When our son Connor moved to Madison two years ago I was prepared for an introduction to all things Wisconsin. This was not entirely a blank slate — I was schooled on Fez and Red Forman from “That ’70s Show,” heard a little bit about their governor and some yelling that went on up there. But I didn’t appreciate a food delicacy that has awakened taste buds left for dead long ago.
My initial introduction came on a June day last year, when I was eating a light lunch near the capitol. I asked for something “local” and the waiter was quick with a recommendation. “Cheese curds,” he said. I was intrigued. Cheese is the food stuff with aristocrat flair. Typically cut not by knives, but carving tools sold by Dean & DeLuca. Brie, goat and feta cheeses are worthy of the Wine Spectator. In the good ole days, Larry would serve cheese on family camp outs, fishing trips and other special occasions – like when the sun rose from the east. Let’s face it — in the ’70s no one cared about anti-oxidants, low carbs or touched quinoa. “Curds” I thought to myself. “Yeah, sure,” I told the waiter.
And then he brought my order. It wasn’t cheese. It was yellow-brown nuggets in irregular shapes — like something coughed up by Sunshine. She’s our cat. When I bit down, it made a noise — like thighs rubbing on a plastic chair. A squeaky sound. “Interesting,” I thought. I began to chew it some more. And that’s when the sound took a back seat to the flavor. It was robust. Yes, cheese for sure, but it was more than that. The taste was akin to pizza — stuffed crust — it had a sense of fried mushrooms, mixed with a blooming onion. There was a burst of flavor, quickly washed down with amber ale. Forget sharing cheese with a California Chardonnay at the Plaza III. This was something straight from the Wisconsin state fair. I was on board.
My rendezvous with the curd returned over Easter weekend when our entire family went to Mad-town. It was Saturday night — we were piled at a local eatery named Graze -— the entire Keenan family was together, along with Connor’s roommate and another friend from Milwaukee. KU had cratered 24 hours earlier and I needed some comfort food. The curds arrived; like bubble gum with a billion calories. They say you have 2,000 to 5,000 taste buds; 4,999 came alive and danced. I felt like yelling YOLO, getting a tattoo, tweeting a selfie and following Ashton Kutcher. Curds have an expiration date of a couple hours. That was not in jeopardy.
There are two kinds of people in Madison. Those who love cheese curds and liars.
To my right was a television showing Wichita State beating Ohio State. To my left was a spectacular view of the capitol dome. Behind me were various family members trying to get my spot at the bar — directly in front of the beer tap. And below me were curds. Fellowship was shared and no one was looking at their phones. Some days you eat right, exercise and count calories. This wasn’t one of those days. Whole grains? Suck it. Nutrition grade: D. Calorie count: 710 calories. Endorphin bath: overwhelming.
As I downed the last curd, WSU was heading to the Final four. Our entrees arrived but my recollection on those details is fleeting.
The next day we loaded up the family and drove home. Those curds came with us too.