I end up in the wilds of Wisconsin at least twice every year. There are far worse places to end up, because I just love the people here. When this comes up in conversation, it's usually attributed to "Midwest Values" which conjures up images of rural farmers living off the land and being generally decent, salt-of-the-earth kind of folk. Still others attribute it to "Christian values" which may also be true... but I hasten to point out that Wisconsin has traditionally voted as a Blue State and is not an official part of Jesusland. I have no idea what makes the people so warm and friendly, they just are. Even in larger cities like Milwaukee, there is a different vibe as to how you're addressed and treated... even as a "foreigner."
When visiting the rural areas of the state, there are many little oddities and eccentricities one must adapt to. Here are some of my favorites...
CHEESE. Wisconsin is known as "America's Dairyland," and they take this title very seriously. Particularly when it comes to cheese. Wisconsin makes 25% of all US cheese, and produces some of the finest you'll find anywhere. And they know it. Cheese is dumped on everything, probably because it's abundant and delicious. As you can imagine, this makes me very happy, because cheese is one of my favorite foods. As a Pacific Northwesterner, my favorite cheese is Tillamook from Oregon. As a world traveler, my favorite international cheeses come from France and The Netherlands. That being said, my favorite place to eat cheese is Wisconsin. The white cheddar here is heavenly.
MEAT. Wisconsin natives love their meat, and people who don't eat meat are a complete enigma to them. I have numerous stories of being a vegetarian trapped in Wisconsin, but it always boils down to complete and total confusion over what to do with somebody who doesn't eat meat. Yesterday I went to Culver's (a large restaurant chain throughout the Midwest) and asked if they had a veggie burger (I always do, just in case they've added one since the last time I've eaten there). The kid taking my order was new, and spent a good two minutes looking over all the electronic buttons on his cash register before calling over a manager for help. When the manager arrived, I asked him if they had a veggie burger, and his response was to ask if I was meaning a hamburger without a bun. The concept of a burger not made from meat is completely outside their ability to grasp. And it's not just that Wisconsin natives like meat... they can't get enough of it. You'll regularly find menus which feature meats accessorized with other meats. Beef stuffed with turkey and wrapped with bacon, for example. If you're lucky, it will be served covered in cheese sauce.
FISH FRY. Don't even think about trying to get anything except fried fish on a Friday night at any local Wisconsin restaurant. One time I accidentally went to a "home cookin'" eatery on a Friday night because I didn't know any better. When I explained I was vegetarian, my waitress said "no problem," and offered to give me a baked potato with my fish. When I asked if I could have a grilled cheese sandwich instead, I was asked what kind of fish I wanted with it. Your only hope to avoiding fish is to go to McDonalds or Culvers, which will be selling fish sandwiches like crazy, but will still be willing to sell you non-fish alternatives.
DIALECT. Speech patterns in 'Scansin are charming, to say the least. Almost Sarah Palinesque, but with intelligence and in complete sentences. The state's proximity to Canada also insures that a liberal dose of "eh?" will be sprinkled in your conversation the further north you go. Heavy German ancestry in the area gives many areas of the state a distinctly German slant in both diction and pronunciation. The "th" sound is a rarity, and gets changed to either "t" or "d"... particularly in rural areas. Most difficult of all though is the speed at which they speak here. There is no punctuation or pauses when a Wisconsonian is talking. "Hey-der-Dafe-yoos-wan-anudder-soda-und-a-braht?" roughly translates to "Hey there, Dave! Would you care for another carbonated beverage and perhaps a bratwurst? Swearing is also a rarity. When somebody gets really mad, you might get a "gosh-darn" or a "guldarnit" out of them, but it's practically unheard of to drop an f-bomb in mixed company. But most charming of all is that there is no "yes" in Wisconsin. Depending on where you're at, you'll get a "uff-dah!" or "hey-yah!" or "yah-hey!" or "you-betcha!" or "okay-den!" or "okey-dokey!" or "oh-yah!" or even "yah-ain't-wrong!" but rarely a simple "yes."
GREEN BAY PACKERS. There is no other football team on earth except the Green Bay Packers in all of Wisconsin. You are either a die-hard Packers fan or dead. People paint their houses and cars in Packers green-and-gold. Packers flags fly everywhere. On game days, everybody wears Packers clothing. After my first two trips to Wisconsin, I ended up buying a Favre* jersey and Packers sweatshirt as urban camouflage. At one point, I had joked with a friend here that I was going to go to work wearing a jersey from a rival team (and next-door neighbor) Minnesota Vikings or the Chicago Bears. "Dats-not-funny-der-Dafe-yoos-gonna-get-yoos-kilt!" To this day I can't tell if they were joking or not. But since death is something I'm trying to avoid just now, I've played it safe and stuck with green-and-gold.
* Bret Favre (legendary quarterback) was once revered as a demi-god around these parts, but was traded to the New York Jets after Green Bay decided to part ways with him when he came out of retirement. Since he no longer plays for the Packers, people here remember him with fondness, but assume he died since he's not on the team anymore.
FASHION. Wisconsin is by no means backwards when it comes to trends and fashion. People here are pretty much like people everywhere when it comes to that kind of stuff. However, the proportion of ladies stuck in the 80's seems to be much higher in Wisconsin than the national average. Roller bangs... poofy bangs... feathered hair... LEG WARMERS(?)... and other retro stylings pop up with surprising regularity. Or maybe it's just that I notice them more when I'm here. I dunno. In any event, I don't mind the 80's flashbacks I get while visiting... I liked the 80's.
FROZEN CUSTARD. I have no idea why frozen custard has not obtain rabid popularity outside of the Midwest, because it's frackin' amazing. Wisonsonians live and die by the stuff, and can be categorized by their favorite place to buy it. The big two are Culver's and Kopp's... but there are dozens of local favorites like Gillies and Leon's, which litter the landscape. I won't be satisfied until I've tried them all.
PATRIOTISM. American pride runs deep in Wisconsin, and not just as a result of 9-11 or the so-called "war on terror." They've always been deeply patriotic people, and not in a tacky or artificial way like you see in so many places now. When they support the troops here, it's not just because it's the trendy thing to do... they mean it. But what really makes me appreciate Wisconsin patriotism comes from my devotion to MIA/POW awareness issues. I see more MIA/POW flags flying in Wisconsin than I see anywhere else, and it gladdens my heart. There are several good organizations here making sure that we Never Forget, and I love them for that. This ain't America's heartland for nothing.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON. There are no other motorcycles. If you ain't riding a Hog in Wisconsin, you ain't ridin' shit. I've toured the remarkable Harley-Davidson Powertrain Operations Factory in Wauwatosa more times than I can count.
And that's just a few of my favorite Wisconsin eccentricities that makes me enjoy visiting here so much.
Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for cheese.