Food critic, chef, and Minnesotan Andrew Zimmern has been revealing the strangest of foreign foods to American television viewers since his show, Bizarre Foods, debuted on the Travel Channel in February 2007. He has expanded his focus to culture as well as cuisine with Bizarre World, and on Tuesday night we were treated to his trip to Wisconsin.
The familiar strains of "On, Wisconsin" open Zimmern's foray into the Dairy State, and tiny Lake Tomahawk in Oneida County is his first stop. An important note: his introduction to Wisconsin mentions that we're the land of over 15,000 lakes -- in your face, Minnesota! Wisconsinites, he explains, do some strange things, but we don't care if other people find it odd. We just do what's fun.
Before demonstrating that principle with snowshoe softball -- in July -- Zimmern visits John Novitt and Todd Ahrensdorf at the Lake Tomahawk Meat Market. Naturally, it's a total sausage-fest. He tries a Kitchen Sink brat, filled with wild rice, cheddar, cranberries, jalapeño, and topped with bacon. A former Chicagoan (typical), Novitt's tendency toward piling it onto a sausage isn't surprising. What is a little unusual is the special Ahrendorf dreamed up for this television visit: the lutefisk brat. About one quarter lye-soaked cod, this so-called "snot brat" is still recognizable as a brat, but has a definite stank of ammonia. (Watch part of the segment.) Zimmern declares it the best lutefisk he's ever had.
With not-your-usual ballpark frank, Zimmern heads to the diamond to play some snowshoe softball, on a sawdust field. He gets to play at "Casey At the Bat," down one run in the 6th, and after lining a solid single to left, he scores on a sac fly to take the lead. Nice story, high fives, you know the drill.
After a stop in Wausau for snowmobiling over water, it's on to Madison. I'm personally a little peeved that his outdoor activities in Wisconsin are all winter sports analogues, but that's nothing compared to the short shrift our fair city gets.
When Zimmern came to Madison back in July, he filmed scenes for both Bizarre World and his Toyota-sponsored web series,Appetite for Life.
But his producers didn't seem to think Madison had enough going on to justify the full treatment, because his only on-screen stop for food in Madison is Ian's Pizza on State Street. Now, I love Ian's, and I'd certainly mention it to people coming into town to visit, but is it the oddest, or most iconic food stop in town? You tell me. But he certainly likes the mac and cheese slice, noting the crisp crust; yes, we hear the crunch, Mr. Loud Chewer. For a guy born in New York to be so complimentary of Wisconsin pizza -- well, it's saying something, and as a Madisonian I appreciate it.
Another sign that Bizarre World just didn't want to pull the trigger on a Madison episode is the distinction Zimmern draws between Madison and Milwaukee: the funky, quirky food of Madison and the ethnically diverse food of Milwaukee. Hmm. I'm not saying Milwaukee isn't ethnically diverse, but I don't think you can say that as a contrast to Madison. I mean, the B-roll footage of Madison shows Buraka, Jamerica, and Fugu in the background.
Zimmern makes his way to Milwaukee, under the guidance of Sanford and Angie D'Amato, proprietors of Coquette Cafe, Harlequin Bakery, and Sanford Restaurant. They enjoy menudo and tacos of beef stomach and tongue at Mercado El Rey before visiting Polonez on the south side of Milwaukee. After a plate of lighter-than-air pierogies, Zimmern convinces Angie D'Amato to try a bowl of czernina -- duck's blood soup -- for the first time since her childhood. A sweet and sour soup with fruit and duck meat, this one actually sounds pretty good. Zimmern is genuinely complimentary of the Polish tradition being handed down from father to son at Polonez.
A little map/narration incongruity describes Hayward as being in northeastern Wisconsin, but Zimmern still finds it and engages in some pole sports. Joel McHale will have a field day with this on The Soup. (Watch the trailer for the episode.) Heading back south, Zimmern delivers some mail on the novelty postal delivery pontoon boat in Lake Geneva. The line of the night, delivered by a dude on his pier to whom Zimmern is delivering mail with the usual college student delivery girl: "You're not as cute as the regular one." She was, of course, just over Zimmern's shoulder. The noise you're hearing is that guy's wife slamming the front door on him tonight.
The last site of the episode is the most typically Bizarre World: Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe. Savvy cheeseheads know what's coming next -- that funkiest of Wisconsin cheeses, limburger. Leave it to Andrew Zimmern to walk into the curdling room -- not needing a hairnet, incidentally -- and say, "Now this smells good." But he's clearly loving it, and even more so in the washing cellar where the bricks of limburger age in a fog of moisture and carefully applied bacteria. Not satisfied by a few slices at Chalet, Zimmern stops at Brennan's for a few more bricks before leaving town.
So that's what happens when someone with a big production crew comes to Wisconsin looking for something bizarre. I know I'd like to have seen more than just Ian's Pizza out of Madison, but we should be happy that someone turned a camera on the state capital and didn't just talk about "Jump Around" and the most restaurants per capita. Now, Travel Channel has to send that Man Vs. Food guy Adam Richman to Wisconsin -- we'll show him what over-eating really looks like.