Friday, June 09, 2006

Madison, WI: Cows, Cheese Curds & Brats

June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin and during my first visit to Madison last weekend the cows were on display. It was the 27th annual Cows on the Concourse around Capitol Square and there were 101 of them in the "CowParade" in artsy disguises like the one above.

I knew little about Madison before my visit last weekend, except that it was an exceptional college town, on a par with Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Cambridge. And I knew Wisconsin weather was something to be feared. After it had hailed several times here last winter, the local paper headlined: “Wisconsin Weather Comes to Santa Cruz.” But June is different. Madison was sunny and warm and delightful.

I got a fine view of the Capitol flying into the airport. The stately white building is surrounded by the downtown business district on a narrow isthmus between two beautiful lakes, Mendota and Menona. On the ground, Madison is straight streets, green trees, two-storey brick houses and the University of Wisconsin with its 40,000 students and the unending construction of new buildings.

Kay, my hostess with the mostess, wisked me off to the University’s Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota where a large crowd was listening to Ben Sidran’s group on the opening evening of the free Isthmus Jazz Festival. Dinner for me was a glass of the local beer and an infamous Wisconsin brat which looked suspiciously like a fat hot dog with a German accent. Pleasure boats lined the waterfront within listening distance.

On Friday, after hiking through Parfrey’s Glen (we took the wrong trail and missed the scenic spot), relaxing on the grass by Devil’s Lake (alongside overweight, bikini-clad teenagers, until a rain shower sent us packing) and climbing to the top of Gibralter Rock with its incredible views of the pastoral countryside, we stopped for the traditional Friday fish fry at a local country club. I’m sorry to report that the fish was not local and had seen better days. Wisconsin is farming country and I saw cows, sheep and pigs, and fields planted with young corn plants. I also saw indoor and outdoor silos filled with corn for animals, and learned that the fumes from silos can be lethal.

On Saturday we strolled through the Dane County Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square and I was introduced to cheese curds. Where have they been all my life? The best curds, I was told, squeak when eaten. But they must be at room temperature. I took a pack of them with me, and, now that the airlines no longer provide meals, they kept my strength up on the long flight home. Lunch at the Market was a grilled cheese sandwich from a booth where they were fried by the hundreds, for $1 each.

The streets around the fair were lined with food stalls and one of them, “Loose Juice,” which serves organic juices, is owned by Karl Armstrong. He was one of the radicals protesting the Vietnam War who were responsible for the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Mathematics Research Center. A young scientist was killed. After two years on the run, Armstrong was caught and served seven years in prison. Now he’s an entrepreneur.

Not far from the Capitol is the burnt out shell of St. Raphael Cathedral. The fire last year was started by a homeless man with a history of mental problems who broke into the church, stole a bottle of communion wine, and then apparently lit some matches. Madison’s bishop, Robert Morlino, is on the board of the School of the Americas, a training ground for government terrorists. Bad karma, I think.

Also a stone’s throw from the Capitola is the Monona Terrace Convention Center which was originally designed in 1937 by Frank Lloyd Wright for the city and county offices, but eventually completed in 1997 by a student of Wright’s. Wright was born in Wisconsin and studied at the University in Madison. We stood on the outdoor rooftop of the Center and watched the boats and water skiers on Lake Menona.

On my first night in town we passed up ice cream in the Union because the line was too long, but the next night, driven by desire, we waited in an even longer line. I got “blue moon,” a delectable flavor. The ice cream is made at the University, and on Monday we visited the Dairy Store in Babcock Hall where I got the “sundae of the day” which featured “lumberjack” ice cream , caramel syrup and nuts. Yum.

The long weekend was filled with fun: riding bikes through the University, past the Indian mound, and along the waterfront (next time I’ll wear padded underpants), watching the bears and the sad-looking buffalo (which once roamed free in the Midwest) at the Henry Vilas Zoo, kayaking on Lake Wingra, eating a Bob’s Bad Breath Burger at the Weary Traveler Free House, attending Josh’s graduation party in his parents’ house on a hill near the Swiss village of New Glarus, and going to mass at St. Mary of Lourdes in the rural community of Belleville where the recipients of intercessory prayers included “family farmers.” The church is presided over by the affable Fr. Ken Klink who specializes in short, pithy homilies about social justice that would make Jesus proud.

My hostess was anxious to show me Wisconsin wildlife and mentioned a Great Blue Heron she had frequently encountered on the road to Belleville. It was there in a farmer’s pond when we passed by, so we stopped to talk with the landowner. He informed us that the heron was plastic and that he had put it there to keep real herons from eating his fish. Aside from various road kill, including two dead deer, the only wildlife I saw outside of the zoo were birds – red-winged blackbirds and a variety of raptors and gulls – and the chipmunk and mice (or moles) in Kay's basement.

I’ve learned that Madison was named after President James Madison who died in 1836, the year the town was founded. It’s the home of Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the few remaining liberals in Washington, and everywhere I saw bumper stickers and signs on lawns that made abundantly clear the citizens’ dim views of Bush and his misguided war in Iraq. Kay’s neighbor advertised his liberal sentiments in stickers covering his car. But I particularly liked his front lawn which included a number of golf clubs upside down among the flowers. I feel the same way about that so-called sport.

If I didn't live in the greatest town around, I might consider moving to Madison, which I will ever hereafter think of as the "Santa Cruz of the Midwest." We'll give her our strawberries and she can send us her cheese curds.

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