By Mike Lintal (with Kit Kiefer)
Where do you spend Memorial Day? If you recall, the correct answer is the Lake Erie shore in northern Ohio, the land of rollercoasters and Chautauquas and Margaritaville North.
Okay, smart people: So where do you spend the Fourth of July weekend – another genuinely long weekend? Our food writer, Mike Lintal, and Editor-‘n’-Stuff Kit Kiefer did a little advance work so they could answer this very question. Here’s their give-and-take on the matter. Call this a podcast without the pod. Or the cast.
KIT: Okay, I know we’re supposed to be non-homers here, and talk about places you can fly to because we sell flight insurance, but I have to vote southwestern Wisconsin as my favorite place in the nation to spend the Fourth of July. I can’t get enough of the place: The twisty, hilly roads (perfect for a fast car or motorcycle), the postcard-pretty towns, the views, the stone farmhouses, the parks, the fishing, the little parades and carnivals, everything. Go far enough south and west, you can watch fireworks over the Mississippi River. Otherwise, grab a campsite at Wyalusing or Yellowstone Lake State Park (pictured above), slap up a tent, and eat and drink your way across the countryside with what you save on hotels.
MIKE: How can I be a homer when I’ve never been to Wisconsin? But, hey, you live in the Midwest for a few years, you hear about it. You especially hear about New Glarus and its beer. Throw in some sausage and cheese, friends and camping, and I’m totally onboard with spending my Independence Day in the land of Curds, Beer, and Meats For Days.
The first thing you need to know about Wisconsin is that you might as well arrive hungry, because you can’t stay hungry for long. If you’re coming from the south, you’ll want to plan a stop at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe for landjäger, cheese and whatever New Glarus beers you can get your hands on.
KIT: So when we did our (cough, cough) research, Mike called and asked me how much landjäger I wanted. Silly boy. That’s like asking me how much air I’m planning on breathing tomorrow.
MIKE: Actually, Kit implied that it wouldn’t be wise showing up to the campsite without several pounds of the traditional Alpine hiking snack, a cross between beef jerky and summer sausage. Baumgartner’s had that, and good German mustard, and four large-format offerings from New Glarus, and we were off and running.
KIT: I realize Mike was probably too entranced by his growler of New Glarus to notice, but southwestern Wisconsin is the place to be if you want your Fourth of July served with a heaping helping of good old-fashioned America. But it’s not a cranky, broken-down old-fashioned America.
MIKE: You’re foaming at the keyboard again. What are you talking about?
KIT: This: A lot of these towns have been doing local for years, out of necessity. Now that local is fashionable, these towns are doing what they’ve always been doing, but they’re really good at it because they’ve been doing it forever.
For instance, when we were in New Glarus we grabbed lunch at a tavern/café called Puempel’s Olde Tavern. The sandwiches were just plain old sandwiches – ham, turkey, roast beef – but the bread and meat came from places in town, and even the potato chips were made in Wisconsin, because that’s how they’ve always done it. The next day we had breakfast at Schubert’s Diner in downtown Mount Horeb. The place has been around for eons, but the menu just keeps getting funkier and more local. They bake their own bread (and lefse) there, including the fresh, sweet cinnamon bread used to make my French toast. You’re literally surrounded by the menu – it’s handwritten on all the walls – and we wished we could have stayed for lunch, and eaten a gazpacho that sounded unbelievable, and washed it down with a phosphate from the soda fountain. Did you get that? A phosphate. From the soda fountain.
MIKE: Hey, dining in town is fine when you’re staying at a hotel. But camping means campfire meals, and one of my favorites is SPO.
KIT: SPO? You mean, like Stevens POint?
MIKE: No, like Sausage, Peppers, and Onions. In Wisconsin they’ve perfected the bratwurst, and when you get a really good one from a place like Baumgartner’s and pair it with spicy brown mustard and grilled peppers and onions, it’s like Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American” through an eagle-shaped bullhorn while eating a Double Down #America.
KIT: Except bratwurst and brown mustard are German.
KIT: And grilled peppers and onions are Italian.
MIKE: Melting pot, right?
Anyway, dessert had me worried. While the old-timers stuck to the classic s’more, some members of our group who have never known a world without Netflix crossed a line that makes me wonder about future generations.
You ready for this? Fire-roasted Starbursts.
Let that sink in for a second. Who in their right mind came up with this sin against after-dinner snacks? Kids these days. All hopped up on YOLOs and YouTubes, putting Starbursts on sticks … over the fire … I was lost.
But not to be outdone, and perhaps catching a buzz off some secondhand YOLO, I indulged. Not in the Starbursts, but in the fireside treat that came to me in a dream: Rolo-stuffed marshmallow, roasted over the fire until the caramel center is warm. Yum. #ROLOW
KIT: Fire-roasted Starbursts? Who does that?
MIKE: Your kids.
KIT: Oh. Moving right along …
I love that this area hasn’t all been picked over. You can still find surprises. One morning I went for a bike ride, and as I climbed a hill, there was a very small, very neat Amish farm stand. I noted the location, watched some four-horse teams plowing fields, shooed some gnats, and when we came back later with the cement mixer – er, minivan – we scored some whoopie pies, lemon bars, a pumpkin roll, and some fresh peas. The whoopie pies had just enough salt in them to cut the sweetness, the lemon bars were rich with egg and butter, and my son who doesn’t like pumpkin ate up most of the pumpkin roll. The fresh peas had to be shelled, but they were the sweetest, tenderest peas I’d ever eaten. I don’t know how you top that.
MIKE: While you were occupied with your whoopee pies –
KIT: Watch it.
MIKE: We finally made it to our own version of the mountaintop, just a short drive outside of New Glarus atop a windy farm road. There, carved into the sandstone that defines this region, is New Glarus Brewing and its glorious outdoor taproom, shimmering like a mirage in the middle of the desert. Green, sprawling farmland as far as you can see in any direction stares up at this Taj Mahal of brewing delights.
KIT: Mirage in the desert? Taj Mahal of brewing delights? Really?
MIKE: Really. What you Wisconsinites don’t get is that New Glarus beer is great, and the New Glarus brewery has decided that it should be available only in Wisconsin. So for a Chicago beerhound this place, with its tasting room for “fact-finding” and bottle shop filled with brews only available within a 30-mile radius, is like a shrine.
KIT: A shrine that sells six-packs.
KIT: And has Ricola guys playing alpenhorns.
KIT: In a Taj Mahal of brewing excellence.
MIKE: Stop it. The afternoon was perfect for exploring some of the best brew – and food — Wisconsin has to offer.
KIT: It was a beautiful day. We manage to come up with one of those every now and then.
MIKE: And it was a truly amazing experience exploring a new state for the first time, especially one whose food-and-drink personality so closely matches my most primitive culinary desires.
KIT: And we have footgolf.
MIKE: Footgolf? You know I’m in.
KIT: So great Fourth of July destination?
MIKE: Perfect Fourth of July destination. I’ll tell you, though: After 36 hours of Meat, Beer and Fire, it sure felt good to crawl into my big-city bed with a bottle of Yokel. Do you think on our next adventure we can fly?
KIT: Your expense account or mine? Tell you what I can do, though.
KIT: I can get you a smokin’ deal on some great travel insurance.
MIKE: Done. Happy Fourth, y’all.
Mike Lintal is an avid beer hunter, seeker of tasty treats and Event Coordinator at The Chopping Block in Chicago. Kit Kiefer has been a writer for Midwest Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and The New York Times.