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  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: WISCONSIN.  
   
   
 

It's late September and I'm wearing open-toed shoes, post-Labor Day faux pas be damned. It does get cold in Wisconsin, and it snows. But it has been snowless in December, balmy in February and it rarely gets above 90 in the summer. People who think Wisconsin is merely freezing: Buy a shovel and a parka and learn to drive in slush and quit whining.

On to the cheese, then. Wisconsin's unofficial nickname (its other nickname, the Badger State, is unofficial as well) of "America's Dairyland" is by

 
 

no means unearned. We do love our cheese. There's a market about 10 minutes from my house that caries up to 2,000 varieties from around the world at quite reasonable prices. One curiosity -- cheese curds. They're like cheese embryos -- never mind forming them into grown-up cheese, just pack them and sell them as-is. They squeak when you bite them, you know.

 

#1. We May Be Cheeseheads, But You Are Bastards.

I will freely admit that Wisconsinites drive like crap. But Illinoisians drive worse. Whereas we take roughly twelve minutes to decide if, when and how we will combine two lanes into one in a construction zone, they just plow through the construction barrels and somehow make it into the far-left lane in the 17 feet of space between the last "merge now, dumbass" sign and when the lane ends. (Remember, kids -- you get 12 points before you lose your license. You get six for reckless operation. Points are doubled in a construction zone.)

They call us "Cheeseheads." It is not an inaccurate nickname, what with our 2,000 varieties available at the local market (did I mention the quite-reasonable prices?), and our foam hats that nobody from here seems to ever buy, but everyone from here seems to own somehow. But it's also kind of a non-sequitur -- "learn to drive, cheesehead!" just doesn't have that ring.

We call them "FIBs." The right-wing talk radio guy says that stands for "fine Illinois bretheren," I suppose to avoid aggravating the censors. It doesn't. It stands for "fucking Illinois bastard," or, alternatively, "fucking Illinois bitch," depending upon the gender of the person in the car with the Illinois license plates who just cut you off.

 

#2. Friday's Are For Fish Frys.

Battered and fried Icelandic cod. Choice of French Fries or potato pancakes. Cole slaw. Buttered rye bread. Tartar sauce.

It stems from Wisconsin's Catholic heritage. Sure, it used to be locally caught walleye or perch, served up at the neighborhood tavern with a healthy stein of Milwaukee's best. In recent decades, it has transcended religious, cultural and alcoholic barriers and moved from the pubs to, well, everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're in a diner in Eagle River, a Chinese restaurant in Manitowoc or (shudder) Wendy's in Beloit. If you appear at any restaurant in the state on a Friday evening, you will see some form of that meal -- usually that exact meal -- on the menu.

Sure, you'll see the regular menu, too, but if you order from that, people will look at you funny. I was in a German restaurant in Waukesha one Friday. I ordered the sauerbraten. Other patrons looked at me pitifully, as though I had ordered deer brains (which, of course, I hadn't -- it was too early for hunting season). One nice old lady helpfully whispered to me as she passed, "oh, dear, you should have ordered the fish fry; it's lovely here."

 

#3. That 70s Show Gets it About Half Right.

For a Fox TV show, "That 70s Show" does a pretty good job of doing its Wisconsin research:

  • Eric and Donna would have felt right at home as a young engaged couple; the median age for a first marriage in Wisconsin in 1975 was 20.8 for women, 22.7 for men.
  • The whole gang also would have felt right at home swilling their beer, as the drinking age was only raised from 18 -- to 19 -- in 1984.
  • Just about everybody in Wisconsin kept a chest freezer in their basements, full of deer meat and peas and, yes, Kelso … Popsicles.
  • Star Wars, disco (and debates as to its suckiness) and marijuana were all popular in the 70s in Wisconsin. What else was there to do?
  • See the dishes that Kitty uses? I have those same dishes in my cabinet.

The place-dropping, though, is especially inaccurate. Perhaps the "That 70s Show" FAQ, helpfully posted on That70sShow.com, exemplifies this the best: "Point Place is a fictional suburb of Green Bay, Wisconsin. This is why many Wisconsinites may recognize names of nearby towns such as Kenosha."

Green Bay is approximately 154 miles from Kenosha, which I suppose is "nearby" if you also think that Milwaukee is near Chicago … which, I guess, plenty of people do.

All things considered, though, "That 70s Show" struts its historical stuff much better than other TV shows set in Wisconsin; don't get me started on that Norm MacDonald vehicle from last season.

 

#4. A Bit of Wisconsin Dies When Brett Favre Retires.

If there's one thing Wisconsin takes more seriously than its Friday Fish Fry, it's the Packers. Even though most of the state's residents live closer to Chicago and Minneapolis than Green Bay, Wisconsin is clearly painted green and gold. People mow the big "G" into their lawns, and name their firstborn Lombardi or Lambeau.

When Hurricane Ivan was threatening Louisiana, the focus here wasn't on where to send donations or how to help; it was on how Brett Favre's mother was coping.

This is all going to come to a big, sad conclusion in a few years, when No. 4 hangs up his jersey for the last time. Sorry to say it, but … dude's getting old. OK, so he's not old-old, but he's football old and his thumb's been a mess and now he's gone and injured his shoulder. His days are numbered. There, I said it. And, you know what's worse? There's nobody backing him up. They traded Matt Hasselbeck a few years ago and cut Tim Couch after a lousy preseason. Here's a stock tip for all of you -- alcohol, guns, anti-depressants. They'll shoot through the roof in Wisconsin soon enough. Mark my word.

 

#5. Our Hero: The Bong.

Poplar's own Richard Ira (yes, they called him "Dick") Bong, was a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corp during World War II. He was the "ace of aces," having shot down 40 enemy aircraft. His many decorations included a Congressional Medal Home. Six months after he was ordered home, he was killed test piloting the first Lockheed jet fighter plane.

Dick did all this, no doubt, in order to give people driving between Chicago and Milwaukee something to point and laugh at on I-94 -- the Richard Bong State Recreation Area. ("Stacie, did that sign just say "Bong? Heh heh heh huh huh." "Yes, mom, it does.") It is unknown just how much bong recreation goes on at Bong Recreation, but I do hear the picnicking's good. I'll bring the brownies.

 

6. Wisconsin Has Achieved a Zen-Like Balance.

For every Wisconsin yin, there is a Wisconsin yang. One step back, one step forward. For every red-baiter like Joe McCarthy, there is a progressive "Fighting Bob" LaFollette. We had one of the first anti-discrimination acts that applied to gays and lesbians; conversely, we might be one of the first states to ban not only same-sex marriages but civil unions in our constitution. Wisconsinites spawned both Harley Davidson and Earth Day.

In 1992, Geraldo Rivera got arrested at a Klan rally in Janesville after getting into a scuffle with a white supremacist. In 1994, Miracle the White Buffalo, a sacred figure of Sioux prophecy and a symbol of hope, renewal and harmony, was born at a family farm … in Janesville.

In 2001, a tornado siren malfunctioned and was unable to warn the residents of Siren that a tornado was coming.
Ommmmmm. Yin. Yang. Peace.

 

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