Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Raw Milk Proposed Legislation

Raw milk advocates are organizing in an effort to make the purchase of unpasteurized milk legal in the state of Wisconsin.

Current law states selling unpasteurized milk is illegal in Wisconsin. But for about a decade, with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture's blessing, some dairy farmers sold their raw milk directly to people who bought a share in a cow, technically becoming part-owners. In the past year, however, farmers selling raw milk directly to consumers have received letters and visits from Dept of Ag representatives, informing farmers they can no longer sell their milk using this method, and have effectively shut down at least two dairy farms engaging in the sale of fluid raw milk for consumption.

Yesterday, two state legislators from northwest Wisconsin introduced a bill for co-sponsorship regarding the sale of raw milk, according to Midwest AgNet. LRB 3242/3 by Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) and Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) would permit the sale of raw milk directly from Wisconsin farms in certain controlled conditions.

Under this proposed bill, in order to sell raw milk, farmers would need to obtain a grade A dairy farm permit from the Department of Agriculture, make certain that the container for the raw milk was prepared and filled in a sanitary manner, and display a sign explaining to consumer buyers that the milk is not pasteurized, alerting them to possible health concerns.

The lawmakers have given their colleagues until Dec. 4 to have their names added to the bill as co-sponsors. The Department of Agriculture has not released any formal statement either in favor or opposition to the bill.

In related news, Wisconsin Ag Connection reported last week that a newly formed farm organization in Wisconsin is holding a networking meeting next month to promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade, which they say fosters the availability of locally grown and home-produced food products. The Wisconsin Independent Consumers and Farmers Association is scheduling the forum for December 12 at 10 a.m. at the Town of Dalton Hall in Green Lake County.

Clifford Cordell of New Auburn told Wisconsin Ag Connection that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss ways Wisconsin groups and organizations can better communicate and share ideas to enhance their overall strength to pass favorable legislation to protect their choices.

"We are inviting all groups concerned about the freedom to grow and purchase locally grown foods," Cordell told Wisconsin Ag Connection. "In particular, we want to motivate people to go to trials of small farmers around the state who are being persecuted for trying to provide very healthy alternatives to the traditional menu that we are accustomed to. Raw milk dairy farmers are coming under attack more and more since the Department of Agriculture has decided to change its interpretation of its own regulations." (For more information about the Wisconsin Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, or to get details about the meeting, call 715-418-0424.)

Earlier this month, 20 people spent nearly two hours during the Department of Agriculture's monthly "public comment" section of its board meeting commenting on selling raw milk to the public. Many stated that state law, which prohibits such sales, was unfair and should be changed.

While I didn't attend the meeting, I did read about it in all three ag papers last week. Reporters from The Country Today, Agri-View and the Wisconsin State Farmer did a good job of reporting the situation, including the impassioned pleas from dairy farmers who argue that in times of low commodity milk prices, selling raw milk off the farm is the only thing keeping them alive.

Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen has promised to re-visit the issue and will report on the agency's stance at the next board meeting. Should be interesting to see what path this issue takes ...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Snowman Pin

Warning: today's post is not about cheese. Please humor me while I share what happened to me this morning.

Tell me this hasn't happened to you: one day, you're the cool, hip mom with highlights in her hair, listening to the same radio station as your teenager, saying OMG on your Facebook account, and ordering a tall, no fat, two pump caramel latte with whip at Starbucks.

And then, the next morning, you wake up with gray hair, an extra chin and a stupid little perky snowman pinned to the lapel of your wool coat that you don't notice makes you look completely ancient until you're sitting in the local coffee shop, drinking a black cup of coffee next to a group of old retired guys doing the daily paper's crossword puzzle in unison who sound something like this: "What'd you get for 23 across, Frank?" Frank cups his hand around his ear and yells, "WHAT?" The other guy repeats: "I said, what did you get for 23 across?" And someone from the other side of the room yells: "CREEL!" Which results in a "Uhhhhh" and nodding of the heads from the gaggle of old men.

What the frick?

In yet another sign that I am not getting any younger - (who says what the frick, anyway?), today was the day that a silly little silver snowman pin made me realize I am a middle aged mom. OMG.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Three weeks ago, I got sucked into going to a Lia Sophia party - you know, the kind of costume jewelry party that women who reach a certain age start spending WAY too much money on, in an attempt to look younger? I came home with three necklaces (buy two, get the third half price, whoo-hoo!) and this adorable little snowman pin the hostess through in for free. Hey - who doesn't love stuff that's FREE?

So I pinned it on my winter wool jacket, put it back in the closet and forgot about it until this morning when the thermometer read 33 degrees. Yep, time to break out the winter coat. I threw on the coat, took my daughter to school and mosied to the coffee shop, upon where I looked down and there it was, staring me in the face.

A stupid little silver perky snowman that jingles when I walk and sports an eternal smile. You know, the kind of thing women who have reached a certain age wear in an attempt to draw attention away from their gray hair and extra chin - the very things that I woke up with today?

Sigh.

I need another cup of coffee.

And a much bigger snowman pin.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New Book: WI Master Cheesemakers

By now, you've probably heard about a new book that's out called The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, by James Norton and Becca Dilley. Although I pre-ordered a copy and it arrived a couple weeks ago, today was the first chance I've really had to sit down and take a look.

All I can say is that anyone who is curious at all to learn more about the people who make your favorite cheeses should buy this book, read it cover to cover, and soak in its captivating photography. I sat down this afternoon with the intention to skim it for notes and get ideas on future blog entries, and 90 minutes later, had consumed most of its 185 pages word for word. Wowsers.

And just to be clear, I'm not giving this book a favorable review because of page 52, although I find that particular page, titled: "The Legend of the Cheese Underground," to be exceptionally well written. Big smile.

Instead, I love this book because of its personal stories and testimonies from each cheesemaker, and its amazingly honest take and reporting of Wisconsin's dairy industry. I also admire the authors because they admit in just the third sentence of the introduction: "Up to a certain point, gaining knowledge about cheese only exposes how little you actually know about it." Ain't that the truth. The longer I write about cheese, the more I realize I need to learn.

Some of my favorite excerpts/quotes from The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin:

Page 20: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, who crafts 180-pound wheels of Emmentaler says: "I wanted to be a culinary chef, and I am. I just use larger vessels."

Page 45: Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson lamenting about the bad rap that Limburger gets: "A few years ago we had a chef in Chicago and she loved Limburger. So she put 'Limburger and Dumplings' on her menu. Couldn't sell anything. Next week - same people, same restaurant - she put it back on her menu as 'Smear Ripened Cheese and Dumplings.' People went wild for it."

Page 61: Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook: "We make about 60 different cheeses. Quite a few of them are American originals. They're cheeses that ... well, we just make 'em up."

Page 65: In describing the countryside surrounding Cedar Grove Cheese: "The first thing a visitor to the Cedar Grove Cheese plant in Plain is likely to remember is how beautiful the countryside is. Legend is that Iceland and Greenland were misleadingly named in order to confuse invaders. It's possible that Plain was named according to a similar scheme; Cedar Grove's plant is nestled in among rolling hills, streams, dales and bucolic stretches of tree-bordered fields that recall rural Ireland more readily than the American Midwest."

Page 66: Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills: "This is probably the most exciting time in the dairy industry in Wisconsin that there's ever been. It's kind of like there's a renaissance. During history there have been these little periods when there'll be groups of writers in Paris or New York, or when Shelley and Keats and Byron and all those guys hung out together and all challenged each other ... it just feels like that's what's happening in Wisconsin ... people are just clamoring to see what we'll do next."

Page 76: Master Cheesemaker Tom Jenny worries about making his first vat of Swiss cheese in four years, now that he's working on American Originals with Sid Cook at Carr Valley. Sid wants Tom to make authentic Swiss for him: 'You want me to use a whole vat - 17,000 pounds of milk? What if it doesn't turn out?' Tom asks Sid, who answers: 'We'll just call it something and sell it in the store.' No worries.

Page 81: Master Cheesemaker Gary Grossen: "For 51 years, I lived above that cheese factory, until 2001. I'm the real McCoy cheesemaker."

Page 89: The authors describe the hum of activity at Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer's plant in Theresa: "With the addition of the right music - something with a manic tempo - the action that takes place in Widmer's Cheese Cellars would resemble an elaborately choreographed dance number."

Page 90: Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer, talking about crafting Brick cheese at his plant: "We're still using the bricks my grandfather bought in 1922. We're making cheese like the Flintstones."

And perhaps the best quote to sum it all up:

Page 164: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Willis at Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Alpha, Wis: "It all starts with the milk, farmers taking care of their cows. We've got the ultimate happy cows here."

If you happen to live in Wisconsin and want to meet the authors of the book, here are some upcoming opportunities:

Wine & Cheese and a Discussion at the Wisconsin Memorial Union
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 19 at 5:30 pm
WHERE: Wisconsin Memorial Union, 2nd Floor Main Lounge, 800 Langdon St, Madison, WI

Launch Party with Reading and Signing & Cheese Tasting
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 20 at 5:00 pm
WHERE: Fromagination, 12 S. Carroll St, Madison, WI

Launch Party with Reading and Signing & Appearance by Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 3:00 pm
WHERE: Larry's Market, 8737 N. Deerwood Drive, Milwaukee, WI

See you there!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wisconsin Cheese: State Snack?

The Journal Times first reported on Oct. 8, that while Wisconsin does not currently have a state snack, it soon could thanks to a group of students from Wauwatosa who took their lessons from state government class seriously and brought their idea to their legislator.

In a bipartisan effort, lawmakers, including Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Randall, have signed on to a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, that would designate cheese as the state snack.

Reporter Paul Sloth quips: "Should Sullivan's bill make it to Gov. Jim Doyle's desk, the designation would grant to cheese a place in the annals of Wisconsin history alongside such other venerated state symbols as the polka (state dance), Antigo silt loam (state soil) and the trilobite (state fossil)."

Now, project coordinator Mary Hartl, who caught me at the cheese festival this past weekend with a bright yellow flyer touting the project, is urging folks like you to contact the chair of the Agricultural Committee, Senator Vinehout, to set a hearing date on the bill so it can move forward. Mary wants all of us to Email Senator Vinehout to let her know that we want Wisconsin cheese to be our state snack.

Here's the story behind the story:

The idea to make Wisconsin cheese our state snack was started during the 4th quarter of the 2005-06 school year. At that time, Hartl's 4th grade Wisconsin History class was studying state symbols. After reading about the symbols in the Blue Book, the class decided it would be a great idea to try and get a state snack passed by the state Legislature. Since the class had recently studied Wisconsin government, she decided this would be a good project for the students to experience the law making process.

The students did a lot of research and contacted 81 cheese factories asking for their support. Sixty-seven replied, all supporting the project. Then the class contacted Sen. Tom Renolds, but since the school year was almost over, no further progress was made until 2006-07.

That year, the fifth graders, who were no longer studying Wisconsin history, continued their enthusiasm. The new fourth grade class took over as active participators. They updated the previous year's research and designed/produced a Cheese Map of Wisconsin illustrating their findings. They also contacted Senator Jim Sullivan to introduce the bill and wrote more letters asking for support.

Although teacher Mary Hartl retired in 2007, she has continued to work with the two classes, who are now 7th and 8th graders, to make Wisconsin cheese our state snack. She says because of budget and other important issues, the cheese bill has been passed over many times. She's hoping that this year, is the year Wisconsin cheese will finally get its due recognition.

So come on, people! Let's rally around retired teacher Mary Hartl, her students in Wauwatosa and let's get this baby through the Legislature. Who couldn't use a feel good story?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

First Annual Cheese Festival

This past weekend was the First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival at the Monona Terrace in Madison. I have to say that while most of it was a blur because I was organizing instead of attending, there were a few truly memorable moments, including:

1. Exhuberant cheesemakers = big hugs = accidental bloody noses. We were setting up for Friday night's Meet the Cheesemaker event, and as cheesemakers arrived to set up, many were giving me hugs. One cheesemaker, who will remain unidentified, ran toward me, gave me a big hug, and without meaning to, punched my daughter square in the nose (she was standing behind me). Gushing blood ensued, but about 20 minutes of applying pressure to her nose and splashing cold water on her dress, we got out all the stains. In good news, she likes his cheese, so all is forgiven. Which leads me to the next memory ...

2. Don't carry a large round glass vase with one finger. Words to the wise: don't carry a big glass bowl full of water and flowers by the top, because in this case, gravity will work against you. All I can say is that somewhere last night at the Monona Terrace, a highly valued, probably highly underpaid worker is still probably trying to get glass out of the carpet and, at the same time, attempting to remove large amounts of my blood from a white linen napkin. In exciting news, I have a potential scar on my right forefinger to show off for the Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival in 2010.

3. Stinky cheese is really stinky. Turns out that nine pounds of Limburger, three pounds of Aged German Brick and six wheels of washed rind Petit Frere really stink up a room. Kudos to the attendees of Saturday afternoon's Rebirth of Washed Rind Cheeses seminar for tasting three different ages of Limburger on rye bread with mustard and jam, eating a big hunk of German Aged Brick and tasting Petit Frere, all the while sitting in a closed room for 60 minutes listening to cheesemakers Myron Olson and George Crave. That's what I call dedication.

4. Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen likes to wander. Some cheesemakers are better speakers than others, and some get more nervous than others when they are about to tell their life story to a room of 40 strangers. Brenda Jensen is a fabulous speaker who gets really nervous before speaking. This leads her to walk around a room while giving her presentation, but also serves as a highly entertaining, interactive presentation. She has officially been named the festival's "Honorary Wandering Cheesemaker." You rock, Brenda!

5. "You need a live cow in here". The drinks were flowing pretty steady Friday night, evidenced by the lovely gentleman who approached me around 8:45 p.m. with what I would guess was about his fifth microbrew in hand. He grabbed me by the arm, drew me in close and said: "You know what would make this shindig just about perfect? (insert dramatic pause here with me arching one eyebrow, attempting to dodge his breath and asking What?) ... "You need a live cow in here." And with that, he let go of my arm, happily walked away and continued to sample cheese. Ahhh ... another happy customer.

6. Favorite quote. This has to be my all time favorite quote from attendees all weekend. Katie Houghton, a member of Wisconsin Cheese Originals who lives in Shorewood, emailed me right away this morning with the following: "I met every single artisan cheesemaker that I have ever wanted to meet, and had actual conversations with them. I ate so much cheese I had trouble sleeping. Wow, what a fabulous day." Yes ... mission accomplished.

7. You look hungry. After four hours of cutting up cheeses, my volunteers were looking a little peaked. Seminar leader and Fromagination cheesemonger Gisele Grad noticed this, and without a word, went to Roman Candle and brought back a huge pepperoni pizza for everybody. What a woman. We love you, Gisele!

8. You cashed in your savings bonds for this? Teenager MaryLove Himebook of Memphis, Tennessee cajoled her mother into driving to Wisconsin for the First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, and paid for gas and hotel by cashing in more than $300 worth of her own savings bonds. Read the whole story here. Pretty inspiring.

9. "Put it towards next year." And finally, one of the best moments of the festival was watching Cheesemaker Al Bekkum open up his thank you envelope on Saturday, pull out his speaker honorarium check and hand it right back to me. "Put it towards next year and sign me up now." I nearly cried but instead gave him a big hug. I love Wisconsin cheesemakers. You guys and gals are the best.

See you all on November 5 -7, 2010 for the Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival. Same time, same place. Lots of cheese. Whoo-hoo!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Obama Cheesehead Hat

Coming soon to Ebay: a giant foam Wisconsin cheesehead hat signed by President Obama himself.

Yes, you heard it here first.

Or you probably read it yesterday in the news - I'm a little behind in my reading. Here's the scoop, courtesy of Channel 3 news in Madison (photo above is courtesy of Jessica Arp):

Liberian immigrant Mansfield Neblett, 46, told the Secret Service if he couldn't wear his cheesehead hat to see President Barack Obama's speech, he wasn't going to come. He ended up made it to Obama's speech, hat and all.

President Obama was in Madison yesterday, speaking at a middle school about education reform. Neblett has daughter attending the school, so was invited to attend.

He showed up wearing the giant orange foam hat, and after much discussion, the Secret Service determined the hat wasn't a security risk and let him keep it. But just before Obama took the stage, Neblett said someone representing the president took the hat and said she would get it signed by Obama.

The hat indeed came back, signed by the President. Neblett said he intends to sell it on eBay and put the money he makes back into his construction business. Neblett said he was wearing the hat because he owes it to the state. He immigrated to the United States seven years ago from Liberia.

I checked Ebay this morning, and no hat yet. There is a normal foam cheesehead hat on there, and after two bids, it's up to a whopping $10.50. I'm thinking Neblett's hat might fetch a bit more.