Flavors of Wisconsin

A year or so before The Flavor of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $29.95) was published, I spoke with Terese Allen about taking on the enormous task of updating the foremost history on the state’s food and food traditions. Like everything Terese tackles, she took this daunting task in stride, and deftly accomplished it with humility, hard work and a solid, accessible writing style that I’ve always admired as a writer and appreciated as a reader.

She was also really excited to be the chosen one to revise and expand Harva Hachten’s seminal work—part textbook on Wisconsin’s culinary history and part treasury of recipes (460 of them!) through time and from every corner of the state. The book is subtitled “An Informal Guide to Food and Eating in the Badger State,” which seems almost impossible to capture given Wisconsin’s incredibly diverse ethnic, cultural and religious traditions. Perhaps that’s why it was dubbed an informal guide, though it’s more likely the result of one of Wisconsin’s other rich traditions: modesty (often to a fault!). But whatever you call it, informal or formal, the result is a robust and fun collection of essays, photos and recipes that Allen and the Wisconsin Historical Society Press should be extremely proud of. I would think Hachten, who died shortly after she began work with Allen on the project, would be proud, too.

If you are a foodie you will love this book. If you are a history buff you will love this book. If you are both, you will have a very hard time deciding whether to house The Flavor of Wisconsin in your kitchen cookbook collection or the living room bookshelf where you proudly display your favorite titles.

The updated version with a generation more of great content and recipes that reflect the growing cultural diversity of Wisconsin opens with a foreword by Odessa Piper, the former chef-proprietor of the famed L’Etoile who helped bring regional, sustainable cooking back into vogue. It then launches into a beautifully written excerpt from Hachten’s original tome published in 1981. It’s a fitting tribute to Hachten’s pioneering work, which at the time was lauded by Cuisine magazine as “one of the most important books on American food ever published.” For the record, Hachten wrote a popular culinary column in Madison Magazine for many years.

I am not a Wisconsin native but I am married to one, which has opened my eyes to some wonderful, and let’s just call them “unique,” cultural traditions—Packer games, pierogis and Pabst, to name just a few. I’m excited to share the book’s pierogi recipe with my mother-in-law, who makes her Polish mother-in-law’s version for us on special occasions. And since I am often homesick for my own family traditions during the holidays I plan to try the potato candy recipe. I’m Irish and a vegetarian, so finding something novel (not to mention sweet) to do with my beloved potato is just plain awesome.

When my in-laws lived in Green Bay, we’d spend family weekends exploring different parts of the city and nearby small towns in northeast Wisconsin. One thing we all loved was an old-fashioned community rummage sale, where you’d park your car and walk the neighborhood streets in search of nostalgia and bargains in equal measure. One Saturday afternoon we ended up in the tiny town of Oconto Falls. As we wandered from house to house, the rich and spicy aromas of a home-cooked meal stewing in a pot grew stronger. The men in the family started grumbling words to the effect of “boo” and “yah” and stopping for a bowl of it. Before I knew it we were sitting around a picnic table in a stranger’s driveway eating chicken stew ladled out of a giant trashcan. If you are a polite young woman from a sleepy college-town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, odd is a nice way to describe the “flavor of Wisconsin” unfolding around you.

Cultural dissonance aside, I was more than delighted to find a recipe for chicken booyah in The Flavor of Wisconsin, contributed by Allen’s sister, Judy Ullmer.

“I really never think about what I’m doing or how long I’m cooking it, until it’s done,” said Ullmer of her booyah recipe that yields three to four gallons of the stuff.

Sounds like the perfect recipe if you are holding a rummage sale and preparing a home-cooked dish for all those visitors simultaneously.