Here’s something to think about- from whatever state or substate you live in, what would you say are ingredients and preparations thereof native to your area?

When I took on the task of making a pizza in the shape of New Jersey, utilizing ingredients native to the state they were to represent, I had it pretty easy with New Jersey. There’s a style of pizza (tomato pie), and a solid ingredient that the state is known for being a large producer of  (eggplant). However, for my second attempt at a pizza, I may have promised too much.

Wisconsin. Yeesh. My home state, land of beer, cheese, bratwurst, etc. Do they go on a pizza? No clue. Can I make them fit? Probably. How do I come up with a cohesive theme that encompasses all the great things about Wisconsin cuisine and fit them on a single pie? Moreover, how do I reconcile my desire to put everything on a pizza where the ingredients may or may not match up. Furthermore, taking from my years at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, how on Earth do I choose from the thousands of fantastic, locally grown and sourced items that were available to me every Saturday?

The local food movement is never more present than in Wisconsin, where every weekend at 6:30 AM, as I set up the bakery stall, I’d see wagons filled with local meats, cheeses, and produce, destined for restaurants around the area. There was L’Etoile, a kind of mini Chez Panisse, taking a large bit of inspiration from the mind of Alice Waters. L’Etoile spawned Harvest, whose executive chef went on to lead the Madison chapter of the Slow Food Movement. In later years, though, there was Ian’s Pizza. I’d never think that Ian’s would be so fastidious about sourcing local ingredients, as it was a late night hangout for every drunken collegiate within stumbling distance of either the Kohl Center after basketball games or State Street, the main bar thoroughfare in Madison. Still, every Saturday, Ian himself would be walking around the square, talking with the vendors, and picking out interesting ingredients for his pies.

Ian’s made a name for themselves as an inexpensive yet inventive pizza joint in Madison, staking claim to pizzas like the Macaroni and Cheese, the Steak Frites, and more recently, a Thanksgiving pizza, with mashed potato sauce base, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and bits of turkey as a topping. This is where I drew a bit of inspiration from.

Wisconsin

Here’s a map of Wisconsin: It’s much larger than New Jersey, with topography that goes from rolling glacial hills with incredibly fertile black soil in the south to sandy, evergreen forests in the middle, and cranberry bogs in the north. What to do?

In Wisconsin, there’s a tremendous amount of old growth forest-a mycological playground for wild mushroom foraging. Morels, trumpets, hedgehogs. You name it, and with enough asking and searching, you can find someone who knows just the right place to find some. Unfortunately, the only thing as sacred in Wisconsin as the allegiance to the Green Bay Packers is usually the location of one’s secret mushroom area, so good luck with that one.

***

In my head, I’ve got some ideas. I waited a couple of weeks for the first signs of real spring produce to show up. I did not want to use hothouse tomatoes, root vegetables, or anything that could have been kept in a cold store for the winter. Around April in Wisconsin, we see the first shoots of green pop up: In our gardens, we have the patches of asparagus that grow like weeds. In the forests out behind the house, we have my personal favorites, ramps. As I walked through the store the other day on my way out, I noticed we had some ramps on the shelf. I grabbed two bunches, their twist ties reading Harmony Valley Farms, a longtime Dane County Farmers’ Market staple and huge advocate for new and different local foods. They were selling sunchokes and yellow carrots long before they were foisted on us by the Food Network. They were nutty, soft, and as good then as they are today.

I found some dried apples. In the Kickapoo Valley in the Southwest corner of the state, there is a town called Gays Mills situated among the bluffs along the Mississippi. It’s known for its Apple Festival every September, where all the orchards harvest their finest crops and come together to celebrate the agriculture which sustains this three block long Main Street and the surrounding area.

In the meat department, I grab a bratwurst. Unless you know where to find Johnsonville, or you make your own, you cannot find a good, raw bratwurst in this city outside of Lincoln Square, the heavily German neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. The bratwurst we have at work is pretty good. Flavorful, and a close cousin to a Sheboygan.I also grab a little bit of bacon.

As I mentioned before, cranberries in northern Wisconsin grow abundantly, and driving through the state, if you avoid the turnoff to Minneapolis, you pass bog after bog of cranberries destined for a bottle of Ocean Spray. In the store, it’s difficult to find a dried cranberry these days that is not sweetened with sugar, so I found some that were a bit more pricey that were sweetened with apple juice.

Up to this point, I have not talked about cheese. Cheese is a touchy subject, especially if you need to find something that is going to be representing the entire state. Do you do cheddar? Muenster? Brick? Wisconsin, specifically the cheese Mecca of Monroe, has more Master Cheesemakers per capita than any other state in the country. In Monroe alone, there are 9 Master Cheesemakers, one of whom, Bruce Workman of Rothkase, has certifications as a Master of eight cheeses. You study one at a time, for two years before you’re even considered for your certificate.

Fun fact: There used to be over 100 dairy operations in Southern Wisconsin that made limburger cheese. Now, there is only one in the United States, and it is located in Monroe, Wisconsin.

Okay, back to the cheese. Which one to choose? I wanted to go with something fresh and something from Wisconsin. In my state, Dairy farming still sustains many, many families, and although times are tough, there are many farmstead operations around the state  where farmers can take their milk to be processed. One such operation is Crave Brothers Cheese. Makers of fresh Mascarpone, ripened cheeses, and Fresh Mozzarella, I found out a few years ago that a former classmate of mine had married into the family. When shopping for local ingredients, it makes me feel good to know that I’m supporting not only area businesses, but families and friends who are working hard and making a living by showcasing the agricultural heritage of Wisconsin. From the fresh case at work, I picked up a container of Crave Brothers Ovoline.

***

As I assembled the ingredients back at the house into something that I might actually want to eat on a pizza, I felt good. I sauteed some mushrooms and dried apples in butter, and in a pan on the other burner, I fried up some bacon and bratwurst. The smell hit me. My apartment started to take on a new olfactory dimension, and I became intoxicated by the bacon. As they were caramelizing, I made a quick ramp pesto using the ramp leaves, some oil that I had infused with pureed basil, and a shred of parmesan cheese. I now had the smell of bacon, mushrooms, apples, and the garlicky smell of the pesto floating in the air.

Ramp Pesto

It smelled like home, but something was missing.

I set aside the apples and mushrooms, took out the bratwurst, and sliced the browned bacon into small strips. The bacon grease came out of the pan, and there, I saw it. On the bottom of the pan was the answer to my missing ingredients.

To the fridge, where we had a cheap can of beer. (It was Old Style. Had I planned a little better, it would have been Pabst). Into the pan went a few splashes of beer, lifting the golden bits from the cooking surface. Back into the pan went the bacon, followed by the cranberries and a splash of the bacon grease. Tossed around, they got glossy and exuded a smell that I could not deny was uniquely Wisconsin.

Bacon, Cranberries, and Goodness

I did the same thing with the Bratwurst. I returned it to the pan, sauteed it with some mushrooms, and hit it up with some beer and bacon grease.

I had been putting this pizza recipe off for too long, and I knew tonight was the night, so I had to make one concession. I was not going to put it off for another day, but I didn’t have the time to make the dough. I bought a dough ball from work, which actually seemed to work out fairly well. It was easy to work with, and I didn’t mind it one bit.

Saying that, the dough was quite stretchy, and airy. I haven’t tossed dough like that in 15 years, but it worked out well enough that I could put it on our pan and cut it into a basic shape of Wisconsin.

For organizational purposes, keeping in mind that the lady doesn’t eat meat, despite being equally as enthralled by the scent of bacon as nearly any good American should be, I decided to break down the map of Wisconsin regionally. Apples and mushrooms  were to go in the southwest,  with a stripe of beerbrats and mushrooms stretching from Milwaukee/Sheboygan/Green Bay up Twin Cities way. We followed it with our cranberry and beer bacon mix in the north. As the base, we used the verdant ramp pesto, to celebrate the state’s pastoral place as America’s Dairyland, and to top it off, a good measure of the Crave Ovoline.

Into the oven. Twenty minutes at 425°.

When it came out…

A little puffy, not to say anything bad as we’d say back home. Nothing to complain about. I can see that it’s Wisconsin, and I can smell that it’s Wisconsin, but how’d you think it tasted? I’ll tell you right now- It tasted incredible.

It tasted like home.

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