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Cabin Fare

Wisconsin’s lush food culture is a well-kept secret to many Americans, but for insiders it’s happily evident in traditions like cheese curds, chicken booyah and Friday night fish fry, and at venues like supper clubs, farmers’ markets and church picnics. One setting where food and place merge in especially meaningful ways is at the cabin, that near-mythical getaway up North that’s a beloved part of our upper Midwestern consciousness.

We may call it the cottage or lake house instead, and we may own, rent or borrow it, but this “second place” is where we all go to relax, to get back to basics and to reconnect with nature, family and friends. What’s more, the culinary practices we follow there are at the core of the experience. Called “foodways” in folklore studies, our cabin cooking and dining traditions tell us something about who we are and what we value. Like other activities we do when we’re away from it all, they give us a profound sense of well-being, bringing memory and meaning to our lives.

That’s certainly the case for my husband, JB, and me, who with several family members co-own a log cabin on Washington Island in Wisconsin’s Door County. Perched on a long rise above Lake Michigan and encircled with tall maples, it affords us expansive views of water and sky, frequent sightings of deer, eagles, cranes, fox and other wildlife (once, even a wolf), and a quiet so deep and wondrous you can hear the universe speak. With distractions like these, there’s no time for fussy gourmet recipes and elaborate mealtime presentations. But canned soup and instant cereal just can’t do justice to a glittering lake, the hooting of owls and that velvety, lake-cooled breeze.

So when it comes to food, we try to honor our surroundings: we go for casual, easy-to-assemble meals that feature local ingredients. At breakfast we might have farm-fresh eggs and bagels topped with tart cherry jam. For lunch it could be maple syrup-baked beans with a salad of island-grown kale. Before dinner we mix Old Fashioneds and nosh on smoked whitefish spread and crackers. The main course, naturally, is brats – or anything else on the grill. And when the season is right, dessert is strawberry shortcake made with berries purchased at a roadside stand earlier in the day.

Now that’s what I call honoring your surroundings.

Enjoying nature and living a simpler lifestyle are two big reasons we’re drawn to cabins. Another motivation for hopping in the car and heading north is recreation – a.k.a., the fun stuff: hiking, biking, swimming, ping pong, cribbage. Oddly enough, our favorite activities often require a little (pleasant) work, particularly when they’re food-focused. On Washington Island, for example, we gather coral-colored thimbleberries, which grow there in large wild swaths and are so fragile that by the time you’ve got a cupful, they’ve turned to jam. In March, when the snowlines have ebbed, we assemble a rustic sugar camp near the garage and tap the trees to make maple syrup. In summer, of course, we go fishing. In Wisconsin, if you don’t go fishing when you’re up North, well, you’ve sort of missed the point.

My own favorite at-the-cabin activity is foraging for morels. Every year in May, JB and I travel to the Gays Mills area in southwestern Wisconsin, where the geography and climate are made to order for mushroom growth. We stay at a small, hand-built cabin that belongs to friends, and is tucked on a ridge top amidst the moist, undulating terrain of the Driftless Region. Armed with cloth sacks and crossed fingers, we hike to sun-warmed south-facing slopes, where, heads bent and socks pulled up over pant bottoms against ticks, we inspect underbrush, brave briar patches and sweat buckets.

If that doesn't sound like recreation to you, you’ve obviously never found a motherlode. I don’t know what is most thrilling: sighting a wily, sponge-colored fungus poking through the leaves and realizing it’s the first of a 10-pound cache, sautéing them in a cast-iron skillet to butter-bathed excellence, or downing them on deck chairs with feet up and cold beer in hand while dusk cascades like port wine across the hills.

We’ve been going with our friends to their hideaway for 25 years now, which points up yet another reason for the widespread cabin mania in our state – the sense of connection and continuity we enjoy when we return to the same place, year in and year out, to spend time with people who are important to us.

One of my long-term attachments is to an old-fashioned cottage on Silver Lake in Wautoma, where JB and I meet up each summer with another set of old friends. It’s a classic Wisconsin second home, with a comfy, open-scheme main story, a two-level deck and a boat dock where you can watch panfish circling in the water below. We spend the first hours catching up on family news … jobs … travels ... (politics come later). Then, out come the boat cushions and coolers. Off go the guys to ready the pontoon. Snacks appear. Drinks get assembled: one vodka tonic, one bourbon on the rocks, one glass of white wine, two Manhattans and a microbrew. We circle the lake slowly – twice – while music plays, clouds morph, nostalgia wells.

Dinner is always at The Moose, an iconic Wisconsin supper club that’s within strolling distance of the cottage. You know the drill here: drinks, relish tray (with pickled herring and cheese spread, mmm), soup or salad, steaks or seafood, choice of potato … and no way is there going to be room for dessert.

On the walk back we carry doggie bags full of leftovers; the next morning, it’s my job to fashion them into a feast for brunch.

***

Nature, simplicity, ritual – this is why we love the cabin, and why we love to be there with others. But not always with others. If there’s a single moment I treasure most when I’m up North, it’s very early in the morning, when no one else is awake, just after the espresso has steamed its “I’m ready” signal. Standing where land meets water, watching the sky lift, hearing the cranes cronk, I take a sip of coffee, as dark as a night storm and hot enough to fog up my glasses. I salute the beauty around me … and become conscious that it is also within.

And, oh man, does that coffee taste good. 


July 1, 2017