Saturday, September 1, 2001

Food for Thought: A culinary celebration downtown

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Madison Magazine, Sept. 2001
Column: Table Talk

Here’s some food for thought: U.S. food travels 1300 miles on average from farm to plate, with 90% of our nation’s fresh vegetable crop grown in a single state, California.

The cost of fuel is just one reason to question a food system based on trucking and flying everything across the country (and around the world). There’s also the social justice factor: do you really want to raise your kids on tomatoes from a field where day laborers toil, exposed to pesticides, for $2.50 a day? There’s the environment: agricultural runoff from the Mississippi and its tributaries creates a summer-long dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 5,000 square miles devoid of marine life. And, there’s the economics: 79 out of every 100 consumer food dollars pays not for growing the food, but for marketing-related activities: transportation, advertising, packaging.

Concerns over such issues have put Madison at the forefront of a movement towards more sustainable food practices. On September 8, you can experience the fruits of sustainability, and learn more about it. Enjoy yummy samples from local farmers and grocers. Get cooking lessons from Rick Bayless, one of America’s foremost chefs and cookbook writers, whose celebrated Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago buys much of its produce from small-scale Wisconsin farmers. Hear from author Ruth Ozeki, whose provocative novel “My Year of Meats” explores the shady side of the American meat industry. All while enjoying music in the long rays of the harvest sun.

It’s the third annual Food For Thought Festival, where over 60 diverse groups will celebrate environmentally friendly agriculture, family farming, fair trade, and delicious, healthy dining. Last year, the mix of participants included Mifflin Street and Willy Street Co-ops, L’Etoile, the American Farmland Trust, Progressive Dane, UW Greens, the Wisconsin Home Garden Project, Q106 FM and the Gray Panthers. The festival will take place just off the Square, during the Dane County Farmers’ Market (a fitting venue—it’s one of the nation’s largest farmers’ markets, circulating a quarter of a million dollars of revenue through the local economy weekly).

On display will be the oversized trompe-l’oeil potato sculptures of local artist Mark Harmon. Stilt-walkers and other wandering performers will set a festive tone. Folk singer Ken Lonnquist will share some of his favorite songs about food. The Milwaukee-based band Leahy’s Luck will perform upbeat Irish music. For kids, there’ll be face painting, farm animals, and a veggie jewelry-making booth—carrot rings and radish circles make smart pendants, dontcha know.

Food For Thought isn’t about convincing people to “give up everything and live on nuts and berries,” says Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of rural sociology at UW-Madison; rather, its aim is “to present the alternatives, to show how fun and doable they are.” Kloppenburg is on the steering committee of Dane County REAP (Research, Action, Education & Policy on Food), the group organizing the event. REAP is a independent grassroots organization made up of, as its Web site says, “concerned citizen-eaters.”

Besides the festival, REAP’s biggest project right now is assembling a comprehensive “Farm Fresh Guide” to Dane County and surrounding areas. “It’ll list farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards, CSAs [community supported agriculture, where a subscriber buys a share of a single farm’s produce, a season at a time], direct producers who market right at their farms, everything,” explains Kloppenburg. The highly regarded Wisconsin Cartographers’ Guild will draw up the guide’s maps, he adds: “We hope to have a mockup of it at the festival.”

The festival’s motive is simple, says Kloppenburg: “We want to get people to think about what they put in their mouths.”

3rd annual Food For Thought Festival
September 7-8, 2001
Friday, Sept. 7, 7:30 pm, 272 Bascom Hall: Food For Thought Forum. Talk by author Ruth Ozeki, panel discussion with Ozeki and chef Rick Bayless.
Saturday, Sept. 8, just off the Capitol Square in downtown Madison: Food for Thought Festival takes place during the Farmers’ Market on the Square.

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Brown rice, good and easy – long version

This is a lightly edited early draft of a much shorter article that was ultimately published as my Table Talk column in Madison Magazine in the summer or fall of 2001. Although it's not as polished as the published version, this draft contains a lot of info that didn't make it to press. I came upon it when posting the Table Talk column to this archive blog, and thought it was worth dusting off to post alongside. In truth, the need to abbreviate so severely for mainstream publication has been, for me, one of the most painful things about freelance writing.

To read a version of the rice article closer to the published version, click here.

– VVK, October 1, 2009

It's easy to make a perfect pot of brown rice, fluffy and appealing as a bed or side dish for just about any main course. What's not so easy is finding out how.

You wouldn’t expect this to be so. Brown rice is practically a symbol of the whole natural foods movement. It’s available everywhere, from the tiniest co-op to the slickest supermarket. Yet, I can’t count the times that friends – good cooks, whole foods enthusiasts – have told me that brown rice just won’t cook up right for them. It always seems to end up mushy, or scorched, or underdone, or somehow otherwise yucky. “I hate brown rice!” cried a vegetarian friend. Why? Because it always comes out just awful.

Really, this is as much as can be expected. Many published directions for plain brown rice – even those printed right on the packages, strangely enough – are literally recipes for disaster. As an experiment, instead of preparing rice the way I usually do, I tried following the instructions on the bag of Tsuru Mai California Brown Rice, my usual brand. Sure enough, I wound up with a insipid, soupy, crunchy, unpalatable mess.

I did some more investigating, and I was appalled at what I found. Most of the recipes I checked out include at least one feature guaranteed to wreck the rice. Like, they don't include salt – which you need to bring out brown rice=s marvelous, but mild, flavor. Or they have you turn down the heat to the lowest possible simmer – thereby guaranteeing a pot of pulpy sop. Or they have you cooking a single cup of rice in an enormous pot or pressure cooker.

Sometimes there's simply not enough information. For instance, one recipe, which doesn’t even tell how much rice to use, just stipulates “enough water to cover the middle finger to the middle of the second joint as the fingertip rests lightly on the top of the rice.” No wonder some people decide, after a few bouts with it, that brown rice is for the birds.

Why are the instructions so often so wrong? I can't even guess. But after about twenty years of practice, I do know how to make brown rice so that it's: tender (not mushy), moist (not soggy), and agreeably firm to the bite (without aggravating little hard spots). And so can you.

Brown rice is a little trickier to cook than white rice. But you can learn the tricks. And it's worth it.

Brown rice makes a hearty, tasty foundation for any high-fiber, low-fat, whole foods diet. [Author’s note, 2009: I no longer follow, espouse, or believe there are any benefits to a low-fat diet. Nor do I believe anymore that grain is an optimal foundation for a human diet. See this manifesto on, my low-carb site, for a more current representation of my views on the matter.] It’s got two to four times the fiber of white rice, and is a richer source of naturally-occurring B vitamins (white rice is usually enriched artificially), Vitamin E, essential oils, and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and zinc.

Rice naturally has a loose, tough, inedible hull which is easily cracked and winnowed away, even with a hand tool like a wooden pestle. What=s left is the whole grain that we call brown rice – though depending on the variety, it can be brown, red, or even white. More pounding with a pestle will shatter off the edible, nutritious layer of rice bran, leaving only a white core consisting mainly of carbohydrates. This remaining core of white rice can be stored longer – important in low technology societies without modern packaging and storage – and cooks faster – important when fuel is dearly obtained. Also, although rice is not a high-protein food, research shows that what it has is more available when the rice is polished – important when protein is scarce. All these reasons put together may be why white rice became the predominant way of preparing rice the world over.

Ironically, then, brown rice seems to be a true modern health food, rather than the iconic back-to-nature fare it seems to represent. California's Lundberg Family Farms introduced brown rice to an American market in the late 1960s, in response to requests from the blossoming natural foods community. In this light, perhaps it's not so unusual, after all, that we're still figuring out how to get it right.

So what’s the secret to perfect brown rice? It all comes to combining a few ingredients in a suitable container, applying heat for an appropriate length of time – and otherwise leaving it all alone.

Stripped to the essentials, here's how to do it, followed by what you need to know to make it as easy as it should be.

Brown Rice
1 cup short grain brown rice
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse rice. Combine all ingredients in a one- to two-quart saucepan (smaller is better), Bring to boiling.
Reduce heat, cover, and cook 40 minutes at a high simmer/low boil. Do not stir.
Remove from heat and let sit at least fifteen minutes before serving.
Yield: about 3 cups cooked brown rice.

Use short grain brown rice, at least to start. Long grain is trickier to pull off; it=s more likely to become mushy. Look for the chubby little grains of short grain brown rice. They stay firm and delicious for days after cooking.

The best pot for this job is a thick-walled, two-quart saucepan. I use a clear glass Corning Visions pot. You can see right through it, without lifting the lid, to check how hard the water is boiling. The bottom is clear, too, so I can look through the bottom of the pot to check for scorching. Newer Visions pots, though, have opaque nonstick linings on the bottoms, so they don't feature the bottom view. The uncoated ones do turn up often at places like Goodwill – that's where I got mine.

If you don't have a glass pot, try stainless steel, enameled iron (with no chips), or some other nonreactive surface. That way, you can store your cooked rice in the same container you cook it in. (Caution: Don't store cooked food in a reactive material like iron or aluminum. Iron rusts, and aluminum pits and can leach aluminum oxide, which is toxic.) And here's another advantage of glass: not only can you stick the pot in the fridge, but you can pop it right into the microwave to reheat!

If you bought the rice from a bulk bin, pick over it carefully for any pebbles you might find. Occasional green grains are normal, but discard any black, spoiled grains. Rinse the rice to get rid of any field dust.

Place rice in pot and add water and salt. From this moment on, do not stir! As the water boils, the rice grains will arrange themselves into a network of nooks and crannies through which the water bubbles up. In this way, each grain gets its own little space to plump up to perfection. You'll be able to see the passageways when you look inside the pot. I tried stirring the rice partway through cooking once, as an experiment. I suppose it was for the good of science, but I felt sorry for the sodden mass of rice that made the sacrifice.

Now, turn the heat all the way up to get a good rolling boil. Leave the pot uncovered for this step, so it doesn’t boil over while you're not looking. It helps to set a timer. On my stove, nine minutes brings me back just as the boil is getting started.

Once you’ve got the boil going, set your timer for another forty minutes, cover the pot, and adjust the heat until it's bubbling lightly, checking in now and again on the activity level. If you can't decide whether to call it a simmer or a boil, you’ve got it where you want it. The rice should be done in about forty to fifty minutes, but take note of how long it actually takes on your stove and with your cookware (check again if you change pots next time), and adjust your timer, or perhaps your flame, accordingly the next go-round.

As it gets closer to time, check in to make sure there's still water in the pot. Since you're not allowed to stir the rice, how can you tell when the water's all gone? Simple: tilt the pot. If you can see water pooling, it needs to cook some more. If no water pools, take the pot off the heat. Right away. Even if the rice looks very moist. Otherwise, it's going to scorch. Fortunately, rice is among the more forgiving of foods in this way; even if the bottom gets moderately scorched, the rest of the rice does okay. (I’ve known people who swear by the supposed fiery energy bestowed by the singed so-called “yang layer” peeled from the bottom of their cook pot. When life gives you lemons, I guess.)

After you take the pot off the heat, leave it alone – tightly covered – for at least fifteen minutes. Longer is fine. But if you serve it now, it'll be wet and droopy, and will lay flat on the plate. Some recipes call for "fluffing" the rice with a fork or paddle at this point, and then covering with a bamboo mat to let the steam escape. Wrong on both counts! This is a critical moment: the hot steam in all those little tunnels and chambers is now quietly finishing up the job of puffing up those individual rice grains. Let the steam do the fluffing. Let time do the work. I can’t stress enough, this isn’t extra time added to the cooking; this is an essential part of the cooking time.

Now your rice is ready to serve. A bamboo or plastic rice paddle, sold at Asian food stores, is the perfect tool for this: the wide, relatively flat, bowl section can pick up a good amount of rice, while the short, stubby handle gives your wrist the right leverage to hoist it.

Brown rice does take longer to prepare than white rice. But the active preparation time is really the same; it's only the total time frame that's longer.

Also, once it's cooked, it's terrifically convenient: it keeps for a few days in the fridge, and reheats easily in the microwave. It comes in handy all day long. For instance, for an easy breakfast that will power you through to lunch, try this: In a bowl, microwave some rice – anywhere between a half cup and a cup – till it's steaming hot. Make a one-egg omelet stuffed with some crumbled feta and perhaps (if you've a few extra minutes) some sauteed mushrooms and onions, and serve over the rice. With all those complex carbohydrates providing a steady supply of blood sugar, you won't be craving doughnuts mid-morning. [Author’s note, 2009: I am no longer under the impression that plenty of carbohydrates, complex or otherwise, stave off hunger. In fact, it’s the fat and protein in the meal describe that wards off the doughnut cravings. See this article by Barry Groves to learn more about this effect.]

At dinnertime, when the rice is freshly made, I like to serve stir-fried veggies and tofu over it. Rice from the refrigerator is better stirred in during the last few minutes of cooking. (But go ahead and take it out of the fridge at the beginning of your meal prep, so it has time to lose its chill.) A handful or two of cooked rice also goes great in soup for a stick-to-your-ribs one-dish meal.


Brown rice, good and easy

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Madison Magazine, 2001
Column: Table Talk

To read a longer, unpublished, version of this article, containing historical notes and more cookery details, click here.

– VVK, October 1, 2009

“I hate brown rice!” exclaimed my vegetarian editor, when I said I wanted to write about how to cook it.

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve heard lots of people complain they can’t get it to come out right—it’s mushy, crunchy, soupy or bland—and that’s why I wanted to share my simple method, developed over twenty years of whole foods cooking.

Brown rice is the quintessential natural food. Yet when I recently searched the Internet, cookbooks and even product packages, it was weirdly difficult to find effective, specific recipes for plain brown rice. When there were specifics, they often served to wreck the rice. For instance, after cooking a single cup of rice in a gallon-and-a-half size pressure cooker (the smaller of two sizes given as options—and anyway, how many people own such a thing?), I wound up with a flat layer of mush: slimy on top, crunchy brown singed beneath. Another cup of rice simmered in a saucepan for so long in so much water that it became a porridgey glue. A third ended up watery and hard.

Happily, good brown rice is easy and totally worth making. It’s fluffy, tasty, stick-to-your-ribs hearty. You can incorporate it into just about any meal as a side or as a bed for stir-fries, chili, omelettes. Toss leftover rice into soups and stews.

And it's good for you. With up to four times the fiber of white rice and lots of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals (white rice is dusted with vitamins to make up for some of whatÕs polished off), brown rice is a great foundation for healthy eating.

Tips for brown rice perfection—and ease of use

  • One light rinse is sufficient—despite the instructions for multiple scrubbings you might find elsewhere.
  • If you find many rotten black grains or rocks, try a different brand next time. Green grains, on the other hand, are normal.
  • Use salt unless your doctor says you can’t. Saltless rice is insipid.
  • A low boil works much better than a slow simmer. It comes out mushy when you simmer at the lowest temp possible (as some advise).
  • Never stir during cooking. The delicate network of steam tunnels formed by the boiling water is the key to fluffy rice. Stir, and the end product is sodden.
  • Turn off heat according to the “tilt test.” Tilt the pot: if you see water pooling, leave the heat on. If there’s none, turn it off.
  • Remove rice from heat and let set at least ten minutes before serving. The rice continues to steam to fluffy perfection during this essential cooking phase. Otherwise, the rice will lie wet and flat on the plate.
  • Critical: Do not stir the rice after cooking! Nearly every recipe I found says to stir to "fluff," but stirring is really the anti-fluffer. It destroys the steam tunnels. Don't.
  • You can refrigerate unused rice in the saucepan you cooked it in, if you use stainless steel or stove-safe glass. With glass, you have another bonus: you can place the whole thing in the microwave to reheat.

Brown Rice

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups water (for short grain) or 2 cups water (for long grain)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse rice. Combine all ingredients in a heavy 1 to 2 quart saucepan. On high heat, bring to full boil, uncovered (so it won't boil over). Turn down to a low boil and cover. Cook for 20–35 minutes (the time will vary depending on your stove, cookware, and variety of rice), until you can't see any water pooling when you tilt the pot.

Remove from heat and let stand, covered, at least 10 minutes.

Do not stir the rice at any point. Serve as desired. Refrigerate remainder for up to three days.

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach studied brown rice cookery with natural foods pioneer Aveline Kushi.

Friday, June 1, 2001

Fresh Twist on Fast Food

Master of hospitality Craig Culver serves up the scoop on his dining niche and growing franchise chain
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Corporate Report Wisconsin, June 2001

All is gold shovels, plaques and photographers at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Culver’s restaurant in Winona, Minnesota, a town wedged on the narrow plain between the west bank of the Mississippi River and a set of craggy peaks still swathed in snow this sunny March day. A matched set of Chamber of Commerce members in bright green jackets and blue ties, along with a mayor in baggy brown corduroys, felt hat and puffy down vest, pose with Culver’s president and co-founder, Craig Culver—he’s flown in from the company’s Prairie du Sac headquarters, 30 minutes away by private plane—and with new franchisees Ellen and Mike Minter. “I’m so glad Culver’s is coming here.” a onlooker says happily, “Now I won’t have to drive half an hour to the one in La Crosse anymore.”

Newspaper and radio reporters cluster around the 51-year-old Culver, white-haired and hale, comfortably dressed in a dark blue sports jacket, light-colored slacks, and brown loafers. With round face and ready smile, he talks about signature menu items. What is a ButterBurger, anyway? “It’s a good old fresh tavern burger, that’s what it is.” Culver’s burgers are made of lean, never-frozen beef, each one cooked to order on a searing-hot grill. “A friend and I were reminiscing over a glass of beer one day, about the old drive-ins of Milwaukee. He told me about one, the Milky Way, that had ‘butter burgers.’ That sounded so great—I never forgot it. When we opened the first Culver’s, I thought, ‘The butter burger has to be there.” Culver’s ButterBurgers are served on buns that are lightly buttered, then grilled.

Frozen custard? It’s not egg pudding, says Culver; it’s a super-rich, dense, ice cream fortified with egg yolk. “The ripples you see when ice cream is being scooped, that’s the air that’s been mixed into it. You won’t see that in ours. There’s no better ice cream in the world than frozen custard.”

Culver is the star of this show, a visiting Wisconsin celebrity. But he persists in shifting the focus to the Minters, who will own and operate this, the 140th Culver’s restaurant. When someone asks, “What’s your favorite flavor?” Culver answers, “Vanilla,” then calls over the reporters’ heads, “Ellen, what’s yours?” “Snicker Swirl,” she responds. “Snicker Swirl!” Culver smiles and shakes his head. “These young people.”

Eight years ago, when she couldn’t find work with her brand new teaching degree from UW-Platteville, Ellen Minter took what she thought would be just a summer job at a Culver’s, the popular family eatery which has single-handedly revived Midwestern road food traditions like frozen custard and malteds. Now she’s building, marketing and staffing her own restaurant. “The success of our organization has been because of people like Ellen and Mike,” Culver declares.

Franchisees like the Minters pay Culver’s Franchising System, Inc. an initial $45,000 fee, plus 4% of net sales thereafter. Average gross revenue for a Culver’s restaurant is $1.5 million per store, much higher than the average for quick service hamburger chains ($1.15 million) or ice cream chains like Dairy Queen ($550,000). In the year 2000, Culver’s saw bottom line margins increase to 7 percent. Since its first successful franchise in 1990, the restaurant has spread to eleven states, from the Dakotas to Michigan, and as far south as Texas.

Though Craig Culver, this year’s recipient of Wisconsin’s SBA award for Small Business Person of the Year, is the president and co-founder of a growing company which expects to open its 150th location by the end of the year, he doesn’t have a formal business education. His 1973 undergraduate degree from UW-Oshkosh is in biology, and he’s kept up an interest in botany: at home, he grows native prairie plants like purple coneflower and big and little bluestem. He has a nostalgic passion for the classic American Graffiti-style 1950’s drive-ins. And right now, he’s busy filling the Midwest with restaurants that fit into a new niche. In the previously unnoticed gap between quick service (think Burger King) and casual dining (think Applebee’s and Denny’s), Culver has created a new category: “We’ve coined a term—quasual,” he says.

The restaurant model Culver and his wife, Lea, founded in 1984 serves up a unique blend of affordably-priced, service-oriented dining. You order and pay at a counter, fast-food style. But your meal is brought to your table restaurant-style, by a smiling team worker. The dining room is carpeted; the seats are comfortably padded. Coffee is served in real, solid, mugs, not disposable cups. Custard is made fresh several times a day. All food is cooked to order, not made ahead. Even the custard flavor of the day is mixed especially for your cone.

Craig Culver’s carefully worked out philosophy of quality plus committed citizenship underlies the restaurant’s special character. It’s central, he believes, to the success of the entire enterprise. “We’re in the quality and hospitality business,” he says, “not the price point business.” In the quality business, he says, “you can raise the prices when you need to. People are willing to pay for clean restrooms, for customer service.” Culver decries the “minimum wage” mentality in parts of the restaurant industry. “The best, brightest, smartest people—that’s what we want at Culver’s,” he says.

Good deeds get recognized, he says—“people want to support the good citizen”—but must also be done for their own sake. Culver’s public-interest activities over the years have been as diverse as helping establish a bald eagle reserve across the Wisconsin River from the company headquarters (“How can anyone say no to those beautiful eagles?”), promoting Wisconsin farmers, giving college scholarships for student employees, and contributing to the Hunger Task Force.

Within the company, education is promoted strongly. Management skills are honed at three-day managers’ workshops held at company headquarters every other month. Nearly one thousand Culver’s workers have completed the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food safety training program. Culver’s maintains four certified staff members on each shift—even though state and federal standards mandate only one certified person on staff.

But Culver’s, for all its successes, faces a serious challenge “There’s an old-fashioned family feel to our business,” says Culver. “Warmth, honesty, and loyalty. That’s what’s at greatest risk as we develop further. How am I going to protect this culture we started in 1984?” The answer, he believes, is in the Ellen and Mike Minters of the world. “It’s going to be by selecting the right operators to run our business,” he says. “I believe in the franchise system of owner-operators, who run the restaurants day in and day out. The Moms and Pops. I believe in those people, I really do.” Every Culver’s store has at least one operating partner who works in store fulltime, and who has at least 50 percent ownership.

To open your own Culver’s, you must first go through a six day, 60 hour in-store evaluation and orientation. That means long days of work, making custard, serving customers, cleaning up. It means classes and lectures, too. “We’ve had people drop out after a day or two,” Culver says. “That’s fine. Better they find out sooner, rather than later, that this isn’t what they want.” If your background check, application, and evaluation all pass muster, you move on to a twelve-week in-store training program, and your $5,000 application fee is applied to your franchise fee. If not, your money is refunded. By design, the orientation program only has space for 30 people per year, to control the rate of Culver’s growth.

There’s one other franchise requirement on which Culver is standing firm: any new restaurant must be somewhere near an existing one. “I won’t add any new markets,” he says. “We’re saying no to places like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Carolina, California. I get calls every day that I turn down.” Why turn down opportunities for growth? “We’d be going crazy, and we’d wind up losing,” he says. “I don’t want to do that.” Each new market demands its own set of logistics, like developing affordable networks of quality food suppliers and building contractors. And a TV spot costs the same whether its broadcast area covers one Culver’s or ten. Plus, every new population that encounters a Culver’s has to learn what frozen custard is, what a ButterBurger is.

“The restaurants must be run to our standards,” Culver says. “That’s the one thing we can’t lose our grip on. It’s hard to say no. But we don’t have the infrastructure to grow like McDonald’s, adding 500 restaurants a year.”

Craig Culver learned the importance of careful growth the hard way back in 1987, with his first attempt at a franchise, in Richland Center. “They found out that they hated the restaurant business,” he remembers. “They couldn’t keep employees, because of their hate for what they were doing.” Every Culver’s restaurant since then has succeeded.

There was a time when Culver himself wanted out of the restaurant business—in 1973, just after graduating college. He’d grown up working in his family’s restaurants. “I just wanted to get as far away from restaurants as possible,” he says. When his father became ill and asked him to take over the family business, but Culver refused, so his family sold the 40-acre resort near Devil’s Lake, with its 24 cabins and 350-seat restaurant. But Culver couldn’t escape his fate; he soon found himself working at, then managing, a Madison McDonald’s. By 1976, he’d gained invaluable experience and training—and he’d forgotten about wanting to leave the hospitality industry.

“From my family, I learned about quality and hospitality. But from McDonald’s, I learned the systems approach to restaurant management—waste management, inventory control, training manuals, things like that.” Culver asked his parents to buy back the Sauk City A&W they’d owned in the 1960s. “I wanted to be my own businessman. I wanted to open my own restaurant.” He and Lea operated the A&W until 1982, then sold it, moving on to the Ritz supper club in Baraboo. But the new owners of the A&W ran into trouble, and, says Culver, “They begged me to buy it back, take it off their hands.”

Now Craig and Lea had an idea: ditch the Ritz, move back to Sauk City, and remake the A&W into an entirely new thing: a modern version of the old-fashioned custard stand. “We said “Hey, let’s do this under our own terms!” The couple developed a fresh foods menu including fish—“A real Wisconsin fish fry, like in my family’s supper club, with my parents’ tartar sauce recipe—but why not serve it every night of the week?”—hamburgers made with fresh beef, frozen custard, malted shakes. “We remodeled the whole building. We made it blue and white, as different from orange and brown as we could. I suppose we could have chosen green and white, or purple and white. But blue just felt like ice cream to me. Clean and wholesome, like what we were trying to do.” The classic Culver’s oval logo came about simply because something had to fit into the knocked-out A&W sign in front of the restaurant. Today, the flagship Culver’s restaurant stands on the site of that remodeled A&W.

What’s next for these restaurant innovators? The Blue Spoon Creamery Café. Conceived as a lower-cost franchise that can be fitted into existing buildings, Prairie du Sac’s casually elegant Blue Spoon serves upscale dishes like smoked salmon Caesar salad and artichoke focaccia. Coffee beverages include imaginative hybrids like steamed custard cappuccino and espresso malted. “Where our destiny lies with the Blue Spoon, I’m not sure,” says Culver. We’ll probably open another restaurant or two and then decide its fate.”

Whatever the restaurant format, Craig Culver has mastered hospitality: the kind of personal attention that’s as much about making each employee and franchisee feel welcome and valued as it is about engaging customers. The future of Culver’s, though, depends on being able to transmit this skill to every new person who joins the organization. Ken Dickinson, a 27-year-old franchisee about to open a restaurant just outside St. Louis, has noticed this about Culver: “He doesn’t forget a name. He remembers the names of fry guys he sees once a year. I’m trying to get like that.”

Low Country Boil

In Madison Magazine, June 2001
Column: Table Talk
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach and Don Kovach

The trees! The birds! The sun! What is it all saying? Have a cookout! You want to make a big heap of food and share it with your friends and family. And you want to be able to relax and enjoy your own party. Celebrate the summer with a Low Country boil.

The Low Country is the expanse of island-dotted salt marsh that makes up the coastal plain of Georgia and South Carolina. Time there is marked by the tides, rather than the hands of a clock. The culture is intimately tied to the life of the sea and the salt water.

Low Country boil is a synthesis of life in that part of the south: shrimp from the sea, potatoes and carrots from the farms, and sausage from the pigs people keep. The simple act of boiling these everyday ingredients in seasoned water creates a lively, eloquent harmony. Low Country boil is also called Frogmore Stew, for the St. Helena Island community where it’s thought to originate. But it isn’t a stew as we know it—a stew is slow-cooked to soft, thick, inseparability. In a Low Country boil, the ingredients all stay separate, though they come together in the pot and get served in a massive heap on the table. Folks just reach in and pull out what they want, as they want it: a shrimp, a potato, a hunk of corn.

Low Country boils are so popular in coastal cities like Savannah and Charleston, and the territory all around them, you’d think this was an ancient custom. In fact, historians have been able to trace it back only to around 1940, about the time sausage in casings (as opposed to sausage patties) were introduced to the region. Maybe it became so popular so fast because it it’s so easy. It’s a lot of fun, and it brings together so many good things. The salted water, when it boils, evokes the smell of the ocean. There’s a fragrant rush of seasoning as you pour out the food. It’s a big meal, a big thing, and it takes the whole of the outside to hold it.

RECIPE: Low Country Boil

A Low Country Boil is great for outdoor gatherings of eight or more people. It doesn’t scale down well below that.
To serve, just dump the food onto a wood or metal picnic table that’s covered with newspaper. No plates are necessary—people can gather around and eat straight from the heap, shelling shrimp and cutting off hunks of sausage as they go. Cleanup couldn’t be easier: put away any leftovers, and roll up and throw out the rest.

This is an outdoor cooking project. You’ll need a six-gallon pot with a basket insert and a propane burner with a sturdy stand (the same equipment used for deep-frying whole turkey—Table Talk, November 2000).

Multiply these amounts by the number of people coming. These are the ingredients per person:
1/2 pound raw shrimp, shell on (thaw if frozen)
1/2 pound kielbasa, smoked sausage or ring baloney
1 ear corn, husked and broken in half
3 new potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
3 baby carrots (or one pound for up to 16 people)
1/3 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/3 bay leaf
1 peppercorn

For the whole pot:
4 gallons water
1 bag crab or seafood boil
2 tsp. salt

Put the seasonings—crab boil bag, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt—in the water and bring it to a boil. Put the potatoes, carrots, and sausage in the basket, and lower the basket into the pot. Cook for a few minutes until the potatoes are almost done. Add the corn and cook for a few more minutes. The fresher the corn, the shorter the cooking time needed. Add the shrimp, and cook just until they turns red, about 3 minutes. Don’t overcook the shrimp, or they’ll be tough. Lift out the basket, and serve immediately.

Corn bread, cole slaw, green salad, and great Wisconsin beer go well with this meal. Watermelon is a natural to finish.

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach writes this column regularly. Don Kovach grew up in Savannah, where he loved to go shrimping and fishing along the salt rivers with his family.

Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Homegrown Food for Thought

Could alternative agriculture be Dane County's antidote for sprawl?

Through site selection and product placement, Dane County businesses support responsible growth and local agriculture.
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Corporate Report Wisconsin
May 2001

On the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, dollar bills and jars of jam flash across a vendor table in brisk trade. The woman busy behind the table grew the fruit for the jam on her own land, according to the strict requirements of what well may be America’s largest open-air farmers’ market, where an approximate quarter-million dollars is generated each of 28 Saturdays in the year. The waiting list for an open stall is three to five years long.

And it’s not just the market that’s been a huge success. Over the last 20 years, Wisconsin’s capital city has become a mecca for locally produced agricultural wares. Dane County restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses are leading the Midwest in a national movement toward regional and sustainable agriculture. Whether featuring regional products on the day’s menu, giving locally grown produce prime shelf space, or making siting decisions that protect farmland, businesses are fighting to keep the county’s agricultural heritage alive.

But urban sprawl, spurred by a growing economy and population, threatens the very source of the bounty: the open, pastoral landscape of Dane County. According to the June 2000 “Farms and Neighborhoods” report from the county executive’s office, at the current rate of development, the farmlands will be virtually gone by the century’s end — and with them, a defining feature of the county.

Visually, agriculture is the area’s most striking element, far more prevalent than parkland. Southcentral Wisconsin’s farm vistas, with sweeping fields punctuated by stands of trees and grassy ice age hillscapes — gentle oval drumlins, winding eskers — beckon tourists from Wisconsin cities and neighboring states. And this natural beauty is easily accessible to everyone living in Dane County: Even from the center of Madison, bucolic scenery is as near as a 15- or 20-minute drive in any direction. It’s a treasure, and not just when compared to strip mall suburbia. Some rural landscapes may be flat and featureless; Wisconsin’s is exquisite and endlessly diverse.

A few years back, Money magazine rated Madison the country’s most livable city, and population trends indicate that many people agree. In the 1990s, the county’s population rose an estimated 16.7 percent — an additional 61,500 people bringing the total close to 430,000. But as businesses and new residents race to take advantage of the area’s amenities, development patterns have been less than ideal. In February, USA Today ranked Madison one of the most sprawling of all midsized cities — the 65th worst out of all metropolitan areas. The American Farmland Trust has labeled the high-quality farmland in southern Wisconsin the third most threatened in the nation; Dane County lost 48,000 farm acres over the last decade.

So, how important is agriculture here? Dane County’s revenue from agricultural products, nearly $285 million per year, is by far the highest in the state, according to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census. With more than 2,500 farms, Dane County leads the state in production of corn for grain, and is high on the list when it comes to soybeans, fresh market vegetables, fruit and flowers. An expanding part of this industry is “alternative” agriculture in its various forms: farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards and vegetable patches, and environmentally sensitive farming methods like organic and sustainable agriculture.

There’s a great deal at stake in the survival of agricultural Dane County, and much depends on the area’s business leaders — even those not in the habit of thinking about farms. Jim Arts, Dane County’s director of Policy and Program Development, is concerned that businesses may inadvertently “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” unless they act in ways that protect farms. “Businesses have a powerful impact on the future of the county in making siting decisions, and in the ways they support or don’t support public initiatives of land-use issues,” he says. “I would argue that they have a strong motive to work for maintaining a high quality of life here.”

Phil Lewis, a noted landscape architect (he was the driving force behind Madison’s 21-mile E-way system of greenway and trails), agrees. “High-quality personnel are seeking a high-quality environment — one with beautiful scenery and recreation that produces the clean food and fiber and farmers’ markets that they can enjoy throughout a lifetime, for generations.”

Businesses who value Dane County’s special character can help by putting their considerable muscle into supporting land-use policies that help farms stay in business, says Lewis. Making siting decisions that are friendly to farms and natural resources is another powerful tool, with an even more immediate impact. Once a siting decision is made, landscape architects and building architects can work together to ensure that the new facility will have a low — or even beneficial — impact on natural resources, through canny positioning of buildings on the lot, plantings and more. Also, businesses can get involved in local efforts to take advantage of the state’s new Smart Growth Initiative. Smart Growth rewards municipalities that comply with state guidelines for growth. Lewis encourages business leaders who are planning new construction to talk to county and municipal officers, and find siting solutions that are good for everyone concerned.

To Lewis, the countryside is a mosaic of interdependent elements, each reinforcing the other. He’s identified “corridors of exceptional natural diversity,” including farms as well as parks and historical attractions, which support the tourist industry. Wetlands, water systems and steep topography — where terrain is at a 12.5 percent slope or greater — are also key features. Says Lewis, “We’ve inventoried key patterns of natural diversity. Anybody can call them up and interact with them on the county’s Web site.” But neither wetlands nor steep topography, for instance, are protected by law. So it’s up to individual decision makers to make each choice a conscientious one.

Part of the problem, says Arts, comes when decisions are made piecemeal, instead of as part of an overarching plan. Individual exceptions to municipal planning policies add up to a general pattern of sprawl — residential, commercial and industrial. However, Lewis says “there’s ample room for building without encroaching on or destroying resources.” “Farms and Neighborhoods,” to which Arts contributed, supports that: the report says there’s plenty of developable land within Dane County’s existing city and town borders — enough to fit the expected growth for decades to come.

Odessa Piper is one local entrepreneur who’s earned national acclaim by directly — and vocally — supporting local agriculture, and encouraging more businesses to do the same. Her restaurant, L’Etoile, serves upscale cuisine based on locally produced foods. For more than 25 years, Piper has built tight relationships with more than 100 Wisconsin farmers and producers, who supply everything from strawberries and spinach to bison and veal.
“We put the customers and the dining room in touch with the local farmers by creating the synthesis from the field to the table,” she says. “People are delighted by it. Customers love to be part of the solution.” Piper is an activist as well as a restaurateur, writing and speaking around the nation about the importance of supporting local agriculture. She’s been featured in national magazines like Bon Appetit, Sierra and Wine Spectator, and she’s had a tremendous influence on the growing number of restaurants in Madison and in the rest of the Midwest who now purchase directly from nearby farmers.

But she’s concerned that many businesspeople don’t recognize how much Madison’s high quality of life depends on maintaining farmland close by. “I’ve sat down with people who have made absolutely no connection between their wealth and the way that they’ve developed land. No connection that they’ve had an impact on the availability of fresh, seasonal, locally available food,” Piper says. “But then they ask how is this so delicious? How is this food so good? I tell them, it’s because it’s from a farmer who’s local.”

In a country where food travels an average distance of 1,300 miles from farm to table, restaurants and food service are just beginning to take advantage of the premium merchandise offered by local farmers. A few years ago, Home Grown Wisconsin, a 20-farmer cooperative, broke into a new restaurant market: Chicago. There they were welcomed by chefs starving for locally grown food. Even the UW dining service is beginning to look into local connections, testing the waters with annual organic, regionally grown dinners. The UW’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research facility within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, points out that if UW dining bought just 10 percent of its food from Dane County farmers, it would keep an extra $1 million within the local economy.

Besides restaurants, grocers are increasingly keen on locally grown produce. It’s easy enough to guess that natural foods stores like Williamson Street Grocery Co-op, Whole Foods Market and Magic Mill Natural Foods Market would support local, smaller-scale agriculture. But big supermarkets are also getting in on the local action, and Dane County is the focal point.

In the mid-’90s, Stevens Point-based Copps Food Center established the Copps Produce Developmental Center and placed it in Madison stores. “Our Madison customers spent more per dollar on produce than at any of our other stores,” says Tom Pozorski, Copps’ category manager for produce. “We look to Madison for what the trends are going to be in the rest of the Midwest.”

What the CPDC discovered was a strong preference for locally produced food; now Copps buys local whenever possible. “The growing season is short here, so that’s the biggest limitation,” Pozorski says. “But in season we sell 100 percent Wisconsin sweet corn, for instance. There’s nothing better than Wisconsin sweet corn when you’re in Wisconsin.” Apples and potatoes are also big crops, and they store well, too. Wisconsin is the third largest potato producer in the U.S. “They’re the best in the world. You can’t beat a Wisconsin spud,” Pozorski says. Locally grown organics and other specialty crops are growing in popularity and availability, too. “We have a lot of new growers approaching us,” Pozorski says.

Star Liquor in Madison finds that locally produced goods are a big draw. “People want to support the local economy,” says manager Mark Mason. “They want to know where their money is going. People want to drink local — I give them what they want.” At least 25 percent of Star’s beer sales are regional brands, says Mason, adding “that doesn’t include Miller, Leinenkugel and Point” — popular Wisconsin-brewed beers with out-of-state ownership. Mason points out that Dane County is the proud home of Capitol Brewery, rated America’s #1 brewery by the Beverage Tasting Institute in 1998. Even wine from Wisconsin sells well, especially at Christmastime for gifts to ex-Wisconsinites. In a refrigerated case next to the champagne, Star also sells specialty cheeses from Bleu Mont Dairy. It’s the only place other than the Farmers’ Market on the Square where this Dane County dairy’s cheese can be purchased.

If healthy, vibrant farms are key to averting sprawl disaster in Dane County, then alternative agricultural methods — and perspectives — will increase in importance. Compared with traditional megacrops like soybeans or corn for grain, which gross about $275 to $375 per acre, grosses for fresh market vegetables can range from $8,000 to $16,000 per acre, with a net of between $4,000 to $9,000. Therefore, to support a family, specialty vegetable farms don’t need to be as big as conventional feed crop farms.

Organic milk, meat, vegetables and fruit are more labor-intensive to produce, but they do command higher prices in an expanding market: the market for organic has been steadily growing by 20 percent yearly since 1989. The Miller Farm in Dane County’s Town of Bristol is Wisconsin’s largest organic dairy farm, with 350 milk cows. Because their milk is organic, the Millers can sell their milk for 50 percent more than the conventional price.

And there’s plenty of room for niche marketing. For direct sales, there’s the 300-vendor Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square, as well as markets in Middleton, Sun Prairie and Fitchburg, and outside Madison’s Hilldale Shopping Center. There are roadside stands where farmers set up informal shop for the day. U-Pick orchards and berry patches let you walk through the growing fields yourself, and are often touted as an attraction for children.

Despite these opportunities, the future of Dane County’s rich agrarian tradition, and the beautiful landscape that comes with it, is far from certain. From here, Dane County may join the list of America’s lost paradises. Or it may become a great success story, a blueprint for others to follow. How the business community approaches development, how strongly it supports locally produced foods, and the stand it takes on land-use policies — all these will play an incalculable role in the shape the county will take.

But before business is likely to exercise its power to help Dane County farmers, it must first recognize how important Dane County farmers are to business. “We need to raise awareness,” says Jim Arts. “If we want to preserve the character of Dane County, we must keep farmers in business.”

Walter and Sam's chocolate cake?

by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Madison Magazine, May(?) 2001
Column: Tidbits

German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. It’s simply a recipe made with a sweet chocolate bar developed by Sam German in the 1840s.

Sam worked for Baker’s Chocolate, whose name has nothing to do with baking—Walter Baker, the Massachusetts physician who built America’s first chocolate mill in 1780, co-founded the company.

In 1957, a Dallas newspaper published a recipe for an unusual chocolate layer cake. Spectacularly soft and dense, it was leavened with buttermilk, baking soda, and stiffly beaten egg whites. It was topped and filled with a soft caramel frosting loaded with pecan bits and coconut flakes.

When sales of Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate skyrocketed in that city, General Foods went to Dallas to find out why—then sent the recipe to newspapers around the country.

Today, you’ll find a tear-off card with a scrumptious recipe for “German’s® Sweet Chocolate cake” inside each package of Kraft’s Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate. There’s even a photo of the cake on the front of the box.

Sometimes history hides in plain view.

Sunday, April 1, 2001

Make mine a double

by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Madison Magazine, April 2001
Column: Tidbits
Photo: USDA image in the public domain, via Wikipedia

Related: Green gunk is an American bestseller on Vesna's Fun World

Guacamole, that spicy green dip, gets its name from the Mexican-Spanish mole, meaning a sauce or mixture, plus ahuacatl, the Aztec word for “testicle” as well as for “avocado.”

This synonym doubtless arose from observation of the fruit’s shape and wrinkly skin.

If the size seems off, consider that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Aztec warriors conquered surrounding lands to build the largest empire in the history of the North American continent.

For best results making tasty guacamole, use a very ripe avocado.

Thursday, March 1, 2001

Aztalan: Where time hangs still

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Wisconsin Trails
March-April 2001

At the dawn of the last millennium, Wisconsin’s first agricultural community was born. It happened on a special spot, a place where the woods opened onto a narrow oak savanna that ran along the west bank of a plentiful river. A shoulder of high ground protected this fertile expanse from winter’s fierce west winds. Here, a group of Native Americans planted a cornfield, and built a town beside it. They raised massive earthworks: platform-topped mounds for performing the ceremonies to make the corn grow, for storing the corn, and for burning and burying some of the most honored of the dead. The town they surrounded with stockade walls, tall and sturdy—though some of their neighbors were friends, they fought with others. For besides being farmer-warriors, they were pioneers on the north frontier of their world. No one else lived like this up here, and no one else ever would.

Today, the site is a park deep in the Jefferson County countryside, midway between Milwaukee and Madison. A mile off the easy-biking Glacial Drumlin Trail, Aztalan State Park offers tranquil fishing and picnicking on the west bank of the Crawfish River, a few miles north of its confluence with the Rock. Amenities are few: some tables and grills, pit toilets. Hand pumps deliver water, cold with the taste of iron, to anyone energetic enough to swing a long, heavy lever long enough to start the flow. There’s no visitors center or park office. You wouldn’t guess this is the home of the state’s most spectacular archeological treasure.

Just north of the picnic tables a narrow green field stretches parallel to the river. At three of the field’s four corners, grassy mounds swoop up, each some 15 feet high. One of these is a natural gravel knoll, where archeologists think the ancients may have held ceremonies. The other two are earthworks carefully reconstructed by archeologists in the 1950s: a stepped pyramid and a flat-topped dome. For the untrained eye looking out at these 21 peaceful acres, it’s hard to imagine the bustle of activity that once filled this space—farming, cooking, playing, ritual, battle.

A steep stairway leads up the pyramid in the southwest corner. Pits within it stored corn. The top level, a 53 square foot platform, was originally capped with smooth clay. Archeologists think it was used for rituals commemorating the harvest, and as a spot where Aztalan’s elite could look out over the town. Lengths of stockade wall (also rebuilt in the 1950s) rim this part of the park. From here looking east to the knoll some 700 feet away, and northwards nearly one quarter mile to the mound at Aztalan’s northwest corner, both appear quite near. But walking north, the grass slips by beneath your feet, your footsteps taking you so slowly to that mound, always just ahead, never seeming to get closer. By the time you climb the north mound, where hundreds of years ago a structure was built, ten bodies and a bundle of bones were lined up inside, and the whole thing was burned and then buried, you might feel that time hangs still in the air, and that all the people who dwelled here before are not so far away after all.

The walled village of Aztalan thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1200, with about 350 residents at its peak. Not until the nineteenth century would Wisconsin again be home to such a concentrated population. Aztalan wasn’t the only town of its kind, but there was nothing else like it so far north. It was a frontier town, the northernmost major outpost of the Middle Mississippian culture, which was a vast society headquartered in what’s now Illinois, across the Mississippi from present-day St. Louis.

The Middle Mississippian culture owed its start to corn agriculture. Corn, first cultivated in Mesoamerica, sparked a cultural revolution when it arrived in the Illinois region around A.D. 800. Unlike wild grains, domesticated corn was relatively easy to plant, harvest, and eat, and it produced lots of big, nutritious seed. In the fertile Mississippi floodplain, harvests were abundant. With plenty to eat, mortality declined and the population soared. Change came fast: tending fields and storing the harvest meant settling down and giving up nomadic ways. The society began to split into strict castes. Rulers controlled the resources that others grew, crafted, and traded for. Arts and religion flourished, as did large-scale, elaborate human sacrifice rituals. At the center of this new society was Cahokia, a metropolis over five miles square, complete with its own constellation of suburbs. At its zenith, around A.D. 1150, Cahokia was one of the largest cities in the world. With 10,000 residents, it was more populous than London at that time. The new Middle Mississippian culture spread through much of what’s now the United States. Some scholars describe Cahokia (its original name is unknown to us; it was renamed in the 19th century for a Native American tribe living near its ruins), with its enormous influence, as the seat of a Native American empire.

Aztalan was typically Middle Mississippian in many ways, with its stockade walls, ceremonial platform mounds, ruling elite, elegantly decorated shell-tempered pottery, sturdy huts of varied shapes and styles, many types of complex burials, and its evidently brutal warfare. And, as at Cahokia, Aztalan life depended on intensive cultivation of corn. But around 1200, both Cahokia and Aztalan began to wither. In fact, the Middle Mississippian culture vanished entirely from the Midwest, and archeologists still aren’t sure why. In the American Southeast, Middle Mississippian lifeways continued for centuries—though never on Cahokia’s scale—right up into the 16th century and European contact. In the region that became Wisconsin, a new culture developed: that of the Oneota, ancestors of many modern tribes including the Ho-Chunk. The Oneota farmed and lived in permanent settlements, but on a smaller, less concentrated scale than Aztalan. Whether they descended from the people of Aztalan is unknown, but Aztalan culture certainly influenced them.

Meanwhile, by the banks of the Crawfish River, the town languished, abandoned, for six hundred years. Occasional prairie fires blackened the stockade walls. Wide piles of rubble gradually formed along the walls, as the tough plaster slowly crumbled and sloughed away.

In 1835, settler Timothy Johnson came upon the ruins of a mysterious civilization three days’ rugged travel from Milwaukee, in the newly formed Wisconsin Territory Newspapers across the country publicized the find. Adventurers sought out the storied city in the wilderness. They wrote of a “Citadel”—a weathered fortress four to five feet tall, surrounding the remains of a town. Within the walls they saw great platform mounds and dozens of house foundations dug into the ground, the hearth pits still visible. Outside the enclosure was the ancient cornfield and dozens of smaller mounds. Wrote Nathaniel Hyer, a Milwaukee judge who put an early claim on the land, “We found the a much more perfect state than I had anticipated.”

Like most of his fellow settlers, Hyer thought Wisconsin Indians were much too primitive to be related to the town’s builders. He concluded these must be the ruins of “Aztalan,” the legendary northern source of the Aztec people (which today’s scientists think is about as far north as New Mexico). Hyer reasoned that the Aztecs were “far more advanced in civilization and the arts, than the Indian race ever appear to have been.” The name stuck, though some of Hyer’s contemporaries believed the town was actually built by the Lost Tribes of Israel, ancient Phoenicians, or refugees from Atlantis. At any rate, the “Citadel” was taken as proof that the Indians must be dispatched. The barbarians of the Wisconsin Territory weren’t natives, but usurpers who’d murdered a civilized “Lost Race.” The settlers were acting justly: reclaiming the land for civilization.

In those days before modern archeological methods, exploration was, to say the least, destructive. Curiosity-seekers tore apart the walls and mounds freely, and helped themselves to what they found. One 1838 visitor wrote that he “cut through the wall in several places” and opened several mounds with spade and pick, making a gift to a friend of something he considered a particularly tantalizing find: one of about 52 bundles of forearm bones, charred and bound with fibrous cord. Soon, despite Aztalan’s fame, the site was parceled off as farmland. Edward Everett, a well-known orator of the time, entreated President Van Buren to protect the site. His request went unanswered, and the ancient village—mounds, house foundations, and all—went under the plow. As years went by, countless bones and artifacts were tossed to the sides of the fields like pesky stones, or were taken by souvenir hunters. And the stockade walls, so marvelously intact? Wagonloads of this “Aztalan brick” went to fill potholes in the local roads.

Aztalan’s fortunes improved around 1920 when Samuel Barrett, one of America’s first professional archeologists, began conducting scientific excavations there. In support of his work, the townspeople of modern Aztalan rallied to save what remained of the ancient site. They raised money to buy the land and lobbied for years to make it a national or state park. Finally, in 1948, Aztalan became a state park. It was designated a National Landmark in 1964.

Among archeologists today, interest in Aztalan is keener than ever before, thanks in part to the many intriguing finds made over years of fieldwork. For every question raised, different researchers suggest different answers. Who were the Aztalanians? Some archeologists believe they were exiles or political refugees from Cahokia. Others think they were traders who eventually settled in—Cahokians who came to Wisconsin to trade for deer meat and hide. A more grisly suggestion: they were trading for human fodder to supply Cahokia’s large-scale sacrifices. Some scholars believe that Middle Mississippians chose this particular spot because the locale reminded them of the waterways of their home in what’s now Illinois. Others think that most, if not all, of the Aztalan residents were natives to the Wisconsin region. Much Wisconsin-style pottery has been found at the site, and there’s even evidence of some corn agriculture starting around A.D. 800. After learning of Cahokia through trade and travel, by this theory, these local farmers built themselves a mini-Cahokia.

So why was the town abandoned? Weather and warfare seem the most likely reasons. Both Aztalan and Cahokia declined after about A.D. 1200, during a worldwide cold spell. Aztalan and Cahokia may have depended on a type of corn that did better in warmer conditions—and indeed, the Middle Mississippian culture continued in the warmer American Southeast for centuries. Alternately, warfare may have been the main factor in Aztalan’s demise. Maybe neighboring Oneota warriors crushed Aztalan. Or, as some researchers speculate, maybe the villagers tired of their restrictive, caste-driven life and evolved into what became Oneota.

Another puzzle: the apparently cannibalized bones found charred and broken in the town dump. Did the Aztalanians rely on human flesh as food, as some scientists believe? Or, as others say, was their cannibalism was strictly ritualistic, a form of ancestor veneration? Was it a way to gain the strength of vanquished enemies? Or, by still another hypothesis, were the trashed bones were simply body parts deemed unworthy of proper burial?

The answers will never be known for sure. But because of the many people who’ve worked to preserve the relics of this vanished world, we can explore these mysteries together at Aztalan, Wisconsin’s first farm town.

The rich history of Wisconsin continues to fascinate freelance writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach, an East Coast transplant since 1992.

Visiting Aztalan
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Aztalan State Park is located on Highway Q outside Lake Mills. From I-94, take Highway 89 south into Lake Mills. Turn east onto County B. After 2.5 miles, turn right on County Q. Or, if you’re biking the Glacial Drumlin Trail, leave the trail at Q. The park is about a mile north of the trail. This scenic bike path, which runs almost the entire distance from Madison to Milwaukee, features easy riding and many entry points along its 52 miles of converted rail bed. Call the Lake Mills trail office at (920) 648-8774 for a trail map and bike rentals, or visit The Sandhill Station State Campground is a mile south of the Lake Mills trail office.

The park itself is sparsely signed, but a self-guiding tour brochure introduces Aztalan culture and history, points out where some of the most interesting burials and artifacts were found, and shows the whereabouts of the ancient town’s main features. The tour takes about an hour. The day-use park offers picnic tables and grills, fishing, hiking along the river, and cross-country skiing. Dogs must be leashed and kept in designated areas, out of the village grounds. Visitors can freely explore the grass-covered site and climb the rebuilt temple mounds. But before you pack the kids and car, note that no trails lead through the town site—meaning no access for strollers or wheelchairs. Call Dana White-Quam, the DNR’s park and recreation expert for the South Central Region, at (608) 275-3302 to find out about scheduled hikes and other programming. This summer, you might even get to witness a live archeological dig.

Right now, Aztalan’s interpretive facilities are slim, but that’s soon to change. A new master plan for the park calls for a visitor center featuring an auditorium, audio-visual presentations, displays, classrooms, and space for archeologists to conduct ongoing research. Pending funding and other logistics, the center will be built within the next three to 15 years. Call White-Quam for more information.

Aztalan Historical Museum, just outside the park on Q, celebrates the history of both the pioneer town and its prehistoric predecessor. The museum features artifacts from ancient Aztalan, as well as several 19th century buildings: a one-room schoolhouse, a church, period-furnished pioneer homes and a two-story barn. Though the museum grounds aren’t part of the state park, some Aztalan mounds are located here. One of these, a conical mound originally 50 feet across and six feet high, held an elaborate burial unique in Wisconsin: a young woman wrapped about the shoulders, waist, and knees with three shrouds woven with nearly two thousand shell beads. Robert Birmingham, state archeologist with the State Historical Society, thinks this woman may have been the most important chieftain in Aztalan’s history. At the time of European contact, says Birmingham, female chieftains ruled in parts of the Middle Mississippian culture’s last stronghold, the American Southeast. A statue offering an alternate interpretation of the woman as a priestess is slated for unveiling on the museum grounds this spring. Museum hours are Thursday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., May 17 - September 30. Call (920) 648-4632 for group tours.

After your expedition, head for the homey eateries of nearby Lake Mills. Downtown at 131 N. Main Street, look for a pyramid-shaped roof: that’s the Cafe on the Park (formerly the Pyramid Cafe), styled in tribute to the earthworks of Aztalan. Slake your thirst at the outdoor beer garden at Tyranena Brewing Company on 1025 Owen Street. Tyranena is named after the supposed “stone teepees” (they’re actually natural rock deposits) submerged in Rock Lake across town. Call (920) 648-8699 for beer garden hours; brewery tours given Saturdays at 3:30.

Monday, January 1, 2001


Danish pastry, Racine-style
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

in Racine County Visitor Guide

What original Racine creation is tender, feather-light flaky, and totally scrumptious? It’s kringle, Racine’s signature ethnic dish--a local treasure par excellence.

The kringle style of Danish pastry--an oval ring, generously filled and iced--was developed by Danish-American bakers in Racine. Like croissant, its culinary cousin, traditional Danish pastry is made by repeatedly rolling out a piece of dough, coating it with butter, folding it, and then letting it rest in a cool place.

During the cooling periods, a rich flavor develops, the dough rises, and the butter firms up so that dough layers will stay separate. The whole process takes three days.
Though it’s little known elsewhere, Wisconsonians are fondly familiar with this regional treat. But what’s not so well-known, even here in Wisconsin, is that up until some fifty years ago, kringle was neither oval, nor ever fruit-filled, nor even iced.

“Kringle” means pretzel in Danish, and that was the pastry’s original shape. But in the prosperous post-WWII years, sweet-toothed customers clamored for change: less dough, more filling. With a simplified inner tube-like design, bakers found they could stuff in lots more than the slender ribbon of almond paste used in the old country. The new shape also allowed for juicy fruit fillings, which would have popped the pretzel walls. Luxurious icing suited this sumptuous affair better than the sprinkling of granulated sugar used before.

Today, you can buy dozens of flavors of kringles at Racine’s several authentic Danish bakeries. It’s a genuinely American experience: Old World techniques skillfully applied to our zeal for variety and abundance--fresh-baked daily with pride.

Hidden Racine County

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Racine County Visitor Guide

Some of Racine County’s most intriguing treasures are somewhat tricky to discover. We’ve compiled a short list of must-see wonders of this diverse region--and the inside scoop on how to take advantage of them.

Be sure to call ahead for each of these attractions. Hours are limited, reservations are required, or both. Signage is slight, so get directions.

You’ll be amazed at how much hidden Racine County has to offer!

Norway Historical Museum
(262) 895-2085
Heg Park Road and Old Loomis Road (off Rt. 36), Norway

Snug in the rural hills of the northwest corner of Racine County, a profound bit of history is kept vibrantly alive by the residents of Norway, an unincorporated town so small it’s not even on most maps. This is the original mother colony of Norwegian-U.S. immigration.

A historical marker in the shade of a nut tree on the sloping grounds of Old Norway Lutheran Church tells of the 1839 start of this community, where both the nation’s first Norwegian Lutheran congregation and the first Norwegian-American newspaper began.

Across the street is Colonel Heg Park, named after a celebrated Civil War figure with the same last name as one of the town’s founders. In this park, the Norway Historical Museum shares the past with descendants of the original settlers, the developing community’s more recent arrivals, and visitors from all over.

Over one hundred fifty years ago, the nine members of the Norwegian Bendicson family lived in a one-room log cabin. Now, that home is restored, refurnished, and on display. “The grandaughter of the Bendicsons came by a few weeks ago,” says Betty Fries (pronounced like “freeze”) of the Historical Society. “She said she was happy to see it open. A lot of the adults don’t remember that time, but they remember their parents or grandparents telling about it.”

Children on school trips like to show their new young neighbors the artifacts donated from their families, Fries says. The new kids later bring in their own parents, and thus the community is strengthened through sharing its heritage.

A farm exhibit includes “a historical chicken coop with feeders” and the restored clapboard farmhouse of a remarkable Lutheran pastor. “Pastor Eilisen walked to New York in 1843,” says Fries, “to translate the Norwegian catechism into English for the first time.”

Also on display are 19th century Wisconsin artifacts and Norwegian heirlooms: silver filigree jewelry, spinning wheels, a weaving loom, and much more. There’s even a full-scale reproduction of a traditional Norwegian fishing boat.

The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12-4, Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. Any size party (from one person to a large tour group) is welcome to call ahead and arrange a visit at other times.

During the town’s Heritage Days, the old church is open for tours.

Colonel Heg Park is a favorite spot for family reuinions and company picnics. To schedule use of the park’s picnic shelters, call (262) 886-8440.

Fred Hermes’ Basement Bijou
North side of Racine, off Route 32
(262) 639-1322

Grecian statues, chandeliers, ornately carved walls: it’s old-time movie palace splendor. The lights dim. A gold curtain whizzes silently open, and, like Poseidon rising from the sea, up comes the star attraction: an elaborate theater organ console--five keyboards, countless pedals and switches. This 2,500 pipe Wurlitzer from 1926 is the largest model the organ company ever made. It’s almost certainly the only one of its kind intact--and in use.

As the organ emerges from deep below stage level, a man seated with his back to us plays a majestic overture. This is Fred Hermes, who salvaged the once-neglected instrument from Detroit’s 4,000 seat Michigan Theatre in 1956. Today, he invites groups to visit his “Mighty Wurlitzer,” which, he says, “cost $75,000 new. Now, you couldn’t get one like this made for $3 million.”

The organ can mimic the sounds of all the instruments in the orchestra, and then some. Some of the pipes are straight, some flared, some looped in the center. Some are metal, and some are wood. Besides pipes, there’s a full complement of actual percussion instruments: cymbals, a marimba, a harp, a glockenspiel--all controlled from the keyboards. Thirty-five hundred wires connect the organ console to its thousands of voices. A room-sized fifteen horsepower motor powers the organ’s blower. A separate two horsepower motor powers the keyboards’ current to the pipes and other instruments.

Hermes has spent the last 46 years restoring this unique artifact of musical, cinematic, and technological history. His achievements have been recognized by the American Theatre Organ Society and other groups.

The two-hour presentation includes a concert, demos, a talk with a question-and-answer period, a sing-along, and more. “School groups love it. I’ve had all kinds of groups come,” he says.

The extravaganza takes place in a 400-seat house set with authentic architectural elements from fifty (sadly destroyed) movie palaces throughout the midwest. Incredibly, it’s all installed in the two-story basement of the residential neighborhood dwelling where Hermes and his wife, Veryl, raised their family. “I built the house for the organ,” he says.
Shows are presented to groups, and are by reservation only.

Spinning Top Exploratory Museum
(262) 763-3946
533 Milwaukee Avenue (Highway 36), Burlington

“My pet peeve with museums is, you walk through these rooms full of displays and there’s things that make you go, ‘Wow!’--but you can’t find out anything about them,” says Judith Schulz. “There’s nobody you can ask. No one who can tell you the story.”

At the Spinning Top Exploratory Museum--which features this former high school teacher’s collection of 6,000 modern and antique tops from all over the world--Schulz makes sure you’ll never have that problem.

“This is not an ordinary museum--it’s a whole program,” she explains. Visiting groups get two hours of spinning demos, hands-on practice with 35 different tops and top games, a video demonstration with tips for top play, and a guided, interactive tour through the museum’s exhibits.

The place teems with tops: yo-yos, diabolos, gyroscopes. Tulip tops, pump tops, top games, dreidles. The collection’s crown jewel, an intricately decorated green and gold metal top, is well over a century old: the faded letters on the string-pulled toy announce our nation’s Centennial.

Then there’s top tales: In Malaysia, top spinning is a traditional competition sport played by adults. The first tops were likely acorns and seashells. A yo-yo is really a kind of top; Yo-Yo was the brand name of Duncan’s popular “return top.”

Other Spinning Top programs include yo-yo day camps (there are programs for children and for adults) and the Hall of Puzzles (solve a logic puzzle and ring a bell!).
The world’s only top museum is a non-profit organization that began as a temporary display by a local educational group, Teacher Place and Parent Resources, in conjunction with Burlington’s first annual ChocolateFest in 1987. Visits are by reservation and for groups only, but the museum gift shop is open for walk-ins.

More about Burlington
Burlington’s idiosyncratic charm well fits the home of the renowned Burlington Liars’ Club. Walk the Tall Tale Trail, following the bronze plaques commemorating especially good fibs from the club’s 70-year history. You’ll find maps to this and other walking tours at the Chamber of Commerce on 112 Chestnut Street. Or, just stroll about mapless. Either way, you’ll enjoy seeing the lovely old commercial buildings and residences of this pedestrian-friendly town.

The restored Pioneer Log Cabin downtown is surrounded by lush plantings of native wildflowers and a vintage kitchen garden. The cabin is open Sundays and holidays from 1-4 or by appointment. Call (262) 767-2884.

On most summer Saturday nights, the Brown’s Lake Aquaducks put on a free waterski show, featuring a four-tiered human pyramid and other stunts. Call (262) 763-2603 for details.

It’s a marvel how much Burlington, a town of 9000, offers the day tripper: lots of historic attractions, beautiful buildings, fun places to eat, custard shops, boutiques, scenic parks, bicycle trails. They won’t all fit in this space, so call the Chamber of Commerce at (262) 763-6044 to find out about the rest!

Golden Rondelle Theater and SC Johnson Administration building
(262) 260-2154
1525 Howe Street, Racine

Long before IMAX, there was the futuristic Golden Rondelle Theater, presenting giant-format, multi-screen movies to awed crowds. The theater building, too, is remarkable: a huge, golden, flying saucer-shaped disk that seems to hover miraculously several feet off the ground.

The Golden Rondelle was originally the Johnson Wax pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. After the fair, it was brought to Racine, where SC Johnson is headquartered. Visitors have delighted at the unique structure and the spectacular movies shown inside ever since. The year 2000 saw the premiere of an original eye-popping documentary--a brand-new Golden Rondelle exclusive.

A few hundred feet away stands the revolutionary SC Johnson Administration building, designed by controversial 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. With its rounded corners and open inner spaces, this architecturally significant 1930s structure continues to stand apart from buildings of its own or any era.

The Golden Rondelle Theater and the SC Johnson Administration building are open to visitors on Thursdays and Fridays. Reservations are required.

Also see Wingspread

Wingspread, a sweeping, four-winged building by the shores of Lake Michigan, is another important Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Designed as a family residence for H.F. Johnson, founder of Johnson Wax, the dramatic building is now a popular conference center. It’s open to the public when no conference is in session. Call (262) 681-3353 to confirm availability. Wingspread is at 33 Four Mile Road on the north side of Racine.