In the few places I’ve lived, Illinois, Colorado, New England, and Wisconsin, each place had a special feel of its own. A region’s particular impression may be vague in my mind, but it’s there none the less. For example, my impression of Illinois is that it’s a backdrop for Chicago. All of the many Chicagoans I know “LOVE Chicago!” City corruption and inefficiencies?, – they just shrug at those, after all, nothing special about those, every cities got them. During my 5-year stay in Colorado I never met so many people who originated from somewhere else. The descendants of Colorado pioneers were a fiercely independent lot and a few were pretty vocal about wishing the rest of us would go home. I lived in New England during college and at that time I was pretty clueless about everything, including about the states I inhabited. Yet, folks in Vermont and New Hampshire impressed me as being pretty low-key, never showy or boastful. Each had his or her own way of doing things. They called it “the Yankee way”, and openly admitted that to them it meant “the right way”. But it was in Wisconsin where I first encountered an overwhelmingly strong exuberance of state pride.
I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 18 years now, but my status as a “Wisconsinite” is still pending. Most of the people I know here are 3rd and 4th generation Wisconsinites. They are rooted in the hard-working, family-committed, pioneer ethos of their farming ancestors. In pioneer times, settlers were typically generous with each other because to forge a life in such a harsh climate meant never knowing when you’d have to call on your neighbor for aid. This friendliness persists today. Beyond the neighborhood and into the workplace, farmers, producers, manufacturers, and consumers seem particularly aware of their inter-reliance. They economically support each other by preferentially buying from each other. No, this economic mutualism does not originate from snobby or exclusive sentiments. It’s grounded in a sincere value for the quality of goods made in Wisconsin. Folks here know their neighbors; they see how they make their products and run their businesses. They like what they see, and they tell their friends about it. If ever there was a grass-roots, buy-local movement, it’s vibrantly alive here in Wisconsin.
Wisconsinites’ state pride was on display Saturday night at the Bounty of Green County Feast. On the picturesque hilltop of the New Glarus Brewing Company, overlooking the hills, fields, and town of New Glarus, about 100 people gathered to share a 5-course dinner showcasing the gourmet meats, cheeses, and produce grown, raised, processed, and cooked in Green County. We dined on lean sausages of elk and emu, emmentaler and butter kase cheeses, beer-braised, pasteurized pork with Wisconsin-grown apples, roast tenderloin served with Wisconsin potatoes mashed with Roth Kase gruyere cheese. The green beans and salad were grown in local gardens. The apples on the apple tart grew in a Green County orchard; the Green County fudges and toffees were made with Wisconsin milk. And accompanying each course was a New Glarus, micro-brewed beer especially selected to bring out the flavors of the gourmet foods. I never knew beer could taste so unbelievably delicious with braised pork and roast tenderloin. The New Glarus Golden Ale served with the final cheese course was a genius pairing and made me re-think drinking wine with cheese.
The flavor of each course was enhanced by the stories told by each of the purveyors. One by one, throughout the dinner, the person responsible for raising the meat, crafting the cheese, baking the desserts, cooking the dinner, or brewing the beer stood up to talk. As each explained the daily steps taken to create such gourmet food, two points rang clear. First, each attributed the quality of their food to the care taken in selecting the ingredients, whether that meant choosing the heritage breed of livestock or buying the freshest milk and produce available. And for the source of these quality ingredients, they looked to their neighbors. They bought from other Wisconsinites. They participated in a mutually-supporting web of producers buying from producers. One dimension higher in the network, Wisconsin chefs of gourmet restaurants preferentially buy from Wisconsin producers. As the chef of the Chalet Landhuas Restaurant who prepared our meal explained, he and his customers recognize the superior quality of the locally-grown food. He looks for new ways to incorporate local foods when designing new recipes. For example, he’d especially made our raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing with New Glarus Raspberry Tart. He explained that customers are drawn to his restaurant when they read the menu and see the names of the various Wisconsin farms and factories from which the food originated. It’s not just that Wisconsin producers and chefs value each other’s products, Wisconsin consumers do too. Wisconsin consumers looking for quality look for Wisconsin products. This economic inter-connectedness generates a mutually-beneficial, sustainable economy.
The second point made clear in the purveyors’ narratives was the beaming pride each felt in being part of this Wisconsin community. Passion for work and this chosen way of life rang vibrantly in their words, broad smiles, and animated enthusiasm. Obvious to all at the dinner, these people responsible for creating our Bounty of Green County Feast were incredibly proud to live and work in Wisconsin. And it was clear to me, that joy in work builds the good life.