Category Archives: Food

Baconfest Michigan

It’s been a while since I wrote about meats and food, so it would take a rare event tobreak me out of a moderate lull. Luckily, that event arrived this past weekend: Baconfest Michigan. The samplings, drinks, creativity and ambience were too much for me to remain silent.

My friends and I bought VIP tickets and arrived about 10 minutes to start time. The general admission line stretched to about twice the size of the VIP line. Organizers were very good in handing out the VIP passes and wristbands while we waited in line. Once the doors opened it took a comparatively normal time to enter the building compared to other general admission festival type events I’ve attended.

But enough with logistics, this event was purely about the food. I had scouted out the website beforehand to know what items I specifically wanted to try (Side note: Because this was the first such event in Michigan, I wasn’t sure if vendors would run out of certain items or specific vendors would only remain for a specific amount of time so I knew the things I wanted first).

I first spotted Cork Wine Pub who advertised a pork belly slider with pickled red onions, bacon jam, and grainy mustard on a pretzel roll. I enjoyed it a lot, but I had a few critiques: the pretzel roll didn’t have the unique pretzel taste and the mustard took away a slight amount from the pork belly.

After the first taste, however, people (myself included) tend to get excited about all the options in front of them. Despite lines outside, most of the tables had yet to develop any semblance of lines. Instead of the marathon we planned for we sprinted through a lot of food. For the first half 45 minutes any food waiting on the table met my stomach.

Some of the early highlights: Green Lantern’s bacon. The pizza, which they’re known for didn’t excite me much, but their glazed piece of bacon on the side was the best actual piece of freestanding bacon in the venue. Lockhart’s had unique bacon lollipops (figs stuffed with bleu cheese, wrapped in bacon) that if you’re a fan of bleu cheeses did the trick.

To round out the first 45, however, I had two of the best samples I had the entire night. First, came the Union Woodshop Mac & Cheese, pork belly and cookie serving. The Pork Belly reigned supreme, practically melting in my mouth. Next, came Treat Dreams. The person serving up the ice cream suggested trying The Sunday Breakfast (vanilla swirled with maple syrup, waffles and bacon). It reminded me how awesome and unique ice cream can be.  The two stops practically slowed down time and helped me get back to a marathon mindset.

And that’s when we discovered the beer vendors for the evening. I was a little skeptical for no real reason about the drink selection. I figured it’d be pretty basic, so when I spotted the Kuhnhenn Brewing sign I shed a tear of joy (I really just texted a friend who shares similar joy in their brewing to make him jealous, but same thing). Kuhnhenn has some of the most unusual beers I’ve tasted and have become one of my favorite breweries ever since discovering them at The Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin. I went with their award-winning Double Rice IPA (DRIPA), which balanced the type of food available wonderfully at the start.

From there, it seemed about time to scout out the VIP section. There were only two VIP vendors (Forest Grill and MGM) and a nice lounge area, less busy bar to order drinks at, but a few more VIP specific food vendors may have been nice.

I went right for the Forest Grill sample. It was in some ways the perfect corn dog. An incredible bacon sausage covered by a warm pretzel roll. The pretzel roll tasted like it should and the sausage tasted so unique to me I felt compelled to speak with Brian Polcyn about it. Know his charcuterie history I was slightly intimidated. He was great though, explaining the bacon sausage and how it was put together, definitely a highlight.

After a bit of a break I headed to the MGM stand. I was a little disappointed in their sample to be honest. The Faygo root beer pork belly was very good on its own, but the corn cake and other additions didn’t really do it for me. Around that time I was thrilled to be covered by a tent as storms quickly passed through, but I think it added to the experience.

Overall I’d say (especially for a first year event) it was fantastic. I gained five pounds in the four hours, but that’s what I signed up for. The VIP gift bag I think would’ve been better served with a hat or shirt instead of poster, but that’s nitpicking. I think a bacon information station about where some of the bacon comes from, where the local places get their pigs, preparing bacon and so on would’ve been interesting. Maybe bring in some famous bacon people from around the world (not Kevin). I know a lot of people got turned away, but I thought 1,200 people seemed like a perfect amount. While bar lines and some others got long, there was never a feeling of being too cramped. If they increased it to 1,500 it may be too many people in the end.

I tried approximately 30-33 different places in the end and that the perfect amount. The moment you stop enjoying the food because you’re full does a disservice to the vendors.

I have a feeling next year will sell out a lot faster and I will make sure to be in attendance once again for what I can only imagine a great event getting better.

Other highlights and unique tasting:

Cheeky Monkeys Food: The best shortbread I’ve ever tasted. At that point I was close to full and certain items weren’t enjoyable anymore. This erased my memory of being unable to fit more food in my stomach, just awesome.

Café Muse: Mac and Cheese and Butterscotch Pudding with bacon. The Mac and Cheese was good, but it was their pudding that won me over. The bacon mixed in perfectly and that’s just one good pudding.

Street Eatzz: Their presentation was something cool to see. They made a crazy bacon frittata that tasted pretty good, but the living cooking added a nice touch to the event and they interacted well with the crowd.

Cliff Bell’s bacon-banana cupcakes were moist with a great banana taste.

Bakon Vodka Bloody Mary with McClure’s pickle brine. This I tried and at first taste I didn’t like it. In fact, I thought it was pretty disgusting and I really enjoy a good Bloody Mary. But like any introduction I knew first impressions aren’t always the real impression. When I sipped it again the taste really started growing on me. The flavors flowed together nicely and the spice level topped it off nicely.

The dancing crowd: this has nothing to do with food, but the people who danced to the music and seemed to genuinely enjoy the whole scene were awesome. I’ll admit, even I jumped in and danced a little because when you’re high on bacon you can do anything.


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National Mustard Museum

I’m not the first to write about the historical National Mustard Museum (now located at 7477 Hubbard Ave in Middleton, WI, after moving from Mt. Horeb), nor will I be the last. With the new location less than 15 minutes from where I reside it was only a matter of time until I took this beast on. My friend picked me up at 10:15 and we were seemingly the first to arrive (the museum opens at 10 a.m. daily)

It’s amazing how much you can learn in a two-story building with one worker in for the day and hundreds of mustard jars and containers. Every state and as many countries as you could imagine, including some I had never heard of (Azerbaijan ), were well represented downstairs in the museum part of the complex. Different uses of the mustard seed were also highlighted, including a good old-fashioned mustard bath.

And don’t forget the close relationship between a mustard and it’s family member horseradish. A little section helps explain the connection between the two and why they work so well together (if you like a kick in your mustard). After you’re finally done analyzing each country’s mustard style, watching the movie, and wondering where you would put your own mustard pot, finish off your self-guided tour with their mustard quiz.  Some questions have obvious answers and others will make you wonder why am I taking this quiz, but the random knowledge

ingested afterwards is well worth it.

And now the best part. This place, created by Barry Levenson in 1986, will open up your palette to mustards you couldn’t even imagine. While many of the jars/bottles/tins on display are older and not for sale, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an incredible collection to taste and buy. After scouring the basement and intriguing your taste buds with the hundreds of possible combinations, step right up to the tasting table.

Let's not forget our friends from Canada who produce more mustard than anywhere else in the world.

There you’ll find a bevy of spoons and mini pretzel sticks to devour gobs of mustard. I don’t discriminate against food or tastes, so I allowed the expert behind the counter to take me into her world. Any sort of taste or flavored mustard; sweet, spicy, garlic, onion, fruit, herb, alcohol,vegetables is at your disposal.

We first started with some of the award-winning mustards. There was K.L. Keller Dijon with black truffles that costs $20 per jar. The truffle taste balances with the mustard for a smooth combination. There was also Bookbinder’s hot horseradish mustard. A very solid kick with a smooth taste will have you thinking about bringing some home with you.

From there, it was time to start trying out some of the more unique flavors. Wild Mountain’s blueberry mustard tasted better than any blueberry jam that had ever touched my mouth. The mustard could be spread on toast, put on pancakes or waffles, or little crackers and you wouldn’t know it was a style of mustard.  Food and Wine’s smoky garlic onion mustard had a nice balance to it and I took home because it was on sale for only 99 cents. Lusty Monk’s Burn in Hell chipotle mustard had me savoring the combination soon after.

My other two purchases were mustards originating from California. I went with Noyo Reserve’s IPA Sweet Fire Mustard has a strong kick and sweet flavor that will make your mouth burn in anticipation for more.  The other, Sansonetti’s roasted red pepper mustard was a gold medal winner from 2010’s Napa Valley Mustard competition. This combination made me think of middle eastern flavoring. They suggest a roast beef sandwich with some of this spread on top, it won’t take me much longer to try out that combination.

The day was a success and I have a feeling with the location so close by, I might become a weekly visitor when it comes to mustard tastings.

And for those sick people wondering, NO they do not sell ketchup or care to mention it in any way so Poupon U.

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Offaly Good: Madison, Wisconsin Keeps Pace with Foodie Culture

In Europe, food such as this Pork Leg eaten in Prague never lost popularity

Fried pig brains, stomach stuffed with blood sausage and head cheese, Mangalitsa pig liver in a stuffing.

Those are just some of the items Dan Fox, executive chef at The Madison Club, has conjured up in his kitchen. His philosophy is simple: use every part of the animal possible. “Nothing goes in the garbage, fully utilize everything that comes in the door,” Fox says.

Not that he always thought that way. When Fox attended culinary art school at Kendall College in Chicago almost nine years ago, he had his first experience with offal meat. It wasn’t an inspiring one.

With his classmates, he was required to take the school’s charcuterie class. There he got his first introduction of sweetbreads (thymus glands), turning livers into pates and pickling beef tongue.

“I wasn’t that into it at the time. I didn’t grow up eating organ meats, or offal in general. It definitely was a new experience for me and it took a long time for me to enjoy it and like it.”

Like the 30 year-old Dan Fox of today, chefs have redeveloped a penchant for using offal in their restaurants hoping to entice eaters into also challenging their palettes beyond the ordinary.

John Johnson, a chef and professor at Madison Area Technical College’s culinary school, suggests that in earlier generations, Americans were more resourceful eaters. They routinely fried up liver and onions; they pickled pig’s feet, and stuffed intestines to make sausages. But such habits – and awareness – became replaced by a diet of convenience.

“Its actually called SAD, the Standard American Diet. It’s a burger, fries and a coke, Johnson says. He grew up on the SAD diet itself. Like Fox his first experience with offal meats came from culinary school, in his case studying under master chefs in Europe.

Part of the problem, he says, is that many people no longer know how to cook such materials – or at least, how to cook them well:  “Lot of times what hurts our industry is when people take those products, which are delicate and they just butcher them and then they turn them into crap.”

Luckily for Johnson, people like Terese Allen continually attempt to reintroduce many of the forgotten customs.

Terese is chairperson of Madison’s REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) food group, a former chef and current food writer who believes people are what they eat.

She is intrigued by regional culinary traditions and in Wisconsin there are plenty still running strong today that get overlooked. The immigration of the 19th century brought in different cultures that are the basis of the great geographical and agricultural diversity in Wisconsin.

Growing up in the 1960s, Terese remembers fondly some of these traditions. While places like Door County, Wisconsin have their fish boils, she remembers her own family traditions like her grandmother processing a slaughtered pig in the basement producing blood sausages and grinding meats.

Her diet was anything, but standard. There was creativity around food that always kept her interested from the culinary side and the agricultural side.

Today she sees her nieces and nephews scared of trying many unusual foods except Italian.  Not all is lost, however, as Terese sees a return to the past for many people. To her, what we eat has consequences.

“There is an ethical motivation and a motivation to be creative even if it’s (based on) something old. The past makes sense so we are going back.”

Beef Heart is cheap, tender, and easy to cook at home

Food, especially when emerging from traditions, is a way to connect with the rest of the world. 

Fox worked at the French restaurant Everest in Chicago, where he studied under the tutelage of chefs influenced from other regions. He also studied overseas in Europe, exploring Austrian fare and other cultures ripe with offal meat. Add in Asian influence and he has seen the way different societies produce their foods.

Constantly learning, Fox enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of European culture.  The fearless nature of eating offal or meat from a horse eased him even more into this side of the culinary world. Fox enjoys mixing Asian choys and bac hâ with a variety of dishes to accompany offal dishes.

“I took to things very quickly, maybe more so than some of my peers. I think I was very lucky with my first choice of jobs,” said Chef Fox. “As far as actually going to a restaurant and ordering, that took a while for me to get to that level. Now, I love it.”

Today, he has engrossed himself in a world that finds him willing to cook and eat anything.  By working at The Madison Club, Fox is given the opportunity to take chances on what he likes to make. At the club, a dinner known as the “chef’s table” allows Dan the opportunity to create a menu tailored for that evening’s patrons.

Chef Fox estimates that up to 60 percent of people turn down the opportunity to include offal meats on the menu. But his favorite meals are when there are those willing to let the chef do whatever he wants. These tables contain a minimum of six eaters looking for a nice meal.

Whole roasted sea bass head, brain and all, was a meal he was fond of creating. While skeptical at first, he said everyone tried the head. Another meal included a heart tartar where the worlds of raw meat and offal collided together. When Fox is given free reign, he takes it as a personal challenge.

“I definitely take full advantage of it, it’s really fun I prefer to cook like that. That’s when I end up coming up with some very new and exciting ideas. It pushes me and in turn makes me push the envelope back. I definitely encourage it.”

The list of offal meats ranges from brain to heart, to tongue and ears. The term originally developed as a way to identify the items that fell off the animal once it was slaughtered. The entrails would literally fall on the floor. Now, the process is a bit more sanitary, but with the same results.

Jeff Sindelar works for the University of Wisconsin as an extension meat specialist. He assists and observes the Wisconsin meat industry, providing any scientific problem solving or advice to help meat producers succeed. The meat industry is big business and approximately 10,000 cows are slaughtered per day in Wisconsin alone.  Like any industry, the harvesting and slaughter processors operate to make a profit.

“Where they run into a wall is whether there is supply or demand for those carcass parts,” Sindelar adds. “Today they may be harvesting aortas from hearts, next week or two weeks later, they may not be doing that.” Depending on the species and depending on if there’s any value, they’ll yield it or put it in the offal because there is so much of it.”

The meats that are used aren’t very costly. This point isn’t missed on many in the food industry, from the processing or chef side. At some grocery stores a pound of beef kidney runs for 99 cents a pound. The more flavorful meat of beef cheek can be bought for as low as $1.25 per pound according to Sindelar. The question then becomes one of value.

“Is it worth the time invested to extract (the meat)? Sometimes you spend more dollars in the labor to yield what you need than what your profits are.”

Four years ago, Tory Miller, co-proprietor and executive chef of L’Etoile and Graze in Madison visited the farm that supplies his pigs four years ago and came across an unexpected site.

“I was showing them how we wanted our meat cut and they were trimming all these bones off and just chucking them into the garbage. So I said, how much do you want for the bones and it better not be a lot because I’m seeing them thrown in.”

Miller's Graze and L'Etoile are located next to each other on Madison's Capitol Square

His restaurants serve items ranging from bone marrow with beef cheek marmalade to tongue pastrami and pork heart. His philosophy is simple: “I don’t put anything on the menu that I don’t want to eat.”

Miller has become a strong believer in food education, making sure everyone is well versed in what is being offered.  He takes his staff on farm field trips, which include slaughtering pigs twice a year. “To me it’s about educating your servers to know exactly what they’re selling.”

He also takes his education ideas outside the restaurant. He wants to help erase that generational food gap that has been created by the American food culture, “We started a program called CHOW, it stands for Cooking Healthy Options in Wisconsin. I teach sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in Wisconsin now.”

The program is now in 14 different schools. “I’ll bring in foods that they’ve never seen before and make dishes with them. The whole thing with kids is if they make it themselves, they’re going to love it.”

The whole experience resonates as a positive one and something that he hopes will create open-minded eaters in future generations.

Fox doesn’t mind that at all. He continually finds himself promoting food education as well. Starting with knowledge of the intricacies of the animals that produce the food.

Fox can taste a clear difference between animals raised on hormones and antibiotics and those who are not.  It especially comes through in offal.

The Madison Club is located at 5 East Wilson in Madison.

A person’s palette may never reach the plateau that the Chef’s has, but the opportunity to know about the food is open to everyone.

Fox helps teach the intricacies of food as a member REAP and advisory board member of Slow Food Madison. He has seen the buy fresh, buy local and farmer school program gaining strength.

“It’s nice that someone here in town is dedicated to the work that’s going on here.”

The Rocky Mountain Oysters stared Jordan and Alyssa Henry in the face as they wondered aloud about their decision. Jordan had taken big steps in his adventurous eating habits since meeting Alyssa, but this would be the ultimate leap. They thought back to their food creed and went for it.

“Just do it. If someone else in the world eats it, there’s a reason they eat it, said Alyssa.”

Both enjoyed the taste, but the concept of chewing on bull testicles irked Jordan.

“I was able to eat some, I couldn’t just keep eating it all,” said Jordan.

The Henry’s love the direction food is heading. As a member of Madison’s slow food movement, Alyssa has always been an adventurous eater.

Her family didn’t stick to a traditional American diet, planting the seeds earlier for her to keep delving into more unique foods.

Jordan, on the other hand, came from the opposite background. Raised in Green Bay, his family stuck to a more traditional regiment, “I was a meat and potatoes, white bread guy.” He was afraid of the concept of what different items might be.

“If you don’t tell people what it is and you put it in front of them and say it’s good, they’ll eat it. But if you tell them what it is, they’ll say, it’s not good and won’t try it.”

Not until Jordan met Alyssa did he ever consider venturing into anything beyond his comfort zone. With her guidance he realized it wasn’t so bad tasting cuisines out of the ordinary at least once.

Now, Jordan has been convinced to try anything you could ever think of.

Alyssa and Jordan have found themselves tasting cockscomb (the silly red “hat” a rooster wears). Neither grew fond of the delicacy with its gelatinous texture and bland taste.

Perhaps their biggest food blunder, however, occurred in Kentucky.

If you search hard enough, any part of an animal is yours to eat.

“We went to the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. And we’re not fast food eaters, but you have to stop there, it’s part of our Americana,” said Alyssa. “On their menu was fried chicken livers. And I know I like chicken liver.”

Once the order arrived Alyssa determined just how much she enjoys chicken liver.

The first bite exploded with a bitter taste in her mouth. Suddenly the idea of fast food organ meat ended right there for her. She could just imagine the antibiotics, growth hormones, and mass-produce chicken feed seeping out of the liver. The meal ended quickly.

Chef John Johnson said it earlier; offal meats are delicate and in the wrong hands turned to crap. Dan Fox doesn’t let that happen starting from an animal’s birth.

Fox started raising pigs, goats, and a variety of others on a farm to insure a proper life until slaughter. Working at the Madison Club with Chef Jason Veal, Fox was introduced to the world of raising animals.

By harvesting his own pigs, it allows Fox to learn about the animal and control what it eats. In his opinion too many people overlook the process it takes from beginning to end to produce good quality meat.

“I think it’s such an invaluable thing and people take it for granted. It just builds a respect for your food.”

The ten-year transition from skeptical student to complete immersion in a world of offal shocks Fox himself sometimes. He only hopes the unconvinced eater takes the same open-minded approach to food. They just may find something new to satisfy their palettes.

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