Friday, June 15, 2012

**WISCONSIN FOOD MEMORIES** Part 1 - Ice Cream, Corn and Aphrodisiacs; Part 2 - Cheese, Wieners and the Bakery; Part 3 - Oshkosh Bread, Fish Fry and Foie Gras

I spent last week down memory lane in Watertown, Wisconsin. My 90 year old parents are downsizing and I got to get down with them.  The process of sifting thru closets and drawers and sorting out the accumulated stuff of their 66 year marriage aroused a myriad of emotions, but my mom’s “get er done” attitude prevailed. In the midst of the shuffle our meals together provided a sense of stability. Mom and dad were always three squares a day types and both were skilled cooks. Their tastes in old age are simple and wholesome, recipes that blend prepackaged and from scratch. Meals are ceremonies of familiarity, giving my dad regular chores to keep his failing mind occupied. My mom rises to the occasion and pulls spectacular desserts out of her hat. Sitting once again at the family table stirred up a number of childhood food memories, images that formed my flair. Aside from the political climate of the recent governor recall election, running errands around town took me to places that kindled a recall of growing up in America’s Dairyland. Camera in tow, I captured a few highlights.

Mullens Dairy Bar remains an enduring Watertown landmark. I remember watching the big milk tankers loading moo juice from the farms into the dairy. Inside, after skimming the cream off the top, the milk was bottled into returnable glass jugs - recycled was not a household word. Drivers in cute little white trucks transported the jugs to customers on their milk routes. They kept their cool with blocks of ice. We had a “milk chute” built right into the wall of our kitchen for deliveries.

Meanwhile, back at the dairy, the rich cream was churned on sight. The front of the dairy was an ice cream parlor serving up the latest scoop. On muggy summer nights we’d pile into the old Buick we nicknamed Ginger and daddy would take us out for ice cream cones. Blackberry marble was my favorite.

Mullens is still on Main Street, half a block from St. Bernard’s grade school.We’d go there after class to flirt with the boys, sharing nickel cherry cokes at the soda fountain-one glass, two straws.

Sweet corn had religious overtones in our house. I’m still a believer and corny, to boot. Anticipation ran high among the faithful, awaiting the first golden fruits from the best growers. The local farmers parked in front of the old armory and sold their morning harvest from the backs of their trucks. They would sell out by noon. It was Farmers Market every day during corn season. Ears sold for a dollar a dozen and a dozen was 13. Go figure.
I took ballet lessons inside the armory. After class I’d sit outside waiting for mom to pick me up and chat with the farmers. They were friendly and kind. One day, an old guy reached deep into his overalls, handed me a penny, and told me to get myself an all day sucker. I guess these days he could be considered a pervert.
Back home with the corn, we’d take turns shucking. Someone put the water on, setting in motion the hustle to see how fast we could get it in the pot. It was all about how fresh. Some nights we just had corn for dinner, washed down with Mullen’s milk. You’d roll that steaming ear right into a stick of butter, shake a little salt on it and dive into corn heaven. My dad was the most fervent devotee, his horn-rimmed glasses steaming up as he reveled in corn ecstasy. While the empty cobs piled up on the side of his plate, us kids would toy with how many rows we could chomp at once, or race and compare take down patterns, row by row vs. round and round. My mom’s red lipstick would smear all over her corn cobs. If you happened to be missing some front teeth that summer you were screwed, forced to chew from the side and getting butter all across your cheeks, or, heaven forbid, have it cut it off the cob.
"Knee high by the Fourth of July hey!"

A Midwestern girl, I never saw the ocean until my late teens. The closest thing I knew to that kind of raw power was a cornfield that stretched to the horizon. The endless rows, photosynthesizing at a high rate within a short growing season, teemed with life force. Later in life, we’d get high and wander in the fields all night listening to the corn grow. It was far out man.

Zwieg's Grill was the place to go after high school basketball games. My boyfriend played on the team. After he showered and basked in victory or defeat we’d meet at Zwieg's with post game appetites He would get a cheeseburger. I, ever the vegetable lover, preferred onion rings or french fries. Fueled by greasy aphrodisiacs and teenage hormones we’d snuggle into his Chevy Impala and drive to Riverside Park.

The park was built during the depression,
a WPA project which provided much needed jobs and left the town with a treasure. The quiet road that passes through the park runs above a quadrant of baseball diamonds surrounded by terraced grass bleachers.

Affectionately referred to as ‘The Terraces” it was the local Lovers’ Lane. Maybe it still is.
We’d find a spot among a few other cars with the same idea, stop the motor, and make out like crazy. The windows would steam up and yes, some nights we got to first base.


No matter how you cut it, you can’t grow up in Wisconsin without cheese and cheesy idioms. I’m not recalling a lot of strong cheese moments except it was always there. We were a cheddar household, variety meant mild, medium, sharp or extra sharp. Nothing fancy, we’d get the best available from the corner cheese shop a few doors down from the butcher. Cheddar made everything better; saltine crackers, apples, sandwiches, burgers, casseroles, even Sunday night pizza. It somehow worked its way into mom’s infamous Thursday Night Goulash, aka-clean out the fridge day. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches like other kids ate peanut butter and jelly. Of course what we were really jonesing for were those individually plastic wrapped Kraft American slices or Velveeta. My mom gave in after a while.

Most of the small cheese factories in South Eastern Wisconsin were abandoned by the 50’s. I remember passing them on country roads, overgrown with weeds, windows broken and roofs collapsed. The structures themselves remained intact. Made of large boulders gathered from the surrounding terrain, their cave-like design provided the built in temperature controls needed for aging. No doubt the land was cleared stone by stone to make room for the pastures that made room for the corn that fed the cows that made the milk that made the cheese that the corporations now made. Present day foodies are spawning new breeds of food artisans who are rediscovering the art of cheese making and reviving some of the old factories.

We never ate hot dogs. Weeee had to eat weeeeeners bought fresh from the butcher shop down the block from my parents’ jewelry store. I just wanted to be normal and eat regular hot dogs like the other kids. The other kids on the other hand, wanted to eat our grilled brats pre-cooked in beer and red onions.

Fendt Brothers have been making wieners, brats, bologna and sausage in this building since 1919. My high school pal, Bonnie Fendt, lived upstairs. They have a wonderful collection of memorabilia in the shop. Every visit to Watertown means a stop at Fendts to pick up goodies to take back to Watertown Wiener fans on the West Coast.

It was often my chore to pick up the weekly order at Bayer's, the other meat market, now closed. My siblings and I thought the butcher was hilarious and would crack up mimicking his thick German/Midwestern accent. At the time, he was the closest we ever got to a stand up comedian. His sales pitch was always the same; he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The scenario would go something like this:

Me shopping, reading from my mom’s neatly written list,
”A ring of bologna please.”
The Butcher, in a blood stained apron, painfully limping, missing a finger or two,
“2 dozen wieners.”
“2 dozen brats.”
“2 pounds of hamburger”
“That’s all.”
‘That’s it!"
"Will dat be awl?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Sum-ting eltse?”
“NO, thank you!!”
“Andt, Sum-ting eltse?"
One was never sure if he was for real or not,
but that wiener man certainly fed my sense of humor.

Guess you had to be there...

The Central Bake Shop was my first job outside the family jewelry store. I worked the front counter selling bread and pastries. I had to wear a dorky white uniform and a hair net. I savored the smell of fresh bread coming out of the big ovens on those early Saturday mornings, but to this day I can’t stomach doughnuts or sweet rolls.

Today it’s a Panaderia and Pasteleria, sign of the times.


Saint Bernard's Church, the towering Catholic edifice that influenced much of my childhood.

Saint Bernard's Parochial School was next door to the church. It was built in 1897. My mom went there, as did all of her 5 children.
In my early elementary years we went to mass every day at 8am. According to custom, we had to fast three hours before Holy Communion. That meant no breakfast at home. Mom or dad would pack us fried egg sandwiches and wrap them in foil to keep them warm. We’d file into the classroom after church and break our fast. Big time comfort food- the body of Christ chased with a runny yoked egg on toasted Oshkosh bread dripping in butter.
We never got to eat Wonder Bread. My dad insisted that his family eat real bread from his hometown bakery. He’d load up on it in Oshkosh during visits to relatives, or have it shipped on the bus, then stash it in the freezer.

Growing up Catholic meant we never ate meat on Fridays. I forget why, but we were one step ahead of Paul McCartney and those meatless Monday advocates. Along with this dogma we faithfully observed the rite of Friday Night Fish Fry. Stores stayed open until 9 one night a week in those days-Fridays/payday. So while dad watched the store, mom took us out. Fish fries were typically an all you could eat affair, a bargain for large Catholic families. My financially savvy mother never missed a trick. The Knights of Columbus, Rosary Altar Society, and other Catholic groups would sponsor fish fries.The coleslaw was homemade, the bread was rye, and the fish was perch, no salt water nearby ya know.

Occasionally we would go rogue and fish and chip at the Sharp Corner Tavern.
Mom probably needed a beer.
Today its an office.

While other high schools had mascots like Lions or Eagles or Pirates, we were the Goslings. What kind of mascot is that? A cheerleader, it was awkward for me to holler, “We are the Goslings, the mighty mighty Goslings, everywhere we go-oh, people want to know-oh, who we are!”

Well I wanted to know!
What makes a baby goose mighty?
One of Watertown's many historic murals.
Back in the early 1900’s Watertown was famous for its stuffed geese. Their livers were made into Pate De Foie Gras, a sought after delicacy in the high end restaurants of New York City. German immigrant farmers from the Alsace region force fed their geese by shoving noodles down their long necks, an old world tradition. The “noodling” caused the birds’ flesh to firm and livers to enlarge. Stuffed and unable to move, they were stuffed again into crates and shipped live by train to the east coast. “Watertown Stuffed Goose” appeared on affluent tables, and menus of luxurious ocean liners and first class dining cars. It was a flourishing local business that put Watertown on the map, and that, my friends, is how the high school mascot got its name.
Go Goslings Go!

hmmm...whatever....Happy Pride!

Tha tha tha...that's all folks!


  1. Loved reading this Eden!!

    Best wishes-Uncle Moke

  2. I'm from Watertown and I recognize all of these locations too. M.F.

  3. Really enjoyed this. Im from Watertown (born in 1961) and I too now live in California. I started a Facebook page that you may enjoy. Lots of interesting posting and memories just like what you've shared here.
    Anthony Reichardt
    Santa Ana, California

    'You're From Watertown, Wisconsin If You Remember.....'