On Culture, Caraway, and a Computer

One of the featured examples of innovation in Frans Johansson book The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation is the work of Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit. Johansson explains the idea of Associative Barriers, the associations our brains naturally make between certain ideas. Some of these ideas are culturally bound. When we hear Italian Cuisine, our minds naturally call up associations with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, and a whole host of associated flavors. These associations can hold us back from making new connections, as certain flavors just don’t seem to “go together”. Johansson suggests part of Samuelsson’s genius is low associative barriers, due to a multicultural upbringing and his travel around the world.

The recent press around the recipes generated by IBM’s Watson computer highlights another way to break down our associative barriers – work with a computer that has none. The chemical flavor compounds of thousands of foods were entered into the computer and then “pleasant” flavor combinations were programmed in as well. So many of the flavors we combine have more to do with how we think culturally than actually considering the flavors without context. In fact, different cultures approach flavor combinations quite differently (Check out this Flavor Map from Scientific American to explore this idea further). The computer approach starts with the input of a couple flavors and will generate a set of ingredients that would complement those flavors. The results can be sorted to choose more “surprising” combinations and one of those is the Belgian Bacon Pudding.

Bacon Pudding

We need to start by acknowledging this recipe can not be Great Lakes Cuisine, right? The entire point of the Watson experiment is to eliminate cultural references, or at least compose a dish that does not consider cultural references. Yet this recipe includes a few flavors which we see frequently in our Great Lakes Cuisine experimentation. It involves bacon fat washed buttermilk, and we’ve detailed the bacon fat washing process in our love of all that is smoky. Additionally, the recipe features the use of caraway, a staple of German cuisine which has faded in use in North America in recent years (interesting analysis of that trend here). I’ve always enjoyed caraway, but I’ve got a real soft spot for rye bread as well. I have cultural associations with caraway.

In brief, this is a buttermilk and egg pudding infused with bacon and mushroom powder. The fruit topping is a spiced compote of golden raisins, figs, orange juice, cumin, and caraway powder. The whole dish is topped with brown butter toasted almonds and graham cracker. Overall, it is a slight modification of the original recipe but true to the flavor combinations. The flavors may seem strange, but the immediate reaction upon taking the first bite is “Hey. this isn’t bad.” In fact, it’s pretty good. Imagine french toast made over a campfire in the same pan you just finished making the bacon in. It’s something like that. But the real key in our tasting – the accompaniment. We enjoyed a Fuel Cafe Stout from Lakefront Brewing which added a wonderful coffee flavor contrast to the bacon and eggs flavors of the dish. Together, we’d argue this dish rises to our standards for Great Lakes Cuisine.

A Belgian Beauty – Booyah

Light the fire at sunrise; it’s ready at sundown. But only on the perfect autumn days somewhere near Green Bay, Wisconsin, as the crisp chill startles you awake when you walk outside. When the sun isn’t up yet, but the horizon is the pale blue of promise, trees stand as black silhouettes against the sky – this is when you start the fire in the barrel. Then let it cook all day, enjoy it at sundown. But the process actually begins earlier.


The previous night, over cold beers and good conversation, we chopped carrots, peeled potatoes. A large pressure cooker was already going on the stove-top when I arrived. Inside, chicken bones and skin boiling. The butcher had kindly skinned and de-boned the thirty pounds of whole chickens, making the prep a bit easier, but the flavors had to be captured.  Peter insisted the onions be finely diced, so they would melt away in the cooking process. I happily complied, never shed a tear. When the carrots, potatoes, celery, and ever-so-finely-diced onion were chopped, bagged, ready for tomorrow, we split a final beer. But the process really began earlier.


Peter owns the specially prepared barrel needed to make an authentic booyah. They had to travel across the state to find the right stainless steel wash machine inserts which, when welded into a closed cooking pot, fit perfectly atop the 55 gallon drum. You can find a recipe, you can study the history, but in the end, a key part of the process in how you cook it, not just what goes in. Booyah is cooked outside, over an open flame, lit at sunrise. How much does the process add to the flavor? Not sure. But like a clam bake on a beach in the Cape or a luau under the warm Hawaiian skies, the cooking process is part of the tradition, part of what makes this authentic. And what you want here is authentic. This isn’t about innovation. This isn’t about your “take on it”. This isn’t about creativity. This is about tradition. This is about who knows the oldest recipe, the first use of the term, the most authentic version. This is where a dish transcends any individual participation, and you become immersed in a tradition. So obviously, the process begins much earlier.

September 1852, two families from the Wallonia region of Belgium decide to immigrate to the United States. Perhaps inspired by their story, a significant group of families decide to follow the next May. As they travel, they decide to accompany a group of Dutch families heading to Wisconsin. So after an ocean voyage and train rides across this young nation, they chose not to settle in the growing cities of Chicago or Milwaukee. They likely traveled north by stagecoach, along Lake Michigan’s western shore. As the sun rose upon the waters of that great lake, they would have seen rolling fields and forests covered in the mists of a spring dawn, and geese flying north in a silent, V formation. They settled northeast of modern-day Green Bay, where the forests of the peninsula began, and formed a new Belgian colony. It is estimated between 5,000 and 7,500 Walloon-speaking Belgians settled in the three-county area around Green Bay from 1852 to 1856.


These were farmers, loggers, miners; people working with their hands, carving out a new life, in a raw, rugged land. The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 wiped out much of the logging, but cleared land for farms to quilt the landscape. These farmers would gather together for camaraderie, to share stories, to remember their traditions. In fall, they would gather over a harvest stew, not unlike a traditional chicken bouillon, with carrots, celery, onions, whole chickens over an open fire. Potatoes and corn, staples of the early American farm, were added. Along the way, a more unlikely ingredient, oxtail finds it way into the stew. A farmer looking for a richer texture, additional flavor, or was it simply leftover from another family dinner? The reason lost to time, but a tradition was born. And the name? There is a pretty common explanation (and a fair amount of discussion about who has the “most authentic” recipe), but for me it simply comes down to pronouncing bouillon in a thick French accent and someone spelling it like it sounds.

A booyah is not a recipe, but tradition. It is a process of making a harvest stew, but as much about the process as the stew. This is about fall and friends. A chill in the air. A fire lit at sunrise. So when friends start to gather on the patio around noon, the fire is glowing embers, and the pot is steaming. Peter wants to keep it to a low simmer, a rapid boil will dry out the chicken. After hours of cooking the oxtails are fished out and broken down, most of the bones removed, their rich flavors suffused through the stew. We talk. We drink beer. I try Duvel for the first time, a strong blond ale from Belgium. A friend of Peter’s at Milwaukee Brewing Company brews a Belgian-style saisson, named for Peter’s stew. We drink some of that too. The kids are running around the neighborhood, dressed up for Halloween. The golden glow reserved for late autumn shines through the rustling leaves. Another beer. More friends arrive. The sun settles down beyond the horizon – booyah is ready.


The stew is full and rich, in flavor and in mouth-feel. If you enjoy the difference between a home-made chicken soup and a store bought variety, the difference is likely the rich, fatty mouth-feel from the skin and bones of the chicken. We’re going several steps beyond. The broth created from the skins and bones from the pressure cooker have been added. The oxtail creates a lush richness to the stew. The onions have melted away. I’m not sure I can taste the smoke of the fire, but after spending the last few hours huddled around the barrel for conversation, I smell of smoke, and it adds something to every taste. Wash it down with another beer. These are good times. These are good friends. This is good food. A Belgian beauty – booyah.

Light the fire at sunrise; it’s ready at sundown.

New Restaurant Added – Storyhill BKC, Milwaukee, WI

We have discussed before the difficulty in parsing what fits and what does not in Great Lakes Cuisine. Hopefully, we have been clear this site is not a review of “The Best of the Great Lakes”, it is specifically not intended as a restaurant review site. We are not claiming an exhaustive list of the best restaurants. We are highlighting a few of the very best examples of an emerging trend in local traditions, local flavors, and local chefs – what we call Great Lakes Cuisine.

So, when we added Graze in Madison, WI, it was a praise of style and in no way should be seen as a slight to Tory Miller’s flagship restaurant L’Etoile, one of our all-time favorite restaurants in the Great Lakes area. But L’Etoile is French. Not just in name or in theme, but in the very heart of everything the restaurant does. It feels French, it tastes French. As a genre of restaurant it is most clearly French. A similar occasion arises once again with the addition of Storyhill BKC, in Milwaukee, WI.

Storryhill 1

The restaurant is the most recent collaborative effort between Joe & Meg Muench and Dan Sidner. We couldn’t be more pleased to have one of their restaurants listed on our site, as their two previous offerings are fantastic, though outside our scope. Maxie’s serves excellent low-country Carolina, Creole, and Cajun cuisine as well as one of the best fresh oyster bars in the city. One might make the argument their other offering, Blue’s Egg, already belongs on our list as they feature a current take on traditional immigrant breakfast and lunch. The food is excellent and the menu creative, but has always seemed more fully “American” diner than specifically Great Lakes.

Storyhill BKC is undeniably Great Lakes Cuisine. Here the breakfast can be simple. Perhaps just a nice latte and a danish filled with cheese and house marmalade.

Storhill BKC 2


The lunch menu changes constantly, though the breakfast entrees are served through lunch as well. The dinner offerings provide some wonderful examples of creativity, flavors, and tradition. We could start with recent offerings of Great Lakes Bisque or Steamed Walleye. Perhaps we’ll have the Whipped Clock Shadow Quark, served with pureed carrot, cranberries and spiced nuts. Quark is a unique creamy cheese produced at Milwaukee’s only urban cheese factory, Clock Shadow Creamery (Good story on it here). We can move to entrees such as Lake Superior Whitefish which is ham crusted, or Pork Country Spare Ribs served with sour cabbage, or perhaps Lake Trout with tomato jam. Maybe we should have them carve us a slice of Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with a Founder’s Apple Rye sauce. Don’t forget to pair your entree with a regional brew such as recent offerings of O’SO Brewing (WI) Don’t Turn My Brown Eyes Blue IPA or Central Waters (WI)Le Petite Morts Bourbon Barrel Weizenbock. The current line-up also features Bell’s (MI), Founder’s (MI), Summit (MN), Potosi (WI), Capital (WI), Ale Asylum (WI), Hinterland (WI), Three Floyds (IN) and more.

Storyhill BKC 3

The space is divided into bar, restaurant, and store. Heavy on the re-claimed wood and friendly service. The menu changes often, but the focus thus far has been on local ingredients, creative presentations, and traditional flavors. We’re pleased to add Storyhill BKC to our Restaurant list at Great Lakes Cuisine.

Mini-Micro Brews, or the Return of Tavern Beer

The craft beer revolution keeps getting smaller…and stronger. As the demand for great craft brews continues to grow, mini-micro breweries are popping up all over the Great Lakes region. And as with so many innovations, nothing in this process is that new at all. Massive, global breweries have been a fixture in so many of our lives, with SAB/Molson/Miller/Coors and Anheuser-Busch/InBev taking us ever closer to brewing hegemony. Yet nearly every brewing tradition in every culture around the world, started in the inns and taverns of settlement communities.

The Great Lakes region is a testimony to the tavern tradition. Immigrants flooded into the area, re-established Old World traditions, adapted to the new setting, and relaxed at the neighborhood tavern with a new version of their old brew. So the rise of small beer producers which offer their creations only at the source are hardly new, rather the are a return to a wonderfully long tradition. We documented a number of great micro-brewers in Grand Rapids, MI recently, and we’ve never been shy about our love for Hinterland Brewery’s offerings from Green Bay, WI. But the folks at Buckle Down Brewery in Lyons, IL are an even smaller version, a tavern-sized brewery, like those popping up all over the area. Often the beer is available for enjoyment at a bar located at the brewery and the only way to enjoy it anywhere else is by growler or keg. No bottling or canning operation, no corporate staff, no outside distribution. Just a brewer, a few committed souls, and the beer. Oh, and the beer!

Beer - Buckle Down Rye3

On the day we stopped by, the garage door was open to the sitting room, tables filled with loyal patrons at 3 in the afternoon. Vintage lights, wooden bar, and a blackboard with offerings created a very easy, casual vibe.  We enjoyed a KnowItAll Belgian Witbier and Reprehensible Imperial Red Rye.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye

The Witbier had the light, refreshing wheat aspect, but a touch of banana, maybe with just a little caramel, comes through in the end.  The Reprehensible Rye (shown above) was deep and complex, beautiful balance between the sweet roast of the grain and clean bitterness of the hops. It went down so smoothly.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye2

The folks at Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul, MN make a Frost Line Rye which is similar in style and flavor, though the offering from Buckle Down may have been a bit more robust.  Then again, part of that may have been the appeal of drinking the Reprehensible Rye right from the hand of the brewer.

Continuing the revolution, Justin Aprahamian, owner and chef of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI has collaborated with the folks at Hinterland Brewing to make a number of highly creative offerings. A recent piece by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed how Aprahamian wants to bring “his chef’s perspective to brewing, using seasonal — and perhaps unusual — ingredients. The next beer for summer will be a cucumber pilsner.”

Yes, the craft brew revolution goes on and Great Lakes Cuisine is the better for it.

Spring Beer Tasting

A recent gathering dedicated to craft brews featured a set of beers from Wisconsin paired with artisan cheeses and small plate appetizers…ahhh, the joy. The variations of craft beers provide a great complement to so many foods and Great Lakes Cuisine takes full advantage of such pairings.

Spring Beer

The most difficult part was setting the drinking order, due to the varieties being tasted. Typically, the biggest, hoppiest beer are last, but the highest alcohol are frequently later as well. Here, we had the lowest alcohol in our hoppiest beer, creating a bit of tasting dilemma.  Here they are in the order we tasted them along with paired dishes:

Central Waters – Hop Rise Session Ale : Described on their website as “An explosively hoppy” beer, the Hop Rise has a great nose of citrus, grapefruit, and floral notes. Compared to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it is a bit less full in the body, but has a more pronounced hop-finish in the end. We enjoyed this paired with a home-cured Saucisson Sec, Sartori Montamore cheese, and Milwaukee Midget Dill Pickles. The peppery punch of the dry-cured sausage and the bold, tangy flavors of the cheese provided a nice compliment to the hoppy burst of beer.  Both the sausage and the cheese also provide a fatty, creamy contrast to the beer as well.



Lakefront Brewing – Riverwest Stein : A beautiful, malty amber lager, which despite their website’s recommendation to pair with German food, we paired with our version of Pastrami on Rye. The pastrami was a gift from my good friend, Tom, which he based on Michael Ruhlman’s pastrami shared at his blog, then smoked on the Green Egg. We returned to our smorrebrod approach we’ve discussed before. We spread a thyme butter on Rubschlager Pumpernickel Rye, add a malt vinegar mustard and then slice into quarters.  Each piece is then topped with the smokey goodness of pastrami.

pastrami on rye

The onions were caramelized in bacon lard with thyme and malt vinegar, for a sweet and tangy contrast to the rich meat flavors.The result created a nice foil for the slight sweetness of the malt in the Riverwest Stein, really a meal in one bite and a sip of beer – smoky, savory, sweet, and tangy.

pastrami on rye2


Wisconsin Brewing Co. – Big Sweet Life : This maibock-style brew was a “must have” for a spring beer tasting.  A malty, but not over-powering version of a bock beer, maibocks are traditionally not released in Germany until May 1st and are commonly served at spring festivals. Wisconsin Brewing Co. offers this advice at their website:  “There’s a sweet side to a Maibock that pairs well with savory, so think roast pork, potato dumplings, ham — you get the idea.” Yes, we got an idea – rakott krumpli. This a traditional Hungarian potato and sausage casserole. But we’re not going with a particularly traditional preparation here.

Re-imagining traditional dishes is a hallmark of Great Lakes Cuisine, and this dish provides a fun example. The potatoes of the traditional dish are here served as a potato pancake. The traditional Hungarian sausage is replaced with a home-made version. Both are topped with a smoked paprika sour cream and snipped garlic chives.


The potato pancakes provided a savory base which allowed some of the sweetness of the maibock to show through. We used 3 yukon gold potatoes shredded and one medium shallot grated, with 1 egg and a tablespoon of flour to create the pancakes. Fried in a pan with 2 tablespoons of oil until golden brown on both sides. This made about two dozen appetizer sized potato pancakes. The sausage we’ll discuss in another post dedicated to sausage-making. The smoked paprika is from Penzey’s. The chives are an early spring gift from the garden. The savory, smoky flavors are nice, and the maibock has enough alcohol punch to carry through.

In addition to our planned pairings, we had a lovely Wisconsin Gouda sampler available throughout the event: an aged Gouda from Edelweiss Creamery, a Smoked Gouda from Carr Valley Cheese Co., and a Marieke Gouda with Honey Clover from Holland’s Family Cheese.


The most interesting pairing partner was the Marieke Gouda with Honey Clover. The herbaceous qualities brought to the fore by the honey clover created a very nice complement to the hoppy character in the beer, and as it is the hoppiest of the beers we tasted, Central Water’s Hop Rise was the perfect dance partner. And that is one of the things beer can do best, play with different foods in unique and interesting ways.  No wonder it plays such a central role in so many cultural traditions, and is prominent in the Great Lakes Cuisine tradition as well.