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Something New and Different in Central Wisconsin… Really?

Every time I drive through central Wisconsin, I try to take a different route. This is because the vast middle of our otherwise fair state is a flat, windy wasteland.  On one such trip I discovered Pittsville. Ever since then, I have tried to cover up the fact that it is the (self-proclaimed) “Geographical Center of the State.”  The town seems to live up to its name, based on my stop at its gas station/social center. I feel that its existence in such a representative location could color outsiders’ opinions of Wisconsin. Luckily, unless you are able to teleport, or for some reason fly into Wausau, you can only get to central WI from the north, south, east, or west – all of which are much more appealing.

However, on a recent trip from southwest to northeast, I found a place that I actually want to go back to. Abbottsford, WI reminds me entirely of Postville, IA – another surprisingly distinctive town on the flatlands, that goes by the moniker “Hometown to the World.”  Eerily, I had thought of Postville earlier the same day, for the first time in years.

You have to get off the highway (WI 29) to see the historic downtown of Abbotsford. I did this because I needed to de-fuel at a pit stop, and while there I thought I’d check the online reviews of local restaurants. Cafe Mexico had several raves, so I drove over to find it… And found myself in a one-block Little Mexico! The restaurant, a Mercado down the street, a shop for quinceanera dresses, a Spanish-

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language tax preparation office… Everything from the size of the
street to the architecture seemed to have Latin influences.  Folks, we are in central Wisconsin here.  For all that I love about my state, it is incredibly white, and not very friendly to diverse groups. Even in the agricultural communities where many Spanish-speaking residents live, they are typically not welcome at local establishments, and only show their faces at the nearest Walmart. It’s sad, I know, and something that has bothered me for a while. It is one more reason that Abbotsford was so pleasantly surprising!

I suspect that Abbottsford’s diversity has the same source as Postville’s – a huge meat processing plant outside of town. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closing up just as I arrived. However, the mystery of the town’s history combined with the promise of an authentic dinner will bring me back. And it may be the first time that I will expect to enjoy my trip through central WI!

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Buffalo Trace

IMG_1523_2Though the Jack Daniels tour was a great experience, I thought I might get something else out of a smaller distillery, and I still had a hankering for a sip of bourbon.  On the last day of my trip, barely following a breakfast of tea and donuts, I arrived at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in the capitol city of Frankfort, Kentucky.  It was a foggy Tuesday morning, but the 10 am tour had ten people on it nonetheless.  Buffalo Trace, as a brand, has been around since 1998, but the distillery has been in continuous operation longer than any other in the United States, since 1870.   That’s right – “continuous.”  The OFC distillery was one of four in the US that continued to distill spirits during the nearly 14 years of Prohibition, as a medicinal product!  Although the Buffalo Trace label is considered a small batch, there are many other bourbon products produced there, some at a more premium level (Blanton’s, Eagle Rare), some slightly less so.  They also bottle a wide variety of other products that were produced elsewhere, including vodka, rum, tequila, etc.  As a result, though Buffalo Trace is certainly produced on a smaller scale than Jack Daniels, the size of the operation is not noticeably different.

Seen through the fog, "Warehouse C" is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name.  It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whisky... so tempting!

“Warehouse C” is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name. It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whiskey… so tempting!

The standard (free) “Trace” tour includes two half-shot samples, a couple history stops, a visit to a small

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

warehouse, and a walk through the smallest bottling room.  There is also a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, with identification of the historic buildings.  Seeing the bottling room was pretty cool, especially since it was in normal operation when I visited on a weekday.  I didn’t really miss seeing the production facilities, but that was partly because I had seen them at Jack Daniel’s.  Based on my extensive visits to breweries, I surmise that the basic production does not change significantly from one facility to the next.  If this is the only place you plan to go, though, you should make reservations for the “hardhat” tour which will take you through some of these other buildings, or even the history tour which will go more into architecture and history.  As for me… maybe next time!

The bottling room... very cool part of the tour!  They were bottling single-barren Blanton's that day.

The bottling room… very cool part of the tour! They were bottling single-barren Blanton’s that day.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to photograph in either location was the scent.  If you like whiskey, that might be your favorite take-away from an in-person visit.  In the warehouses, the leaky barrels fill the old buildings with intense whisky fumes, known in the industry as the “angel’s share.”  Outside, the pervasive smell of fermenting corn mash is reminiscent of a sweet, extra-flavorful bread or breakfast cereal.  Mmmm.

A Delectable History Lesson

When planning this road trip to Tennessee, I soon came to the conclusion that a stop at a historic whisky distillery would have to be on the itinerary.   It turns out that one could plan an entire vacation around top-of-the-line bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  I’m partial to bourbon, but Jack Daniels is…well…Jack. The trip wound up including two separate visits – one to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg TN and the other to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort KY.  Both were excellent, though different.  And I’m looking forward to that whisk(e)y-centric tour someday!

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IMG-20131026-00676_2The Jack Daniels distillery is located in historic Lynchburg, TN, at the south-eastern end of the farm country that extends between Nashville and the Cumberland Plateau. It is in Moore County, which was originally part of Lincoln County.  All of this geography matters more than you might think.  I won’t give everything away, just put it in context.  The fine whiskey produced by “Mr. Jack” was a result of having an excellent source of water from the limestone spring coming out of the hills, a ready source of grain nearby, white oak and sugar maple trees for the barrels and charcoal-filtering, and temperature fluctuations to mature (or “season!”) the spirits.  Of course, there were plenty of stills, legal and otherwise, in these hills, and they all used the “Lincoln County Process” of filtering the raw whisky through charcoal before barreling.  What really made JD into the brand it is today was the pride of its founder and subsequent owners and master distillers.  It all started in 1866 when Jack Daniels became the first man to register a distillery in the United States.

I had originally planned to visit Jack Daniels on a Sunday, but plans changed and I wound up arriving there late Saturday morning.  On a typical October weekend, this might not have been a problem, but this particular day was the annual meeting of the World Barbeque Invitational.  Everything took a little (or a lot) longer than would be typical.  Word to the wise: check the events calendar before you go!  I got registered for a “sampling” tour, then walked around the historic town square, fighting my way through crowds in the gift shops, for a while.  Moore County is a dry county.  According to the story we were told, the population of the county was too low to achieve the minimum number of votes needed to vote themselves “wet” after Prohibition ended.  When, a few years back, the law was changed to allow a percentage vote, residents decided to maintain the status quo, in order to keep Lynchburg and its surroundings a family-friendly environment (aka tourist trap).  Nonetheless, a small amount of whiskey may be consumed during the sampling tour, in the interest of educating visitors about the aging process.  Other stops included the fermenting vats (wow, that mash smells strong!), seeing the original stills, witnessing the filtration process, and a small barrel warehouse.  Most of these are also included on the standard tour, which probably would have been sufficiently informative.  In either case, it is definitely worth the trip.

The tour started with a visit to the "Rickyard" where white oak is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The tour started with a visit to the “Rickyard” where sugar maple is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel's distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave.  The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel’s distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave. The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

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The Jack Daniel’s grounds are on a hill, with buildings on different levels, overseen by the Sugar Maples that give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor.

On the Road Again

IMG_1356Recently, I’ve been yearning to get out on the road again, see some new sights, and just generally get out of “Dodge” for a while.  I wanted to experience mountains again, and as the year wore on figured that a warmer climate wouldn’t hurt any.   The solution, I decided was a road trip to Tennessee!  Since I am trying to act like a responsible adult, I had to squeeze this in around workplace and extra-curricular commitments, and I wound up traveling from one Tuesday to the next, during the last week in October.

Crossing the Ohio in Lousiville

Crossing the Ohio in Lousiville

As with any good driving adventure, some of the expedient stops turned out to be more valuable than the planned destinations.  I never got to the Smoky Mountains, where I’d hoped to spend three days, but instead extended some other parts of the trip.  Purely by accident, I saw the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies and the World Championship Invitational Barbeque.  More on those later.  Natural sights made up a large portion of the trip, but historic sites, museums, music, and tasty diversions balanced it out.  I sampled just enough of everything to make me want to go back and try them some more!

For me, the trip really began when I passed through Chicago.  It may have been a year since I was last in the Windy City, and driving in and out at 9:30 on a Tuesday night is a wonderful way to be reminded of its beauty and excitement without any frustration.  I love seeing downtown all lit up at night, and am looking forward to a visit at Christmas time!

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I drove down through Indiana and Kentucky, which held some of the most interesting sites of the trip.  Nashville was the first stop in Tennessee, and as it was shortly after lunch time I looked up the trendiest hole-in-the-wall for a bite to eat, and ended up at Prince’s Hot Chicken IMG_1529Shack, on the north end of town.  Was it worth the hype, and the wait?  Maybe not, but it was pretty good, and certainly nothing like the fried chicken we have in the frozen north!  Two days in Nashville were full of music and culture, then it was on to learning about Tennessee’s natural history, and the tasty whiskies it made possible.   Check out the next few posts for more details!

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Day Trip

On Monday night, I had a nice dinner that featured some very good, but very rich sausage on a cheese flatbread.  As a result, my digestive juices were still working on it the next morning, and everything that reminded me of those sausages seemed to give extra vigor to the process.  That wouldn’t seem to be a problem, but as I was driving through south-central Wisconsin, I was assaulted by signs like this in, approaching, and around nearly every town:

I decided that, sausage signs notwithstanding, a leisurely road trip through the area would be in order, hopefully to be capped off by a hike when I was feeling more lively.  As I pulled into Lodi, WI, I thought that I might grab a bite to eat (at a small cafe just down the street from this meat market… and involving no meat products), and take a trip down memory lane.  We used to come to Lodi occasionally as kids for two reasons: so that we children could see Susie the Duck, and so that my mom could go to the antique shop.  I noted on the way in that there were new banners on the lampposts approaching downtown that touted Susie, so I swung by to say, “hello” for old time’s sake.  Alas, although she is still present as an icon in the town’s

Susie the Duck

signage and collective consciousness, she is no longer a downtown fixture herself.  “Susie,” used to be ensconced in a nest box at the point where Spring Creek flows through downtown Lodi, at a little park between two underpasses.  We would go and watch her sit there, or maybe swim around a bit, and if we were lucky we could talk my mom out of a dime so that we could split a handful of corn toss for her.  The park has been renovated, the nesting box removed or repurposed, and I saw only male mallards swimming in that stretch of creek.  Her sign still stands, though, and Susie the Duck day continues to be an important part of Lodi’s calendar!

There are a few other, much more accommodating, parks in Lodi, all along the creek that has been channelized to flow along the main street (appropriately named Water St.), through downtown, and out the other side.  And my mom would be pleased to know that, although it has changed ownership a few times, the antique store in an old church is still there (I didn’t go in, though, because I have too many memories of the hours spent there as a young’un)!

Of course, then I had to hit the other attraction that we usually included on the day trips to Lodi: the Merrimac Free Ferry.  The actual purpose of the ferry is for transportation across Lake Wisconsin, and I have used it to that end as well, but yesterday I was pretty much just taking it for fun.  The boat is pulled from one side of the lake to the other on a cable, and the trip takes less than ten minutes. About 15-20 vehicles can fit on, but some are usually larger vans or trucks (or towing boats).  Yesterday was extremely windy, and the choppy “seas” might have been too much for me if it had been a longer journey.

These girls are enjoying the trip as I did at that age

Once on the north side of the lake (actually a dammed flowage of the Wisconsin River), I thought that, being so close and all, I might just take a swing up to Devil’s Lake State Park.  The park is always amazing, but the real impetus this time came from a fellow blogger – Bob Zeller’s Texas Tweeties has been writing about the escapades of fledgling Great Blue Herons, and I wanted to see how one of our local flocks was coming along.  At the foot of the south face of East Bluff, a few dozen heron nests perch in the top of dying pines sandwiched between the CCC Parking Lot and the Outdoor Group Camp.  If you have never been in a Great Blue Heron rookery, you should definitely find one near you and check it out – the noise alone of all those big

A blurry photo of heron nests in the treetops. The accumulated acidity of their feces over the years is gradually killing off these pines.

birds is remarkable, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see them (or the chicks!) go about their daily routines.  Yesterday was extremely windy, with the tree-tops (and the nests in them) swinging well over 10 feet from side to side in the gusts, so the birds weren’t moving around too much.  I couldn’t find any chicks peeking out of the nests yet, but I would expect that many or most have hatched by now.  I drove out of the park to the north, and headed on my way.

Devil’s Lake State Park reminds me an awful lot of Yosemite for something in the middle of the Midwest – no wonder it’s the most-visited state park in the whole region!

Next stop, a few more miles down the road, was Baxter’s Hollow, a 5,000-plus acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Baraboo Hills.  Dogs aren’t allowed in the preserve, so I stayed on the paved road with mine, looking at a couple of different species of native honeysuckle (uncommon in these parts) twining along the road, the babbling Otter Creek, and more.  This is the time of year when the early spring flowers are done and the summer ones haven’t yet bloomed, but I enjoyed my botanizing nonetheless.  If you head to Baxter’s Hollow (which I recommend), I suggest you take along a good and detailed map or atlas that shows all of the small rural roads in the neighborhood.  This area of Sauk County is beautiful, and a meandering trip along those roads can take you past century farms and amazing rock formations, over creeks and through wooded groves, and along some steep and winding roads.

 

The small community of Denzer at the foot of the Baraboo Hills

Crop rotation in Sauk County, WI

Alternating corn and alfalfa is a common technique in this area for minimizing erosion.

Corn coming up! They say that an estimated 95% of the corn crop is already planted as of yesterday, compared with 75% last year. It’s certainly early to see so much of it coming up already!

Wouldn’t you love this farm, at the base of Castle Rock?

I certainly enjoyed my meander over to the town of Plain and the small family-owned Cedar Grove cheese factory.  This is another spot that was a favorite jaunt for my family as kids, and we tried to get there while it was in production so that we could actually see them making the cheese through the big display windows.  Have you ever been to a cheese factory?  If so, then you would also have recognized the distinctive smell that greeted me when I walked in, even though cheesemaking was done for the day – it is somewhat sour and acrid, and would probably be a bad smell if I didn’t associate it with great things like fresh cheese curds!  I perused the cheeses – from specialty to scraps – in the shop and picked out a couple for gifts for the hosts I would stay with later in the week (and that I hoped they’d allow me to sample in their home!).  The Cedar Grove factory installed a “living machine” around a dozen years ago, which allows them to process all of their wastewater by using hydroponic plants and microbes to break down any additives before returning the water.  If you decide to head that way for some of their delicious cheese, I’d take a tour of the factory and living machine while you’re at it, because they’re pretty interesting.

Where is your favorite road trip?  Any special places in south-west or south-central Wisconsin that you love to explore?  Check out a map of my trip to get your own ideas!

Tasting the Trophy

After an exciting week of  looking for turkeys, waiting for turkeys, and ultimately harvesting a turkey in the course of three exciting hours, it was time to eat the turkey!  I got my turkey a little before 8 am, and since I hadn’t planned to be in to work until 10, I went right home and worked on butchering it.  I took some pictures, and I’d love to show them to you, but they might gross some people out, so I won’t.  There are some pictures of fresh wild turkey meat below, though, so if you are squeamish about seeing what your food actually looks like, you might not want to read too much farther.

The reason I took the pictures was not only to document the occasion, but because the inside of a young wild turkey is really beautiful!  The dark meat is verydark, but there were two different shades of dark in there, one more burgundy and the other nearly purple – and the strands of fat along the legs and thigh were bright yellow! There were all sorts of other colors in the turkey, as well, including a bright green that was revealed once I had the meat cut out – something like the spleen must have been ruptured either by a piece of shot or perhaps by the death throes.

Freshly butchered wild turkey

At any rate, I cut out the breasts, which were enormous (hubba, hubba), and then the thighs and legs as one piece with the bones still in.  This was a lot easier than the effort that goes into preparing a whole turkey for roasting – plucking, singing, gutting, etc. – and I got most of the meat out.  However, without the protection that the skin and the layer of fat next to it provide, I was going to have to be creative in cooking it to make sure that it didn’t dry out.

Creativity in cooking is not tough for me – in fact, it is much more difficult for me to stick to a recipe than to play around a little with the ingredients.  But, as I imagine is the case for most of you, I really only cook turkey once a year, and I always do it the same way – I roast the bird whole with some stuffing and serve it with gravy and cranberry sauce!  I guess I cook it two ways, actually, because I use the leftover carcass for soup, as well.  Neither of those would work for what I had now, though – I didn’t have the skin to keep the juices in while roasting, and I didn’t want to turn all of my lovely meat into simply a soup addition.  I looked around for some turkey recipes, but most of them involved cutting it up into pieces, or adding a thick sauce.  I wanted to make sure that I could taste the flavor of the wild game, and I also wanted to get a good sense of the texture of the meat in its whole form, so I had to do a little more thinking.

I decided on baking it, and was planning to marinade it in a light mixture to add some moisture.  However, when I whipped up a marinade from ingredients on hand in my kitchen (a couple different oils, cider vinegar, some red wine past its prime, honey, mustard…), it turned out disgusting!  As much as I hate throwing food away, I couldn’t see ruining my one chance at cooking this turkey on something I didn’t think would work, so I poured it down the drain.  Looking through the cupboards for inspiration, I came upon a package of “organic creamy Portobello mushroom soup” that I had forgotten I had.  I wasn’t sure what it would taste like (I had bought it on clearance on a whim), but I opened it and sampled it, and it seemed mild enough.   Plus, it wasn’t super-thick “cream of mushroom” soup, so I felt like I could use it and not feel that I had made the traditional Mid-western turkey casserole!  I poured it over the turkey and vegetables in the roasting pan, and poured more on as the turkey cooked (essentially basting with it).  Meanwhile, I cooked up a batch of wild rice that my roommate had harvested the year before as a side dish.  When I was sure the meat was done, I took it out of the oven and let it cool briefly.   When I went to slice the meat, it didn’t seem juicy at all, and I was afraid that it would be too dry, but I served up a couple plates of it and hoped for the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mmmm… delicious!  I usually prefer dark meat to light, but it was a toss-up on this turkey!  The breast meat was extremely tender and mild – almost like a store-bought chicken breast, only better.  The dark meat was not dry, but it was a little tough, and there wasn’t much of it once it had been sliced free of the bones and tendons.  It had a lot of flavor though, still mild but rather unlike domestic turkey or chicken.  That makes sense, though – who knows how many miles that jake was walking each morning to find a hen who would even give him the time of day!

 

 

I wound up making the second leg and the bones of the first into a soup after all – cooking it with some vegetables, herbs, and spices and topping it off with baking powder dumplings.  That made a nice dinner the following week and a couple good lunches, as well.  I still have one breast in the freezer, waiting for a special occasion or a culinary inspiration!

How do you like to cook wild turkey?  Suggestions for me for that second breast?

 

 

Road Food

While most of my food was cooked over a fire or on my little camp stove, and PB & J provided almost daily sustenance, I would occasionally splurge on local items, or grab a bite with my hosts.  Those explorations resulted in this list of edible and potable stand-outs that are every bit as memorable as the scenery I encountered along the way.  While it didn’t make this list, though, I would like to give an honorable mention to Lipton Noodles and Sauce, the prolific varieties of which provided many a satisfying camp meal – everything tastes better outdoors!

Top 5 Food and Drink – Roadtrip 2010

5. Morel and cream pasta

This was the best of my own creations on the road.  I rehydrated the last of the morel mushrooms that I had harvested and dried in the spring, sautéed them in butter with salt and pepper, added some heavy cream that had probably spent a couple days too many without refrigeration, and stirred the resulting sauce into cooked bow-tie pasta.  Voila!  A delicious dinner to keep me warm as the night temperatures neared freezing.

4. Colombo Pizza

I went to Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta because I had to… but I was sure glad I did!  Fresh vegetables were piled high on the pizza with home-made sauce and crust and just the right amount of cheese.  The place was bustling with college students, families, and young adults alike, and the service was friendly and efficient.  You may not think of pizza when planning a trip to the Rockies, but after a long day of skiing, hiking, or paddling the area wilderness, you won’t be disappointed.

3. Stephanie’s cooking

Anyone who has met Stephanie has probably tasted something she’s cooked… and not been disappointed.  Not only did I get to taste just about every variety of soy food produced by Ota Tofu, but I got the gourmet preparation to boot!  Fresh salmon, delicious cheeses, and crisp veggies rounded out our meals, and her mom even introduced me to Puerh teas, which I have since made a part of my regular diet.  I don’t even remember everything we ate in the few days I visited, but I sure wish I had Stephanie here to make my dinner tonight!  Mmmmmm…

2. Texas Tacos

I’ve never seen quite the variety of tacos that I got in Austin, TX, and all of them were wonderful.  Fish tacos, fusion tacos, veggie tacos, traditional tacos… the list could go on and on, and I certainly didn’t get anywhere near sampling everything available.  Your next trip to Texas should probably include a “taco tour”!

1. Fresh-hop beer

If you’ve been reading this long, or talked to me in the last year and a half, this ranking won’t come as a surprise to you!  The awesome variety of high-quality beer amazed me – and that’s coming from a girl used to Wisconsin’s motley brews.  However, the fresh-hop beer was more than just tasty… it revolutionized my way of thinking.  See, I never liked IPA’s, or APA’s, or any PA’s for that matter, because they were just too bitter.  The beers brewed with fresh hops (only a few hours off the vine), Pale Ales or not, were light, crisp, and fragrant without the bite!  Once I learned how delicious hops could be, I was able to find the flavor underneath the surface acridity in the ales I’d encountered before.  Now I’m at least as likely, if not more likely, to pick up a Hopalicious, Hopdinger, or Hop Hearty than anything else.  Thanks to Oregon’s healthy, hearty, and delicious beer industry!

Do you have any good food experiences on the road?  Know the best thing Stephanie has ever cooked?  Have an IPA recommendation?  I can’t wait to hear about it!