Just a short while ago, I thought I’d be sitting in a fabulous Indian restaurant in London right about now, during a two-day stopover on the way to Fes, Morocco for a month to think, to write, to cook, to take photos, to taste living in that incredible city. And then on to Italy for April. A two-month creative learning sabbatical. I figured this post would feature London markets and local foods. But life has its own twists, and we’ve taken a detour. To Wisconsin.
At least, my husband is there, helping his dad whose body is giving out. I’m in Vermont thinking of them, keeping my phone close, waiting for updates. I’m there in spirit, my mind turning naturally to reflection and connection, to the lessons I’ve learned from what was once quite foreign to me.
How unlikely a place for me to connect to, especially around food–after all, the first time I encountered Milwaukee I was the girl from New England, who had lived in France and England and had traveled throughout Europe but never across the USA. I had grown up with a mother who joked that the Hudson River marked the boundary between East and–imagine a vague hand gesture here–everything else. I thought eating fish meant it came from the sea. I thought cheddar cheese was pale cream in color and came in huge wheels. I thought sausages were something you ate for breakfast or were layered deep within lasagna.
What did I know?
Until I met my husband, I had never given the state much thought. It was a flat green place of red barns, nice people and cows and beer and football, right? Snow. Lots of snow. Snow and more snow. I knew that a great great great grandfather had died ice fishing on one of the lakes out there, and a town in the north was named after the family. But they had soon come to their senses and hightailed it back East, hence my mother’s attitude. Nothing much of interest out there.
I was wrong. Wisconsin had much to teach the northern New Englander about culture and food, especially the sort from Germanic-Polish roots. And about connections–how pie brings the world together, in this case, stories of my husband’s grandmother’s pie–the best in the world–reminding me of my Irish grandmother’s best-in-the-world: peach pie for lemon meringue, cherry for blueberry.
My first visit to the state, I was 20 and a passionate, know-it-all vegetarian. I’m not sure my-then-boyfriend-now-husband had told his parents about that fact. I’m not sure he knew what that meant exactly. And so his nice, friendly, unsuspecting family and friends opened their doors and hearts and traditions to me: and that meant meat. Meat I had never seen. Or imagined. Colossal pale sausages (bratwurst) rolling about in a vat of boiling beer on the barbecue, bologna studded with olives and pistachios, sweet-sour smelling sauerbraten. Wienerschnitzel and things I didn’t even know the names of. Balanced by doses of orange cheese and sauerkraut, Friday-evening fish fries, and for breakfast, an achingly sweet pastry called a Kringle from Racine. They thought my eating habits strange; I thought theirs barbaric.
In my smugness, I dismissed their notion of good food. Couldn’t fathom it had anything to teach me.
Until I grew up. And opened up. To the wonders of history and difference as revealed through food–through the tasting, not the avoiding and judging of it. I learned from my Wisconsin family and their cooking about the people who found their way to the state over the past century or so, the mix of Northern European with southern African-American and a dose of Italian. Sure, Wisconsin has those farms and orange cheese and flat roads named AA and DD, and my father-in-law grew up in a town I had associated with overalls: Oshkosh. But it is so many other fascinating things as well such as what history looks like when traditions meld and mix away from home countries.
And heck, their pie is pretty fabulous.
My lucky children have grown up as American food mutts. They hail from a family that sends them a huge box of Wisconsin charcuterie every Christmas and one that eats close to the Vermont land. One daughter loves fermented vegetables, the other fresh; one likes the taste of beer, the other not so much; one enjoys all kinds of meat, the other almost none, with one notable exception: sausage, especially cooked the way their grandfather did on the grill at the summer lake house.
And they both, quite naturally, make amazing pie.