Cheese curds and Frank Lloyd Wright: Welcome to Wisconsin

Posted October 10

— Walking around Madison, Wisconsin, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. What was poking me?

Turned out my pocket was full of toothpicks from all the cheese curds I'd sampled at the farmers market. It was one of several "Welcome to Wisconsin!" moments, starting with a display of orange "cheesehead" gear — worn by fans of Wisconsin's NFL team, the Green Bay Packers — that greeted me at Milwaukee's airport. Later in my trip, I got these directions to a cheese store: "Take a right and look for the cow."



I spent as much time admiring the Milwaukee Art Museum outside as I did looking at the art inside. From one angle, the white, winged Santiago Calatrava-designed building on the Lake Michigan waterfront looks like a bird in flight. From another angle, it's a ship setting sail. Inside, white ribs form a futuristic tunnel with a lake view.

But don't forget the art: the spooky hooded figure of "Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb"; an excellent Georgia O'Keeffe collection, including a striking photo of her shot by her husband Alfred Stieglitz; and a suitcase propped open on the floor, an untitled work by Robert Gober that reveals an entire subterranean world.

I bookended my museum visit with two terrific meals: lunch at The National cafe and an outstanding dinner of farm-to-table small plates at Braise, owned by chef Dave Swanson, a James Beard Award nominee.



It's so crowded at the Dane County Farmers' Market that you can't choose which way to walk. You can only flow with the sea of humanity in one direction past tables overflowing with fruits, veggies, flowers, baked goods and of course, cheese curds, those squeaky bits of fresh cheese goodness, in flavors ranging from dill to Sriracha. The market runs Saturdays until 1:45 p.m. through Nov. 5 around the state Capitol, then moves indoors to Madison's Monona Terrace, Saturdays Nov. 12-Dec. 17.

I peeked inside the Capitol at its beautiful dome, then walked down State Street to the University of Wisconsin campus, stopping at Babcock Hall for ice cream, climbing Bascom Hill and hanging out with the beer-and-bratwurst crowd at the lakeside Memorial Union Terrace.

I drove to nearby Middleton for a quick stop at the National Mustard Museum (free admission, goofy mustard-inspired art and every type of mustard imaginable). Then, with a credit card and app, I rented a bike from a Madison BCycle kiosk and biked 12 miles around Lake Monona. The lake trail often detours from the waterfront and it's hilly (you thought the Midwest was flat?). But the exercise felt good after eating all that cheese.



America's most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, spent his teenage summers working on his uncle's Wisconsin farm. You can see how that landscape of farms and rolling hills influenced Wright's style and aesthetics at Taliesin , his house and estate in Spring Green. Wright set out to replace the vertical boxy shape that dominated home design in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with modernist structures that flowed horizontally like the Midwestern prairie. Taliesin was a lab for his ideas: open floor plans rather than walled-off rooms, large windows with expansive views and a structure built to suit the terrain. House tours are offered daily through Oct. 31 and Friday-Sunday through November.

Taliesin was also the site of a shocking crime: A house employee murdered Wright's mistress and six others in 1914 and set fire to the house. But Wright was resilient. He rebuilt and kept going. New York's Guggenheim Museum, was being built when he died at age 89 in 1959.

Nearby Taliesin is the quirky attraction House on the Rock . Its creator, Alex Jordan Jr., amassed a collection of strange artifacts — weird carousel animals, machines that play creepy music — and they're displayed in a series of odd rooms and buildings, some ornate, some musty and dark. An hour here was enough for me, but if you go, don't miss the infinity room, a disorienting cantilevered structure lined with windows, 154 feet off the ground.



I caught the tail end of Oktoberfest in New Glarus, a town so proud of its Swiss heritage that street signs are in German and storefronts are decorated with Swiss flags and cowbells. I downed a Spotted Cow, a popular beer from the New Glarus Brewing Co., and dined at the Glarner Stube restaurant, which serves fondue, raclette, schnitzel and sauerbraten. The Chalet Landhaus Inn provided a good night's sleep, nice breakfast and complimentary Swiss chocolates.

In Monroe, I went hunting for the Emmi-Roth Kase cheese factory. But I couldn't find it. I asked a local for directions and was told: "Take a right and look for the cow."

There was a cow — though not a real one — outside the Alp and Dell Cheese Store , which is connected to the factory. I bought seven types of cheese from the shop's overflowing coolers and bins, including cheese curds, chipotle gouda, Emmi-Roth's award-winning grand cru cheese and a butterscotchy cheese called Prairie Sunset. Then I shipped it all back to my office in New York. When I got back, I gave a Wisconsin cheese party.


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