Wisconsin cuisine more than brats, beer

Foodies know and care that authentic Champagne and Parmesan come from specific parts of France and Italy, respectively. Now the International Culinary Tourism Association is developing a website that will help travelers distinguish cities, states and countries by uniqueness of cuisine.

When your prospective customers (and critics) are the world, it’s daunting to decide what makes Wisconsin food unusual. But that was the big challenge as I prepared the association’s profile of the Badger State for www.foodtrekker.com.

The ICTA, a nonprofit trade group, asserts that food and culinary adventures play a big role in determining where people decide to travel. So theirs is a global attempt to define, market and protect culinary tourism as a product of distinction and value.

“Because we all eat, we take eating for granted,” the ICTA has noted. “Yet it is the one thing with the greatest potential to make a long-lasting impact on visitors.”

What makes us different and worthy in America’s Dairyland? Simply having that slogan nails down a part of our pride and identity. We are cheese, beer, sausage and – OK, during fair season – a cornucopia of foods on a stick: corndogs to cheesecake, deep-fried dill pickles to kabobs of fresh fruit chunks.

We fight hard to be known as the place where the ice cream sundae (Two Rivers) and the hamburger sandwich (Seymour) were invented. Others are eager to challenge and dismiss these claims.

Our restaurants and festivals, particularly in Milwaukee, are full of ethnic pride. Our chefs are happily muddying stereotypes associated with rural and urban cooking.

Christian Czerwonka, who runs the sleek Christian’s Bistro in Plover, used to work with celebrity chef Emeril. European master chef Marcel Biro, living in Sheboygan until recently, used to be Helmut Kohl’s private cook in Germany.

Chef Dave Kasprzak prepares pork cutlets with poblano cream sauce at The Dining Room at 209 Main, Monticello. Less than 20 miles east, Pat Boersma presents veal sweetbreads at Belle Bleu in downtown Evansville. The combined population of these southwest Wisconsin communities is less than 7,500.

Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese – whose Sauk City store has a classy kitchen for cooking classes – helps Wisconsin dominate cheesemaking competitions, and our state is the only place outside of Europe that has a master cheesemaker program.

The pungent Limburger cheese is only manufactured one place in North America: Chalet Cheese Co-op in Monroe, southwest Wisconsin.

We love being known for our Friday fish fries, but well-heeled travelers shrug at our sense of ownership. What is more unusual is the Door County fish boil – not just the meal but the flashy production that precedes it.

Similarly, our love of bratwurst likely is inconsequential in Germany, but our omnipresent brat fry – especially as a fund-raiser in rural Wisconsin – may be another story.

Our indulgence in beer, from a global perspective, may not be as curious as our unofficial state cocktail: the Old-Fashioned. Our milk production likely is not be as extraordinary as the Milk House that U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl sets up during the Wisconsin State Fair – where milk with a root beer or cherry vanilla flavoring goes for a quarter.

How would you define Wisconsin’s food identity? What businesses – large or small – within the state work hard and creatively to promote excellence while using local ingredients?

I’d love to share your observations.

For more about the ICTA: www.culinarytourism.org, 503-750-7200. Much of the energy in the organization comes from the West Coast, particularly Oregon, but dozens of countries are represented in membership, which ranges from restaurant operators to academics.

My newest book, “Hungry for Wisconsin: A Tasty Guide for Travelers” (Itchy Cat Press) is back from the printer and heading onto bookstore shelves. It’s about culinary businesses, people and events of integrity that define us. Please let me know if you can’t find “Hungry” where you live.

I’ll discuss the book on Larry Meillor’s Wisconsin Public Radio show from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14. “Hungry” also will make the rounds at the Wisconsin Book Festival, as a part of:

“Wisconsin Food Originals,” also featuring Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum owner Barry Levenson, who has written “Mustard on a Pickle,” a book for children. We’ll talk about food from 5-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, at A Room of One’s Own Feminist Bookstore, 307 W. Johnson St., Madison, and
6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, at Sun Prairie Public Library, 1350 Linnerud Dr., Sun Prairie.

“Hungry” also is included in the festival’s discussion of “The Book & the Cook: Our Love Affair with Anything Edible,” 6-8:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at Dardanelles, 1851 Monroe St., Madison.

For appearances elsewhere, please consult my website. For more about the Oct. 15-19 Wisconsin Book Festival, which is a Wisconsin Humanities Council event: www.wisconsinbookfestival.org.