Reedsburg thinks food, Fermentation Fest

Everybody has a story, including the guy who shows up at Donna Neuwirth’s place with an odd contraption just before closing time. The device looks like a thick and makeshift set of wooden tongs that sits atop sturdy arcs of attached metal.

“Bet you don’t know what this is,” the unannounced visitor teases. The antique kitchen tool slides under the lip of a hot pie tin, to remove it from the oven and double as a cooling rack in one swoop.

The impromptu show-and-tell is one example of how the exhibit “Key Ingredients: America by Food” gently prods average people into sharing their own stories about what and how we eat, today and long ago.

The traveling Smithsonian Institution project, in Reedsburg until Dec. 3, is the first of six stops in the state, as selected by the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

“Behind the beef in a winter’s stew or the berries on a summer fruit tart is a centuries-old web of food traditions and migration patterns across a land of plenty,” notes one exhibit board. Elsewhere are explanations about the origin and significance of foods, products and traditions – including hominy, TV dinners and Thanksgiving.

Donna, who has spent months on local food homework, has added collections of antique toasters, egg beaters, cookie jars. She rounded up a 7-foot-tall Jolly Green Giant and smaller Green Giant Sprout because a Reedsburg company (Cellox Corp.) used to produce these Styrofoam forms for grocery stores, and vegetable packaging operations (at Lakeside Foods, the first commercial canner in Wisconsin) have boosted the local economy for more than a century.

We also learn that a singer of the original Oscar Mayer jingle lives less than 10 miles from Reedsburg, and that a local man began providing free Thanksgiving meals in 1975.

Exhibit helpers wear aprons and make cookies for visitors to sample. Ten volunteers are the stars of Hot Dish Trading Cards (each contains a recipe). In addition to placards and props are a re-created kitchen from the 1950s and a colorful upstairs gathering space for community potluck discussions and children on field trips.

Donna is director of the nonprofit Wormfarm Institute, which creates, sponsors and hosts projects that celebrate rural living. “Our mission is to integrate culture and agriculture,” she says, to explain why “Key Ingredients” is a good fit for Reedsburg.

“What you see is leverage for the telling of other local stories, and the Smithsonian knows this. (The topic) engages the local population, which enriches our own culture.”

Lectures, store exhibits, product samplings, farm tours and workshops complement the “Key Ingredients” exhibit in Reedsburg. Most events are on weekends; exceptions include Thursday night potlucks, spiced with casual discussions about food.

Running in conjunction with “Key Ingredients” is the community’s first Fermentation Fest, whose events include an introduction to home brewing, Nov. 6, $10; daylong bread baking workshop, Nov. 13, $125; “pickle swap” for home canners, Nov. 14, free; and “powerkraut” session, how to produce fermented vegetables, Nov. 20, $25.

Pre-registration for some events is advised, and details are online at www.wormfarminstitute.org.

Why use fermentation as a festival theme?

“It’s such a rich source of interest, with ties to local history,” Donna says, mentioning renewed interest in home food preservation and the work of area businesses.

Beer is brewed at the Corner Pub (608-524-8989). Tara’s Whey (www.teraswhey.com, 888-292-7408) uses a byproduct of cheese production to produce healthful, flavored beverage powders. Award-winning products at Cedar Grove Cheese (www.cedargrovecheese.com, 800-200-6020) in nearby Plain use the milk of cows, sheep, goats and buffalo.

See “Key Ingredients” at the Woolen Mill Gallery, 26 E. Main St., Reedsburg, until Dec. 3. Then the exhibit moves to Riverwalk Centre, 232 S. Courtney St., Rhinelander, Dec. 10 to Jan. 21, 2011; River Falls Public Library, 140 Union St., River Falls, Jan. 28 to March 11; Marquette County Historical Society, 125 Lawrence St., Westfield, March 18 to April 29; Brodhead Memorial Library, 1207 25th St., Brodhead, May 6 to June 17; and Osseo-Fairfield High School, Osseo, 50900 Francis St., June 24 to Aug. 5.

For more about the national exhibit: www.keyingredients.org.

Which foods and food traditions define Wisconsin? I provide one perspective through the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin: See www.portalwisconsin.org/eat/bergin.cfm. You are encouraged to post your own ideas at www.facebook.com/roadstraveled, and before Thanksgiving I will reward at least two of these Facebook fans for their efforts.

What else should you check out when making a road trip to Reedsburg, which is an hour northwest of Madison? Writer-photographer John Ivanko of Browntown digs deep at www.portalwisconsin.org/archives/reedsburg_daytrip.cfm. My favorites: tributes to feel-good artist Norman Rockwell at Marty’s Steakhouse and 1960s “Bewitched” TV sorceress Agnes Moorehead at the Touchdown Tavern.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.