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A Turn for the Wurst: Attention, Saturn Cafe diners. This is called meat. In some parts of the country, it is considered food.

A Prairie Home-Style Companion

Summer in the bratwurst belt can bring close encounters with friendly folks in the Land of the Fried

By Christina Waters

It always seemed impossible to me that some national statistics could be true. The ones tallying megaconsumption of beer and soft drinks, french fries and donuts, for example. Where was all this empty meaningless food being consumed, I wondered?

Well, last month's sentimental journey to visit an old family friend in Sheboygan, Wis., led me through an indigestible Oz. This yellow brick road was paved with red meat, bordered by Wonder Bread and doused with Budweiser. Had I had more time, I'm sure I could have found a green vegetable, but I was only on the road for four days, half of them spent driving through the pretty--and empty--farmland between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan.

First stop, Menomenie, where I tried not to break out in hysterical laughter at the sight of a roast pork sandwich on white, topped with gravy and a scoop of mashed potatoes out of a box. This was served to me at The Kernel, one of Wisconsin's myriad "family restaurants" which serve no alcohol. But since every neighborhood is replete with corner taverns, there's never any danger of going thirsty. Menomenie is home to one of Wisconsin's many correctional facilities, as well as helpful and friendly citizens. I was in the home of the blonde, land of the fried.

Green Bay was for sale when I got there. Literally. Hotels, bowling alleys, former hospitals, schools, even the conference center--all for sale. Only the Greyhound station seemed to be doing a brisk business. There simply were no mom and pop coffee places here. Fast-food giants have replaced all the small cafes and diners all the way across the country, except in a few touristy summer towns along the lake, like the charming (but also sparsely populated) hamlet of Kawaunee, where after a five-hour drive I actually found a celestial piece of apple pie, warm from the oven, and--the elixir of life itself--cappuccino.

Californians are laughing stocks to the rest of the nation for reasons other than the governor's recall fiasco. Our devotion to frothy espresso drinks is perhaps justifiably considered a sign of moral weakness, and more than once I was told that I could "just drive through McDonald's" and get coffee like everybody else does. In Sheboygan, I enjoyed a dinner of beef and potatoes, followed the next morning by breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, muffins and donuts. The second day, at my request, bratwursts were grilled over an open fire, wrapped in Sheboygan hard rolls, slathered with mustard and inhaled in the 97 percent humidity. They were utterly, juicily sumptuous. There are hofbraus in Munich that would have been proud to serve these fat brats from Sheboygan's own Johnsonville Sausage Company, where the best of the wurst is made. (I did the homework and found out you can drive over the hill and purchase fresh Johnsonville bratwurst at Safeway on 1300 San Carlos Ave., a mile from downtown San Jose.) Their sheer authenticity justified the lack of green vegetables.

My final night by the silvery, polluted lake, I was taken out to a riverfront restaurant whose specialty was expertly fried anything. Well, if you eat fried foods only once every few years, you could do worse than the succulent fresh walleye pike crusted with pecans that I ate without restraint at Sheboygan's City Streets.

Next morning, bypassing the outlet stores that today comprise Oshkosh, I turned west and aimed my rental car through silvery birch groves, shiny blue lakes, farmlands and the sprawls of fast food parlors and billboards crying "Cheese!" and over the river to Minneapolis. In an all-but-vacant downtown trying to pump itself into an urban revival, I managed to find an unexpected treat. An attractive bistro with an inviting menu, named Vincent. So I got cleaned up and went in search of salad.

What I got was a terrific glass of French burgundy, a salad of frisée, warm goat cheese and roasted flame grapes, and a beautiful plate of seared scallops atop leeks with slices of fingerling potatoes--all this plus lovely bread and a handsome waiter--for $35. But then, I wasn't in Wisconsin anymore, was I?

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From the September 24-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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