Kringle - Racine, WI
My first stop was prior to 9 am, so it made sense to begin my jour de gluttony with a breakfast item. Racine is home to the kringle, a glazed pastry with roots in Denmark not unlike coffee cake. These flaky wonders are common enough in these parts to be found in grocery stores, but the best are made by traditional Danish bakeries like Bendtsen's, which has been cranking out sweet ovals of doughy love since 1934.
I didn't actually eat a whole kringle like you see above (this was the "French toast" version, filled with nuts and maple that made it back to my mom's house and, when we could consume no more, ended up at my in-laws), but just a single glorious slice of pecan at the counter in the store - after all, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
Hoppel Poppel - Milwaukee, WI
Although I'm told it can be found at diners throughout the Midwest, the kitchen sink dish hoppel poppel seems to be concentrated in and around Milwaukee, probably due to the presence of a large German population (the dish allegedly originated in Germany as a way of using up leftovers). Benji's kosher deli on the north side of town (near the UW-Milwaukee campus) serves a great version with cheddar cheese, green peppers, and onions in their "super" version (I had them hold the mushrooms) to go with the hash browns, scrambled eggs, and fried cubed salami that is the base. Thank goodness the menu listed a half order, which was still amply sized (you can see it below).
Butterburgers - Milwaukee, WI
In my opinion, Culver's is the best fast food burger chain out there largely because they make a great butterburger, which is simply a standard burger served on a bun that's been toasted and spread with butter. If you're a butterburger fan, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to one of the originators of this burger style: Solly's Grille, which has been serving them up since 1936 and is also conveniently located on the north side of Milwaukee just a couple of miles from Benji's.
Yes, there will be butter
I highly recommend the deluxe burger, sporting lettuce, tomato, and mayo to go with the grilled onions, american cheese, and ground sirloin that come standard on the glorious buttered bun. If the thought of all this butter makes your cardiologist recoil in agony, you can request it without (or light, which is what I did).
German Cuisine - Milwaukee, WI
Of course, German food is not unique to Milwaukee, but this is the place where you can still find the most old-school German restaurants. One of them (Karl Ratzsch) recently gave up the ghost after over a century in operation, so I figured I'd better high-tail it over to a German establishment as part of my sojourn. Mader's originally opened in 1902 and has occupied the same spot on Old Third World Street since 1910.
Usually these historic ethnic restaurants will have kitschy decor (check, two floor's worth, to be precise) and mediocre food, however, Mader's grub was quite good, including the pretzel bread that first arrives at your table, the liver dumpling soup, the schnitzel sandwich (a terrific combo of wiener schnitzel, tomato jam, Boursin cheese, and fried pickles), and the warm potato salad studded with bacon fat.
Frozen Custard - Milwaukee, WI
By this point, I wasn't broken, but was starting to bow a little, so I thought it best to pause the savory delights for a bit and switch over to sweet. Milwaukee has a number of legendary frozen custard establishments, one of which is Leon's on the city's southwest side.
Leon's has been around since 1942 and I can see why - its basic chocolate and vanilla combo custard is smooth and refreshing, especially on a hot July afternoon.
Wisconsin Tavern Pizza - Milwaukee, WI
I had one last savory stop in me before starting to make the long drive back towards Chicago. I'm not sure how many would consider Milwaukee to have its own pizza style, but First We Feast does, highlighting a particular saloon that's been making great thin crust since 1954. Zaffiro's original location is a small tavern and restaurant just north of downtown. My sources tell me they parbake their dough before adding toppings and baking it a second time, yielding a crust that's almost cracker-thin. I'd never heard of this style, but have had many similar thin crust pizzas at casual joints throughout Lake County, Illinois (which borders Wisconsin) and even a few in Wisconsin proper, so I wanted to give it a go.
I had to take a whole small sausage pie to go since Zaffiro's doesn't sell by the slice (poor me). The pizza sitting in my passenger seat smelled delicious, but I could only bring myself to nibble on a single corner slice (alarm bells were going off in my tummy) before transporting the rest of it home to my grateful family, who had no qualms about devouring the rest.
Apple Pie in a Bag - Mukwonago, WI
I had one last stop to make prior to ending my day of dining excess - I had promised my sister that I'd bring back some of the planet's best apple pies (at least that's how they're advertised) for my soon-to-be 2-year old nephew's birthday party that weekend. The pies in question are made by a place called Elegant Farmer, located in the cornfields about 30 minutes southwest of Milwaukee.
The Elegant Farmer people have a whole market of country goodies available in their retail barn, from jams to cheese curds (which I had to bring home) to produce, plus the famous pies, which are baked in a paper bag to help contain all those tasty fruit juices that ooze out during cooking. I was a little skeptical, but purchased two pies (one regular apple, one caramel apple) and transported them back south with me.
While they're no Hoosier Mama, I have to admit that the paper bag thing really works, as the Elegant Farmer pies (especially the caramel apple one) were a hit at the party even after a couple days of refrigerator aging.