It’s not a secret that being a cook can be slightly inconvenient for my personal life. For instance, my days off, or more often day not plural, is a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, in other words, the complete opposite of everyone not in the service industry. I know my schedule for next week one week in advance, sometimes. I don’t actually have any real vacation time as I’m pretty much at the mercy of my chef. National holidays such as St. Patty’s Day, July 4th, and Memorial Day are usually some of our busiest days of the year. Restaurants are open. ALL. THE. TIME. Which means Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Years Day become a day for me to work early in the morning really hungover or having missed a night of debaucherous fun with friends and loved ones.
I’m not saying all this to complain because while the life of a cook can wear on me sometimes, I love what I do and not many people can say that. In the past couple of months I have learned how to make pancetta and cure salmon, worked through a $1000 lunch shift making sandwiches and burgers, served five courses with five beer pairings for 30 people, and eaten so many grass fed beef and rainbow trout samples I’ve become a snob.
Every single day I learn something new and am sucked in a little more. So I brought all of this up because while work takes up a disproportionate amount of my time and energy, there are times when I do get away from it all and enjoy a few moments of bliss, most often with the love of my life. While we do not often get to enjoy a full weekend together, the few times have been memorable, to say the least. So when I received one weeks notice that Etno would be temporarily closed for two weeks to renovate, an admittedly less than ideal notice, I focused on the positives, like the potential for a road trip full of great memories. And that’s exactly what happened.
While reading the RedEye we stumbled upon an ad for a special farm, a sustainable and local Wisconsin farm supported by local members who receive a weekly share of organic, seasonable produce. As if the thought of cooking meals based on the incredible produce harvested in the peak of its season wasn’t enough already, Erica has instilled a hatred of Monsanto in me so any attempt to get away from their evil presence seemed like the right initiative. Turns out the community supported agriculture farm is about half an hour from a small town called New Glarus, which just happens to be home to the best brewery in all the land, New Glarus Brewing Company. Bam. Road trip planned.
When the day finally arrived, it seemed like spring had finally hit the heartland, but really we were just being teased for the weekend, more 35 degree days were in our future. Nevertheless, we would not waste a bright, brisk spring teaser of a day. Our trip began and approximately two minutes later we made our first stop, at the Global Coffee and Cargo. While I thought we were there to get sandwiches and coffee, it turns out we were supporting a 501(c)3 enabling people with job skills, providing affordable housing, and distributing food for low-income families. And while it is nice to support an admirable establishment that has partnered with a non profit, it makes it all the better when they serve Intelligentsia Coffee and outstanding chicken salad sandwiches. With satisfied stomachs and caffeine in cargo, the road portion of the road trip followed with hours of Stevie Wonder and songs from Erica’s iPod full of hits from her high school heydays. As we said goodbye to the concrete jungle that is living in Chicago, we said good riddance knowing we would be returning far too soon, but at least having been in touch with rolling fields, endless blue skies, and a slower pace of life.
After a few hours driving, little Luigi, aka Erica’s car, pulled into a spot in the packed parking lot of New Glarus Brewing Company. We mentioned descriptions like “quaint” and “tucked away” and entered the doors. It felt like a home full of really jovial strangers, as if we had all found the Golden Ticket for an adult Willy Wonka factory tour. I couldn’t imagine being unhappy in this place, after all they produce my very favorite beer, Spotted Cow, and other gems like Two Women, Moon Man, Black Top, Fat Squirrel, Totally Naked, and much more. You might be asking yourself, if this brewery is so great why have I never heard of it, especially with such memorable beer names? The answer is New Glarus does not export out of the state of Wisconsin and it never will. I asked different employees and they all gave me some version of “never going to happen.” Not only that, but while the brewery has expanded, they are already bigger than the owners and brewmasters envisioned or even wanted. While some might question their lack of desire to expand and increase profits, I admire their dedication to making great beer by maintaining a fairly focused and local operation. But on this day, none of that mattered, for I had a glass of Spotted Cow in my hand and the sunshine of my life by my side. Sometimes life can treat me pretty good.
From New Glarus we went even deeper into the heartland of Wisconsin. We passed controlled burns, miles of rolling hillsides, postcard scenes at the peaks, and, of course, plenty of real life spotted cows. With the windows down and the sun at its peak we pulled into the gravel driveway of Kings Hill Farm. We weaved through the edge of the farm and came to a hilltop, overlooking hundreds of acres of an enormous variety in various stages of growth. Only within the last couple of weeks had farms shown signs of life, turning the entire Midwest into a sea of green, an abundance of life. We could only begin the wrap our minds around the bountiful harvest that would be coming to us in the next few months.
A dog greeted us as we pulled up and then two young boys, one with a hand wagon, came into view. We walked up to the farmhouse and met the family who runs the farm, a husband and wife team with two boys. The other people who help make the farm what it is were introduced and we went on an impromptu tour with a farm intern. There were mounds of potatoes, practically screaming U.S.A. in their shades of blue and red. Cauliflower, in a beautifully symmetric field, was beginning to show sprouts. Shittake mushrooms were growing outwards from within logs. It wasn’t just things we could see, we pulled leaves of arugula from the ground, as fresh as it could ever be. I can still taste the peppery bite, unlike any other arugula I’ve had in my life. Wild sorrel provided us with a shot of citrus, in a green leaf. Spring onions were striking in their makeshift greenhouse and gave a sweet taste of fresh onion, transporting us momentarily. It became clear to both of us that while there were many reasons to become member’s of this family farm and their CSA such as eating sustainable, local, and organic produce, by receiving a share from this farm we could eat our produce, picked within a day of receiving our box, close our eyes, and imagine that we weren’t in a concrete wasteland. Seasonal produce would provide a better foundation for our food, but it would also give us a small escape from the daily grind of Chicago. A perfect stalk of asparagus, fresh handpicked greens, they would connect us to a family and their interns, from the farm to the table.
There was more to the day, a lively meal at the New Glarus Hotel, authentic Swiss fare with an emphasis on locally made sausages and classics like schnitzel and polka dancing. A drive through the night helped us reflect on one of those perfect days of bliss, with someone you love, discovering new, great things only a few hours away. In tow, we had a membership to the CSA and a list of produce to expect by season, 48 of the finest beers in the world leaving Wisconsin (not for resale), and memories of a perfect day with a loved one.