Quintessentially Wisconsin

Despite the joke about Wisconsin having two seasons—winter and road construction—there are actually five:  winter, spring, summer, fall, and the gun deer-hunting season, which begins on Saturday and runs nine days. Even for those who don’t hunt, and I don’t, deer season is one of those rituals by which we order our lives. Everybody knows somebody who’s going, and we all hope they’ll drop a couple of venison steaks on our doorstep when they get back.

(Back in the early 90s, a bunch of us tailgated before a Packer game in Milwaukee with venison bratwurst that had been walking around in the woods three weeks before. It might have been the most quintessentially Wisconsin experience of my entire life.)

If you drive out into the rural areas this weekend and next, you’ll see guys in blaze orange getting in and out of pickup trucks in various places, especially at the state’s many rural taverns, which will be festooned with beer-company signs saying “Welcome Deerhunters.” You might not think it’s a good idea for a hunter to throw down a couple of Leinenkugels at lunchtime before returning to the woods with a high-powered rifle, but we manage to live with the contradiction up here just fine.

(If it’s really cold, some of the guys won’t be drinking Leinenkugel’s. Wisconsin is the nation’s largest per-capita consumer of brandy. I used to think everybody drank brandy until I tried ordering one in Chicago and the waitress looked at me like I had two heads.)

It occurs to me that “tavern” is an old-fashioned word you don’t hear much anymore, particularly in the leafy suburbs of Madison where I live, but it’s an evocative word that connotes a particular sort of place. Taverns don’t have video walls, live DJs, stuffed potato skins, or crop-topped servers named Kelli. Taverns have one or two TVs, always over the bar—which is a place inside a tavern at which you sit and not a word for the tavern itself—and a jukebox which inevitably includes two dozen current hits, three or four polkas, and that 45 with “Happy Birthday” on one side and “The Anniversary Waltz” on the other. There might be a pool table or a pinball machine, but if those games don’t suit you, there may be some old guys playing euchre around a table in the back.  (In my hometown, the old guys sometimes play jass, a Swiss variation on whist.) The bartender is often the guy who owns the place; the waitress is either his wife or his daughter.  The menu consists of burgers, cheese sandwiches, frozen pizza, and chili in season.

If you want dessert at a tavern, smokes are available behind the bar. Or at least they will be until the statewide smoking ban goes into effect next July. The end of the smoky tavern will be a victory for public health, but a small loss to the cultural landscape. The Tavern League of Wisconsin, historically one of the state’s most powerful lobbies, fought the legislation, and then for a version of it that would do the least possible damage to tavern owners’ businesses. Saving the local tavern is an important task for the League. The taverns that dot the rural crossroads of Wisconsin are social centers, and many have existed in one form or another for a hundred years or better. Often, they’re the last vestige of what was once a village or town.

When I lived out of state, which I did for 18 years, the call of this place was never stronger than in the fall. Now that I’m here, there’s no place else for me to be.

“Home at Last” (live in Boston 2009)/Steely Dan (bootleg)
“The Hunter”/Albert King (from the legendary Born Under a Bad Sign, on which King is backed by Booker T. and the MGs; buy it here)

2 thoughts on “Quintessentially Wisconsin

  1. If ever you’re in Chicago with a hankerin’ for a taste of your home, life North of the Cheddar Curtain I recommend Will’s Northwoods Tavern. I believe it’s just off of Belmont on Sheridan. I hope it’s still in business. But in all honesty I’ve not been there since the winter of 1999.

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