The last meal on the first leg of my vacation trip to the Midwest was supposed to be a charming autumn breakfast in Chicago the morning before departing for Wisconsin. A small cafe, Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, and a cup of steaming hot coffee.
Technically, my last meal in Chicago was a grilled cheese sandwich and a side of fries. The sandwich was made with nuclear neon yellow “cheese” that I can only assume tasted like the vinyl bench seating in my parents’ old Buick wood-paneled station wagon (you had a "woodie," too?!?). But I don’t know for sure because I don’t remember actually eating the room service I ordered at 2 am the night before, and I wasn’t about to take a bite of the petrified half-sandwich on the tray next to the bed just to get a taste. There weren’t any fries left, though.
Going out for a Chicago breakfast was out of the question because first of all, I woke up late and was *ahem* mildly hungover. A full breakfast, even crabcakes Benedict drowning in Hollandaise sauce, did not sound the least bit appetizing. I took a breakfast combo of alka-seltzer and very strong coffee. Secondly, (this is so embarassing) I was glued to the television set in the hotel room wathcing *ahem* Alien vs. Predator. I hate movies, but why can’t I tear myself away from one of the worst movies made of all time, based on two movies that I haven’t even seen?! I couldn’t even pack my stuff that was strewn all over the hotel room as if I had been living there for three weeks. In the final minutes before the appointed check-out time, after our heroine has been marked as a Predator warrior, I finally tore around the room, shoved everything, including a day and half’s worth of shopping on Michigan Avenue, into my bag and finally took off for Wisconsin with a cup of coffee in a shiny red....Chevy Malibu. I spied the paperwork for the convertible on the counter and had high hopes of cruising through Wisconsin farmland with my top down (the car’s, not mine!), but it was snatched away by the other salesperson. Damn.
I’ve never been to Wisconsin, and I wanted to make sure that in my very short two days there, I’d get the fullest Wisconsin experience possible. With lots of friends to visit, Milwaukee wasn’t going to be an opportunity to play Rachael Ray on her tasty travels, so we planned a detour to have lunch with my favorite Wisconsin family. I was so excited, we called them the day I decided to make the trip. I was so excited, we called them the minute I figured out what day we’d be there. I was so excited, we called them the second we hit the I-90 west. The whole way there, I was like the worst version of a fidgety five-year-old on a road trip, but instead of repeatedly asking when we’d get there, I was obsessing about what we’d eat there. “Are we having brats?” Yep, we’re having brats. “I’ve never had cheese curds! Are we having cheese curds?!” Yes, Sarah, there will be cheese curds. “We’re having brats, right?” Yes! We’re having bratwurst! “Are cheese curds like...cheetos?” I think I got a very weird look instead of an answer on that one. "Are we going to eat on the African elephant table?" Just a chuckle on that one.
When we got there, they had set out a lunch that made my eyes widen and my heart explode into a million smiles. Yeah, yeah, cheesy, I know, but this is Wisconsin we’re talking about. ;) Short of blowing up a map of the mitten-shaped state as a tablecloth, the entire table whispered Wisconsin. The only thing missing was my Number 4, but I’ll excuse him this time so he can maybe try to salvage the season. Sheesh. Maybe.
We had bratwurst. Oh boy, did we have bratwurst. I’m not new to bratwurst. I’ve made bratwurst at home for my own personal Oktoberfest and I’ve had all kinds of wurst in restaurants from Rockenwagner to Schatzi. It’s not like they only make bratwurst in Wisconsin, and if you watch any food television at all, you know that Johnsonville has been on a mad campaign to sell their bratwurst all over the country. But I’ve never had a Wisconsin bratwurst in Wisconsin, chatting at the table with a relative of Lammy, one of the two men who made Red Brats famous at State Steet Brats in Madison. We weren’t eating Lammy’s smoked brats that day, but our brats from Klement’s, grilled to smoky, charred perfection, were awesome, especially with a fat stripe of spicy mustard. Who needs a bun?! I could have eaten three brats, naked.
If the brats were awesome, then my first taste of a cheese curd was...awesomer. Grammar gets tossed out the window when you eat the awesomest thing ever. LOL! Cheese curds are nothing at all like cheetos, so I guess I deserved that look I got when I asked. In the cheese-making process, when the enzyme rennin (this sounds nasty, but rennin is found in calf stomachs - *ew*) is added to milk, the milk coagulates and separates into a watery liquid called whey and semi-solids. The semi-solids are curds, which eventually get drained of the whey and are pressed together to become cheese.
Basically, cheese curds are the precious little pre-cursors to cheese, so the flavor is similar to a mild Cheddar cheese, but the texture is different. It’s hard to describe, but cheese curds are bouncier. If you squeeze a piece of cheese, for the most part, it will give in to the pressure and take on a new squozen shape. If you squeeze a cheese curd, it maintains its original shape, springing back from a little pressure. Unlike brats, cheese curds are not widely available outside Wisconsin because they have to be eaten very shortly after they are produced, otherwise they lose their "curdness." Thank God, otherwise, I would sit down with a bag of cheese curds and grow to a very (un)healthy nine billion pounds. As a side note, I can never go to Wisconsin in the summer because at fairs and carnivals, a popular snack is beer-battered and deep-fried cheese curds. Oh, for the love of my arteries. Deep fried cheese curds.
Even though cheese curds are best fresh, they still packed a little plastic baggie of cheese curds for me when we left, along with Bucky the Badger's port wine cheese spread, nuts (no Brazil nuts for JP!), and homemade cookies. It doesn't get more all-American family home that that.
On the drive up to Milwaukee, I popped those cheese curds like they were a bag of...cheetos.