Green Bay curds and bluegill

When I go out of town, I try to eat as much like the locals as I can — it’s part of the experience, right? You can be a locavore in a strange place for just a couple of days. I went to Liverpool, England, a few years ago and ate bacon butties and “mushy pea.” Recently I went to Green Bay, Wisconsin, so I expected I’d eat a few cheese curds. But I got more than that. Way more.

My first clue that this was going to be a memorable food trip — in addition to making my first trek to Lambeau Field to see my beloved Green Bay Packers play — was when my girlfriend, Cynthia, and I stopped for gasoline somewhere near Milwaukee. The gas station convenience store was fairly typical and similar to what you’d find in Louisville, but with one key difference: There was an entire refrigerated display at the front of the store devoted to cheese curds, meat and other snacks you rarely, if ever, see here at home.

There were salami and cheese snack kits (Wisconsin Lunchables, if you will). There were summer sausages, small and large. Meat sticks — yes, sticks of meat, sort of like jerky, but in cylinders. They came in a variety of flavors. And, of course, there were packs upon packs of cheese curds, from plain to jalapeño to barbecue to a combo of garlic and dill.

And speaking of dill, the thing that intrigued me the most was a small snack pack containing a pre-sliced pickle. That’s right, it’s a pickle that comes in slices, ready for snacking — “dill pickle snacking cuts,” they were called on the package. The name of the product: “Oh, Snap!” No, really, that was the name. For just a buck each, I had to buy some. Had to. And they were fairly tasty, as pickles go, although I later learned there’s also a hot and spicy version. I wish those had been available.

Of course, when we arrived, I ate cheese curds. (And in case you were wondering, curds are the solid parts of curdled milk. Yeah, appetizing.) Our first experience was deep-fried curds at 1919 Kitchen & Tap, a pub located in Lambeau Field. They came with a zesty tomato-based sauce and a buttermilk parsley dressing for dipping. Coated in Parmesan, the curds were oddly dense and rubbery but quite tasty. We also grabbed a pack of Cajun-flavored “raw” curds from a brewery near our hotel, which followed the same consistency but, of course, with a spicier attitude. It’s an odd snack food, and yet I can see why it is addictive to Wisconsinites.

One evening we dined at a place called Kroll’s West, a local tradition that is just behind Lambeau Field. Imagine an old Jerry’s Restaurant, or maybe a Denny’s from the 1960s, and you’ve got the idea. Weird-looking circular, white vinyl booths and the look of an old 1950s drive-in were the order of the day, and to get service, to order a meal or just get a drink refill, you had to push a button at your table to summon an employee.

The Kroll’s menu, like so many menus in Green Bay, was ripe with burgers, fried meat and fish, plus lots of starches, pizzas and chili. And bratwurst. That’s Green Bay. Heck, one place where we dined had a soup that was just slices of bratwurst in cheese sauce. You can’t make this stuff up.

But I found a very local dish at Kroll’s called “booyah.” This is a stew made with both chicken and beef, along with vegetables in a light tomato broth, that is very much like what we call burgoo in Kentucky. Apparently, it’s a staple at Green Bay church picnics and, along with chili, is perfect for the cold, harsh winters in Wisconsin. Comfort food all the way. And quite tasty.

At one place where we had lunch, we had macaroni and beer cheese pizza. Yes, mac and cheese on a thin pizza crust (topped with pepperoni, cooked crispy). It was as delicious as it sounds.

But my biggest surprise was how many menus featured game meats and fish. Elk is way popular in Green Bay, as is venison, walleye and perch. You know what else is? Bluegill. I used to catch bluegill as a kid, but you rarely if ever see it on a menu in Louisville — heck, many people use bluegill as bait, but I had bluegill sliders one night for dinner, and they were absolutely delicious. I can still taste the tender, almost buttery meat, perfectly fried and breaded. (And in Green Bay, you don’t have to go to the trouble of filleting them yourself!)

OK, you get my point: If you hit the road, you have to hit the local joints. Be it a stadium brat or Friday fish fry at the local restaurant or church, you don’t go to a far-away land and eat Applebee’s. And be sure to grab a few extra packages of “Oh, Snap!” sliced pickles for the ride home, because there isn’t much to eat at those rest stops.