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OFFBEAT: Visit to Wisconsin provides new appreciation for cheesemaking

OFFBEAT: Visit to Wisconsin provides new appreciation for cheesemaking

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column.

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DATELINE - - MADISON - - Philip Potempa is writing while traveling through Wisconsin this week.

Before my further farm adventures, I have to say Madison, Wis., deserves its dues. Even though it seems Milwaukee overshadows it and gets much of the attention, for a destination just two hours from the Windy City, Madison is tops. After all, it's the Wisconsin State Capitol and it's built around beautiful Lake Monona.

The actual Wisconsin State Capitol building, built in 1838, is the gem of the city's skyline along the lake. The stately building not only boasts the only dome built of granite in the United States, but also holds the double distinction of  the only state capitol built on an isthmus. (If you've forgotten your geography terms, an isthmus is a narrow strip of land with water on either side connecting two large land masses.)

Another prominent feature of Madison is the final link to great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was born in Wisconsin. His final crowning career achievement was his original proposed design for the Monona Terrace Community Convention Center in 1938. Described as "his architectural vision for the City of Madison," this elegant curvilinear gathering place (popular for weddings and events) link the shore of Lake Monona to the state capitol. Wright died in 1959 and the structure, completed with interiors designed by Taliesin architect Tony Puttnam, Monona Terrace opened in 1997 and spans 90 feet out over the lake's shimmering waters and incorporates thoroughly modern technology and amenities with the architect's signature organic design.

But once you leave the city limits, this is a region dedicated to cheese.

According to the Wisconsin Milk Board, this state produces more than a quarter of the U.S. cheese supply. So when it comes to dairy farming here, it's no wonder the farmers refer to their herds as "cash cows." The University of Wisconsin and the Center for Dairy Research even offer accredited classes in the art and sciences of cheesemaking. And most of the more than 12,600 dairy farms in this state consist of small family operations with average herd sizes of around 100 cows.

Something that I was fascinated to learn Thursday is it's actually the resourceful farm wives from more than a century ago, who are credited with the process of making the first cheese varieties in their kitchens as a frugal way of using excess milk so it wouldn't be wasted.

The legendary lady of this trade in Wisconsin history is Anne Pickett, who in 1841 created (without realizing it) the state's first cheese factory in her farm kitchen. By adding some to the excess milk from her neighbors cows with her own supplies, she made the first cottage cheese. And by 1922, more than 2,800 cheese factories sprung up around this state. And the previous year, 1921, Wisconsin also became the first state to grade the quality of cheese, as well as also the first state to require licensing for cheesemakers.

I've always loved cheese. Years ago, as the youngest of five from a frugal Polish farm family, you can bet we didn't often get many exotic cheeses to try. Most of my youth was spent as an "all-American" when it came to cheese varieties. But on rare occasions, my mom would buy one other type of cheese, which my sister Pam and I always loved. And that cheese purchase would always be a "half-moon" shape of Colby cheese encased in wax.

However, until this trip, I have to admit I never realized Colby cheese, which is a "washed-curd" cheese similar to cheddar but milder, was first created here in the little town of Colby, Wis., in 1885, by cheesemaker Joseph Steinwand.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or 219.852.4327.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or 219.852.4327.


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