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When I moved to Wisconsin from England twenty-five years ago I had no idea what I was getting into. My only preparation for America had been episodes of the TV show “Dallas,” all gleaming cars and sky-scrapers. I fell in love with the flawless skies, the lakes, the outdoor life and the friendliness of the people right away. But I felt unmoored, at sea in this place where everything—language and landscape alike—was familiar but altered, where even the simplest words could mean something different: a “yard” was not made of concrete, “pants” were not underwear, “corn” was not wheat, a “brat” was not a nasty child. Many of the words for greetings, vehicles, roads, fuel, sports, education, clothing, holidays, foods, and times were different, as were the systems for weights and temperatures. The landscape of the West Midlands I’d come from was farmland dotted with lakes, but it was not at all like the Midwest. Even the state symbol, the badger, caused a cultural jolt for me. English badgers were shy, peaceable woodland creatures, unlike their bold, belligerent cousin on the UW team logos.
The thing that most helped me put down roots as an immigrant was getting to know Wisconsin food and the people who grow it. That first fall I visited a farm where I dug potatoes, picked apples and bell peppers and came back with a trunk-load of food bounty, intoxicated by the abundance of the land here. A quarter-century later, I still vividly remember the joy of digging up those potatoes that searing blue September day, the ones that got pierced by the fork tines, the crumbly, black soil. Potatoes grew back home too. But many of the Wisconsin crops were foreign to me, exotic vegetables I associated with the warmer climates of France or Italy. I had to learn to call courgettes “zucchini” and aubergines “eggplant,” both of which grew to sizes here that I’d never imagined. That year I ate so many new things: cheese curds and sweet corn, blueberries and maple syrup, asparagus and musk melon.
Walking the Madison farmers’ market always made me feel happy. I began going every week and started to get to know the vendors—the man who sold antique apple varieties, the sheep cheese guy, the Hmong vegetable wizards, the Amish bakers. But these were all appetizers: I was still a food tourist, buying only
on a whim whatever caught my eye. My real apprenticeship in Wisconsin food began when I signed up with a Community Supported Agriculture farm to receive a box of vegetables every week. It came with a weekly update from the farmer, explanations of the sometimes esoteric things in the box, and recipes for cooking whatever it contained.
Those CSA years were transformative for me: I learned what was being harvested when, and how local weather conditions impacted what was being grown. If it was unusually wet or cold or dry, there would be consequences in the box. I learned to love the luxuriant lettuces of June but not to expect them in August when it was too hot. Most of all, I learned to cook with what had grown that week; instead of starting with a recipe and finding the ingredients in the supermarket, I would start with the ingredients and find a recipe.
I learned to cook my way through the southern Wisconsin food crop sequence, much of which was new to me—from ramps and morels all the way through sunchokes and Delicata squash. Armed with a knife and a chopping board, I sliced my way into the mysterious things I would find in my box. The first time I cut into a Beauty Heart radish, I was stunned—it was an art work. I diced and grated, tossed, sautéed, roasted, stewed and grilled, at first following instructions but as the years passed developing my own instincts for what to do with my ingredients that week. I learned that sugar snap peas are my favorite vegetable and that the ribs of rainbow chard glow when you hold them up to the sunlight. And along the way, mouthful by mouthful, I found myself at home.
Listen to Community Supported Agriculture on Wisconsin Public Radio, March 2012.
Published in Wisconsin Trails as Food Tourist May/June 2012.