We who cook often find ourselves trapped in our kitchens, nose to the cutting board. We eschew travel, loath to squander the opportunity to reprovision our pantries with the fresh bounty that we dream of as Yeats dreamed. Loath to miss the fleeting smells of cherry tomatoes wafting from a farmer's stand, the grittiness of loamy soil on our fingers having run them over a pile of carrots each beautiful in their uniqueness, and the quiet reverence of our fellow parishioners as our feet carry us to a place where we get a brief burst of reality as we shuck an ear of corn, undressing it to the shoulders to admire its pulchritude for a moment, knowing that there is no ear like this one that's so close, so vulnerable, so fleeting, and so dear. It is the ear that we have lusted over when we wanted to stay home from work as a refuge from a deluge of snow, when we were having an affair with ramps while flirting with asparagus, and we will dream of it again as we bootycall a pumpkin to rekindle that old flame potage de potiron. But now is the time when we revel in corn, longing to expose it completely and enjoy every last kernal before it leaves us with fond memories of companionship and resentment that it couldn't stay, like the zucchini, driving us to ever higher plateaux of ecstasy as we try dish after dish of it. But in the end, you realize that it was just another tease like everything else that you can touch but not grasp, a longing without consummation.
We have our escapes. We read about food and about its Götterdämmerung and apotheosis in becoming cuisine. We subscribe to food magazines and eagerly await their arrival the way a lesser man anticipates the coming issue of Maxim. But every once in a while, these magazines don't whisk us away on a culinary exploration of field hands' dinners in Bordeaux or fold us into the midst of street markets in Melaka, but pipes us back home into liaison with our lives as cooks and as eaters.
That was the case when I opened up the September 2006 edition of Saveur to find the Milwaukee Friday night fish fry as the cover story. It highlights the midwestern tradition as faithfully as one could expect of the writer, Milwaukee native but expatriated Daphne Beal. I would have liked a bit more mise en scene to set the tradition against the backdrop of a city with a rich but troubled history, trying to find its identity without the glory of the now defunct Blatz, Pabst, or Schlitz breweries that still stand as drab monuments to an antiquated belle epoque in the city's history. It is a city recovering from a real lack of joie de vivre that so characterizes other Wisconsin cities. I can forgive the lack of historical depth as the length of copy was surely limited, and it might have been viewed as "off topic" by the more mainstream editors. I am also grateful that Beal managed to tell the story without the usual "quaint" or "provincial" descriptions.
To me, though, the real test of the article was to visit one of the restaurants it featured. Because of its prominent downtown locale, I went to the Historic Turner Restaurant for Friday night fish fry. A striking 1883 building greets the hungry diner as he opens the door to enter into a wide hall. After ascending a few stairs, the guest is immediately greeted by the pleasant smell of food and the decorous clatter of dining. Elegant wooden walls extend to a ceiling so high that you could hardly imagine any modern building being made that way. Historic photographs garnish the walls, adding character. Unfortunately, the restaurant has gone the "sports bar" route and has deleteriously affected its historical charm by hanging large televisions all over the restaurant. Although I tried to appreciate watching the Brewers play as a cultural element essential and perhaps inseperable from the experience itself, I found it distracting.
The menu features pretty much what you'd expect: a partnership of stripped-down cornerstones of many cuisines, mostly American and German. The prices are very reasonable, given the quality of the food. But I didn't really need the menu since I was there for the fish and the potato pancakes. The beer menu was sadly uninspiring for Milwaukee. It lacked many of the staple beers that one could expect: Riverwest Stein Beer, Sprecher Black Bavarian, New Glarus Spotted Cow, or Capital Special Pilsener. It did have some beers from the Water Street Brewery Bavarian Weiss. I was also disappointed in the service as the waitron only understood the "weiss" pronunciation instead of the more beer savvy and accurate "veiss." Never having sampled the Water Street Brewery's offerings, I was pleasantly surprised with the beer. It matched the style, possessed some complexity while avoiding the cloying flavors of other "wheat" beers. They served it in the correct kind of glass, which was also a nice touch.
The cod was tasty to be sure, having been well browned on all sides. It had the pleasing flaky-tender quality of a well-cooked fish. But the potato pancakes are what really stole the show. The pancakes were made by finely grating the potatoes, which gave them a nice smooth mouthfeel as opposed to the somewhat hashbrownie mouthfeel that potato pancakes sometimes possess. They were also cooked much more evenly than we've been able to achieve in my home kitchen, which was impressive even though I know the "secret" here is just using more butter.
My only complaints about the food are the quantity and the bread. They provide much more than one person could possibly eat, which demonstrates poor portion control. Second, the rye bread was extremely uninspiring. It didn't have the deep rye flavor or the heft that bread should possess. In the restaurant's credit, the butter was served warmed instead of refrigerator cold, which demonstrated an appropriate level of attention to detail on their part.
In all, the meal was excellent. I strongly recommend getting a table at the Historic Turner Restaurant. Going there might not have been the introduction to Irish folk cooking that I've come to expect from the editors of Saveur, but it did provide introspection into my own food culture.
That and the company of good friends gathered for a great meal.