Food Memories

May 18, 2011

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Learning to eat is something I don’t remember. I remember that my now-step-sister was impressed that I, a sophisticated 10 year old, ate salad. I remember that before I ate salad and my mom insisted that I had a vegetable with every meal, I ate a lot of carrot sticks. I remember “breakfast for dinner” nights got more exciting when we got a waffle iron. And I remember learning about fish eggs and chicken livers by accident. I remember making boxed macaroni and cheese as a kid (I developed an expertise), but don’t remember the first pie I ever baked with my dad. I do remember making loads of pies, though. Point is, once you scratch the surface on the subject of food, it’s easy to roam down memory lane. The stories flow.

But I don’t remember figuring out how to use a fork or drink from a cup. As I watch my daughter negotiate forks, spoons, and sippy cups, I wonder about this process we all have successfully passed through. Much of the pleasure of eating for her, it seems, has to do with figuring it out.

I took her along to Brodhead this weekend to see “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” a Smithsonian exhibition on display at the Brodhead Public Library. Janet Gilmore, a folklorist with an interest in foodways, was there to encourage people to share their family food stories.  And she also shared stories of her own, and those of her students from the UW-Madison courses she teaches, about learning to eat. Specifically, learning to eat foods that one must develop a taste for. These foods tend to be associated closely with establishing a cultural bond and achieving a level of maturity within that culture. Many in the audience agreed and remembered learning to eat lutefisk or Limberger cheese.

The Author in cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The author in a cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The “Key Ingredients” exhibition is accompanied in Brodhead by a local exhibit called “Food for Thought.” Here you’ll learn food history and discover food stories from the region, such as the fact that all Limberger cheese sold in the country originates from the Chalet Cheese Co-op in Green County. You’ll also find out what popcorn, pickles and potato chips have in common (and I’m not spoiling anything to tell you it is not merely that they are snack foods). At every event scheduled during the six week run of “Key Ingredients” in Brodhead, I’m told there will be popcorn, pickles, and potato chips!

And cheese. Because it is Green County, and because Swiss Colony‘s history is entwined with the area, and because who doesn’t want to eat a little cheese after trying on a cheese hat (part of the “Key Ingredients” exhibition). The food story I will remember from our daytrip is of my daughter, just over a year old, getting another lesson in the hows and whats of eating. She was minding her own business, playing with her toy car under my bench, when I noticed her mouth was full. Of cheese. Some cheese she had dropped earlier. When I swiped it directly out of her mouth, she was more than a little displeased and made it loudly known.

If she remembers anything of our outing, I hope she remembers her first taste of popcorn (and not that I fished perfectly good cheese from her hungry mouth)!

I highly recommend making the trip. If you go, here are some suggestions from a local who really knows (and who had a huge part in creating the local “Food for Thought” exhibition currently with “Key Ingredients at the Brodhead Public Library).


Green County is SO Green!

July 16, 2009

I don’t say that lightly. Green is all the rage. Businesses are green (or they are not), travel is green (or it’s not), schools, people, intentions, habits, on and on….But Green County is literally really bright green.

Green County Stirring the Pot 016

Green County farmland. Photo by Jessica Becker

I drove from Madison to Monroe yesterday afternoon to attend the second in a series of community picnics on the lawn of the Monroe Art Center. The series is called “Stirring the Pot,” and was funded in part with a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. It was a gorgeous summer evening, and the drive there was delightful. Cara Carper, a Green County Extension Agent, told me on the phone before hand to turn right at the cheese factory onto County Road N. There were more cheese factories than I could count. Green County could also rightly be called Cheese County.

Families were gathered on blankets enjoying dinner in the glow of sunshine. I settled in to watch a guest chef from Blackhawk Tech’s culinary program demonstrate how to make a balsamic reduction sauce, which she suggested could be drizzled over whatever is in season at your local farmers market. A couple tables were piled high with fresh produce and the farmers were there to tell you about. I brought home some blue potatoes and the season’s early broccoli.

Representative Brett Davis serving samples of salad prepared by Peppercorn Catering. Photo by Jessica Becker

Representative Brett Davis serving samples of salad prepared by Peppercorn Catering. Photo by Jessica Becker

The gathering drew together an inspiring, and inspired, community that is growing more organized in its regional efforts to promote better nutrition in school lunchrooms, fight Wisconsin’s obesity problem, and break up the rural food deserts by connecting farmers with consumers. I was happy to meet Representative Brett Davis, who was also there to show his support and give his own cooking demo.

The event’s organizers hope to get people thinking more about the food they eat and to make more “sustainable” choices. Sustainable, at this point, being sort of another word for green. Which is what I was thinking about as I drove home. The sun was just on the horizon and as I headed north, back into Dane County, the fields were a fire of green. It was breathtaking.

I pulled over at the crest of one hill to marvel. A farm dog ran toward my car as I stepped out to take a picture. “He’s friendly,” the dog’s owner assured me from a distance. “It’s just so pretty, I couldn’t help myself,” I explained as I lifted my camera to capture the moment.

Barn in Green County. Photo by Jessica Becker

Barn in Green County. Photo by Jessica Becker

The farmer nodded and smiled.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council