I’m on my annual trip to Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, for our family reunion. In the old days, 62 years ago, when it was my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we didn’t call it a reunion because we all just drove the five hours from Manitowoc, where likely we had seen each other the weekend before or at least within the prior month. It was just vacation.
But now, with my sisters and our kids filling the resort, we are arriving from Shawano, Stevens Point, Minnesota, Oregon, and Hawai‘i. Next year we could be adding Colorado, Washington and London. It’s very common for families to be spread across multiple states, but unusual to have the desire, wherewithal, and stamina to come together for a yearly reunion. We feel blessed.
That’s not to say it’s all kumbaya around here during reunion week. We have our family squabbles, our (my) big mouth, our requests to do different things. Thankfully, the kids are all old enough to drive and everyone brings their own car, especially those that have to move a mountain of baby-and-little-kid-stuff to bring.
What has bound us is the food we eat. I haven’t given much thought to our food traditions until this year, when I finally inspected them with new eyes – eyes that are usually too big for my stomach during reunion week.
Prior to arriving, I’d been on a quest to improve my health and lose weight. While I’ve only lost four pounds since the end of May, my cholesterol has dropped by 30 points, halfway to my goal of 200. And I’m walking about 7000 steps a day with the help of my Fitbit. My fitness level is higher than it’s been in five years. My doctor and I are very happy with the progress.
But now I’m back with family, on vacation, and surrounded by temptations. Take the snacks we eat. Cheese is always high on the list – this is Wisconsin. But here in the Dairy State, we’ve taken cheese to a whole different level of fetish. That came home to me when I was talking about cheese curds to Dianne, my friend, originally from California. “What are cheese curds?” What do you mean, what are cheese curds?!
But then we go one step further and deep-fat fry them. In fact, when you see advertisements for curds, it is almost always the deep-fat fried variety pictured — we don’t even call that fact out anymore. I can see where people who are not from this region might feel a bit nauseous about them.
Of course, trying to be conscious of what I’m eating, I only had them once. But I served fresh, squeaky-on-the-teeth cheese curds for snacks, along with pickled herring (!) and kohlrabi. Yes, herring, pickled with onion and spices, a delicacy most often served at Christmas. I remember coming home for the holidays and stopping at a local butcher shop. They had a whole display with a huge sign: Holiday! Herring! Headquarters!! I wish I had taken a picture of that.
Kohlrabi is another regional favorite. My friends from other places have not even heard of them. But Wisconsin was settled by people from cold-weather countries in Europe where this vegetable was common. So our ancestors from Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland naturally planted them here, too. (Luckily, I can get them on the Big Island, grown on my favorite farm at 2500 feet, where it’s cold enough to survive.) My brother-in-law likes the new-fangled giant kohlrabis. Two lasted seven days serving it every night for supper with two families eating them. And we LOVE kohlrabis! We eat them raw with salt. Other mid-westerners cook them, but no one in this family likes them that way.
Another favorite recipe, handed down from Grandma to Mom to us, is potato salad. On the surface, it’s not so unusual. But how many people fry up a pound of bacon cut into bits and pour the whole thing, grease and all, onto their potato salad? Yup, the bacon grease too. Makes me a bit queasy to discuss it, yet I’m the designated potato-salad maker. My sister even buys me a 10-pound bag of potatoes just to ensure that it’s on my list of things to cook. I’d have a lynch mob on my hands if I left out the grease.
Then there’s Kringle, a Danish pastry shaped like a toilet seat, and almost as large. It’s common in Racine where we lived for 11 years. My daughter insists we buy one (two?) every year for old times’ sake. My favorite fillings are apricot, raspberry, prune and, of course, cheese. More people seem to know about these because the O&H Kringle sells at Trader Joe’s and the Lehmann Kringle has been in the Neiman Marcus catalog. Still, nothing beats fresh.
The rest of the vacation fare is typical: ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, brats and chicken breasts, served with kraut, tuna salad, Aunt Millie’s Beans and chili (eaten with cheese chunks melted in your bowl). A couple years ago, I was a trend setter with my decision to reduce/eliminate beef and pork from my diet, so I try to eat only the chicken, but the brats keep calling to me. The younger generation has surpassed me: two are vegetarians and others eat only organic. In our group meals, we no longer fry up 15 burgers at a time. Now, even the food-that-binds-us is in jeopardy.
I expect that the family meatless trend will continue. We’ll also see more college degrees, more kids living far away from home, more babies. But I also see this family reunion enduring for many years, hopefully many generations, to come. Blood is very thick.
Meanwhile, I can hope that the weight I probably gained eating this way has been off-set by the chunks of flesh chewed off of me by the horseflies on my walks. Maybe not – I abandoned the walking early in the week.
For other essays on our reunions Up North, see:
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