defend Macaroni as a foodstuff that has endured the highs and lows of being considered aristocratic, then plebein, then simply "comfort food," to remain just what it always was--though Dakota wheat perhaps makes it even better...

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Martha: And in another instance of that bizarro world syndrome, now local foods enthusiasts are being accused of elitism! Because we avoid the big-box supermarkets, I guess. One supportive commenter on Jim's Heavy Table piece uses his own blog to assail the local, seasonal movement--calling no less a luminary than Nigella (She Bites) Lawson to support his case. What-as they say-ever....

Jen, I'm glad to hear--though not surprised--that you eschew the Campbell's in your game cookery! My bird hunting season has been a total bust--hardly got out, hardly saw any birds when I did. Hoping for a mid-winter thaw--Wisconsin grouse season goes through January.

John, decoding the loaded meanings in simple everyday edibles can be a job for a seasoned semiotician. I need to dig out the Lévi-Strauss and get cracking.

Oh, and I'd like to add, as a general note, that I don't at all believe that food snobbery, provincialism, elitism, or just plain doofus-headed-ness are more prevalent on the east coast, west coast, or in any particular geography--and, all of those traits are unbecoming wherever they occur. I hope the only axe I have to grind is my Granfors Bruks (aka "Pippi").

Thanks for writing, all~ Brett

Tom said...


It was that Nigella quote (probably found via the same comment on HT) as well as a recent article in Newsweek (don't judge me, it was in the seat-back pocket on the plane) also accusing 'locavores' of elitism that prompted Martha and my conversation about the ironies often present in such accusations. It's easy to get drawn into these arguments, but I'm with you: let's enjoy our smoked herring.

Sara said...

Thanks for coming to the defense of Wisconsin. I do think its partially our fault (us being midwesterners) as we go along with the idea that East/West is better, and are a bit self-effacing about our food, though we secretly love it!

And the whole local food/elitism thing, I think its reflecting some weird dichotomies in our culture, but I can't figure it out. Excellent thoughts about the whole issue...

el said...


You see, I don't think there's a lot of looking-down-upon as you state Brett so much as wha? where?

I think the Heavy Table guy got his nose a little too out of joint. I mean, I even got the feeling that he wasn't considering Ohio to be in the Midwest! The author was factually wrong, true, and perhaps that was due to the terribly broad scope of the book: 600 recipes is nothing to sneeze at. If she were writing the book solely about American dairy recipes, well, yeah, have at her.

Honestly, perhaps the NYT and other publications don't get out much because their target audience doesn't get out much. I mean, how often in the course of any one person's career does a business junket to Sioux Falls or Des Moines or Mad-town really fit in with your average East Coast person, or how often do Californians vacation in Indiana? Let's just say "not terribly often," and leave it at that.

Frankly, I am just personally thrilled people are giving a good gddamn about food, everywhere, and it's been such a strong movement that even many of us lowly Midwesterners have moved Jell-o and Campbell's soup off our plates.

And oh: Chgo has lots of Michelin-starred restaurants. It's about time.

Trout Caviar said...

Tom, this topic has so many intriguing aspects. I mentioned the writer/anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss above (so that liberal education is finally paying off...), and I can't think of him without thinking of his famous statement that "Food is not only good to eat, it is also good to think." And that makes me think about how the choices me make about what we eat, where we get our food, etc., say something about us much deeper than just our taste preferences, or ideas about health and diet, but about how we see ourselves in the greater society, our relationships to other people and groups of people (carnivores-locavores-vegetarians-vegans-raw foodists-wild foodists-caveman dieters-Paula Deen'ers & Sandra Lee'ers-chowhounds & yelpers & diners 'n divers...please stop me...!). And so maybe there is an aspect of elitism to some of the local-seasonal crowd, or if not elitism at least a sort of separatism, self-definition in opposition to the other possible paths--gets you right back to Lévi-Strauss and the basis of structuralist thought...I think. This is maybe a lot to load atop a piece of cheese, but maybe not. To read the menu of a "locavore" restaurant can be a fascinating piece of exegesis.

s: Thanks for your note. It is my pleasure, truly, to sing the praises of Wisconsin and Minnesota food. You're right, I think, to note that this current moment reflects a real shift in attitude, from the time when everything good or desirable came from somewhere else. Somewhere in the Trout Caviar "manifesto," I said that this blog was dedicated to the notion that our stuff is as good as anyone's stuff, and part of the reason that it's good is that it's ours. I'll stick with that.

El: Chicago is in the Midwest...? I've always felt that Chicago, like Mt. Everest, sort of makes its own weather(!). But come to mention it, when I think of how to characterize the place where I live, I'm more likely to think "North" than "Midwest." The way the Midwest is usually defined is way too vast to have any meaning for me. Ohio to Nebraska via Wisconsin and North Dakota? Come on. We need new designations!

Jim Norton has his take, and I have mine, and you have yours. Mine has little to do with what anyone else thinks about our region, our food--as I said, I'm too smug in the knowledge of how good we have it to worry much. But since you mention the NY Times, I'll just note that it does certainly see itself as a national newspaper, and I am part of its audience, and as much as I enjoy and admire it, I actually sometimes see a sort of provincial attitude in its writing about food--a recent article about chefs seeking ever-more-exotic wild foods comes to mind as a rather johnny-come-lately approach to the topic, for instance.

Hey, everyone, thanks for chiming in. This really has been thought-provoking, and now I might just go down to the basement and look for that mildewed old copy of "The Raw and the Cooked"!


Teresa Marrone said...

Hey Brett--

Excellent and though-provoking post, and I've also enjoyed the comments left here. One thing I want to bring up is that across the pond (specifically England and all, eh) wild game was traditionally pretty darn tough to come by for the serfs, from what I understand, since the Lord of the Manor owned everything that was on his land--and vast it was, too. So venison and all that was not exactly peasant food. Pig's ears, yes, now THAT was peasant food, but game, not so much, at least historically speaking. Maybe I've mis-remembered my old research and this is not correct, but that is what I recall.


Trout Caviar said...

Hi, Teresa: Good points, there. Quite true that in much of the Old World the lower classes were disenfranchised on the very land that they worked. What really is interesting to me lately, and I know you'll appreciate this, is not categorical statements about food or its role in culture, but how various foods, ideas and approaches to food, how they sort of "signify" in the cultural context, if that makes any sense. Like, how wild foods in particular have taken on this sort of totemic significance, the chefs who use them are practically looked on as shamans. Since you bring up the pig ears and "low on the hog" eating, that's another perfect example--arguably one of the most famous restaurants in the world in the last few years, Saint John, Fergus Henderson's place in London is based on pigs' trotters! Can't get any lower than that, and, well...what the hell? I love his cookbooks, by the way, and I love the sort of subversiveness in much of this cooking. The charcuterie craze here, a bit of the same thing. There's an overturning of traditional categories that's making for some exciting changes in contemporary food.

Though the gloppy lamb nachos we had at Blackbird in Minneapolis tonight might be taking it too far...burp....

Thanks for weighing in. Cheers~ Brett

p.s.~ I should add that I feel I may have used the term "peasant" a little loosely, and as it might be seen to carry a perjorative meaning I'm going to be more careful of that in future. I certainly don't think that just because someone has Campbell's in the pantry, or enjoys a spicy venison sausage stick from time to time, that that makes them peasants...nuff said.

Tom said...

Alas, the lamb nachos were much better at the old location... perhaps the recipe burned in the fire