Wednesday, March 3, 2010

10 Months in America's Dairyland

On first relocating to Wisconsin from the UK, where I’d accepted a position in 2002 as an unemployed depressive, and where the Labour government offers tax incentives to the vocal fed up, I was at first discombobulated by the unnerving cheerfulness of the mostly bulbous locals. At a coffee shop in Kenosha, our waitress, who probably weighed as much as our rental car, waddled back a minute or two after serving our breakfasts to wonder, "How are those pancakes workin’ for ya?" Later, when we left the Olive Garden, our server, who in London would have been placed under police custody for his own protection, wide-eyedly exulted, "Have a great rest of your night!" It was almost enough to put my reserved British bride off pasta drowning in cheese-enriched sauces.

Let us make no bones about the importance of cheese to the Wisconsin economy, and the dairy farming that makes it possible. Rich, flavorful, nutritionally indefensible for the most part — cheese is as much the backbone of the Wisconsin economy as breast augmentation surgery is Los Angeles’s and homosexual ecotourism San Francisco’s.

As much as by the locals’ reverence for and reliance on the solid foodstuff made from the coagulated milk of cows, goats, sheep and other mammals, I was struck by the local male populace’s fascination with men named Bret. The works of the writer Bret Harte were almost impossible to find in any of the state’s more than 100 public libraries, and had to be reserved up to one year in advance. Head coach of the University of Wisconsin’s beloved Badgers football team Bret Bulimia, namesake of the fashionable eating disorder, was regularly hanged in effigy, as well as in Waukesha, Sheboygan, and other municipalities with odd names, among which one could not reasonably count Green Bay, for whose professional football team yet another Bret, Favre, then plied his craft with fast-diminishing distinction and a perpetual 72-hour stubble in spite, one imagined, of his at-least-tacit endorsement of particular shaving products. America's best-loved little television scamp, Bret Simpson, had been named spokesperson for the state's beef industry, and was seen everywhere above the caption Have some cow, man.

Like their countrymen in Washington and West Virginia, Montana and Mississippi, and the News, Mexico, York, and Jersey, Wisconsin men seemed only too delighted to define their own masculinity in terms of the performances of mercenary athletes who probably knew as much about Milwaukee or Green Bay as you or I do about Zagreb, and who were as a matter of course offered free bratwurst by fawning restauranteurs who imagined that actual paying customers might flock to their establishments on the off chance of eating off the same plate, or with the same cutlery, albeit washed to the exacting standards set forth in the Wisconsin Food Code.

The noted British humorist and depressive John Cleese, it might be noted, would today be known as John Cheese if his father hadn’t gotten sick of the same old jokes and exchanged the h for an l sometime before young — and I mean very young at the time — John’s birth. It is entirely possible that Bret Favre didn’t…get Monty Python, but Packers fans adored him no less for it, and, indeed, gauged their own fitness on fathers on whether or not he was able to lead the Pack to victory or humiliation on any given Sunday.

1 comment:

  1. In my salad days - while you and the Missus were globe trotting - I followed my husband around the USA. His interest in Lewis and Clark, national parks, Frank Lloyd Wright and baseball led us for a few days into the state of Wisconsin. If I had not been there to see for myself, I might have thought you were exaggerating. But, I had the same waitress on my visit to that alien, just-too-wholesome-for-words,cheerful cheese-loving region! One more day there (than 3 or was it 4?), and I would have jumped out of my skin. When I read that the average American woman is a size 14, I just think "Wisconsin."

    It was at a baseball park, however, that I got a glimpse of a slightly darker and more comfortable (for me) Wisconsin. David and I decided to attend a Milwaukee Braves game on Fan Appreciation Day at the end of their season. The fans around us were into the game, drinking beer and shouting at the players like fans everywhere. But, visually there were a lot of menacing types with unusually long-hair and a lot of tatoos dressed in leather. Yes, bikers! During the 7th inning stretch, a parade of Harleys circled the field to cheers, because Harley-Davidson's home/main plant was right around the corner.

    The game went into extra innings, and the Brewers lost to the Phillies in 15. Then, at long last, fireworks were set off at midnight, and a few pleasantries were exchanged between the nerds and the outlaws who had stayed for the whole game. I felt slightly better about Wisconsin. Baseball can do that.