Be Milwaukee’s Guest

Cooking! It is one of the best ways to get to know a person, or a place, or the history of a place. Or yourself. And you remember how much I love Milwaukee, right? Well, pull up a chair, unfold a napkin, crack open a good beer and meet Mary Catherine of I think you are going to love her. I do! And my German/Polish/Irish/Detroiter mouth is watering.

My dear Michiganders and geese! If you squint you might be able to make me out, waving eagerly from the western shores of our shared great lake. (Don’t worry, we’re not mad it couldn’t be called Lake Wisconsin.) My name is Mary Catherine and I’m hopelessly in love with my own hometown, Milwaukee. I’m here to entertain you while our sweet leader is off writing her fancy book about her favorite town — yours! (Which I cannot wait to read!)

If I was told I could write about only one thing for the rest of my life, I’d pout for a solid three minutes, and then without reservation, join the food writers table. (Which is lucky, considering the nature of my blog.) If only there was a market for historical food writing, my life would be complete. I mean, I’m the lady who named her son for a commander in the War of 1812. My simple heart can be won with an out-of-print play-by-play of Napoleon’s lady loves. My vacations are those that revolve exclusively around what museums, battles, and lore your town can offer. In short, I probably should’ve had a career in history. (Oh, glorious careers in history … )

But I don’t. Instead, I have a tiny food blog, and a big love for history. Consequently, one of my favorite ways to while away a lazy afternoon is hunched over the kitchen table, poring over old cookbooks and marveling at the way we used to eat. So dear friends, near and far, I implore you to Be Milwaukee’s Guest!

The Junior League of Milwaukee put together Be Milwaukee’s Guest in 1959. As can be expected of 1959, gelatin desserts, shrimp toasts, aspics and luncheon dishes abound, but there’s something more to this collection as well. Books like these, the ones assembled and tested by a community, ladies’ group or church parish, are among my favorites because the culture and history behind the dishes really comes through. From the unpronounceable surnames of the contributing cooks, the quaint and practical tips and tricks, the prevalence (even in that “modern” age, 1959!) of hearty, frugal peasant fare, a community cookbook is like a tiny time capsule straight back to the kitchens of our German, Irish, and Austrian grandmothers.

So. What better way to introduce you to the humble charm and delicious cuisine of Milwaukee than with a recipe? I rifled through a number of things, deciding which best represents my homely little town. Bratwurst? Cheese? Beer? Any of these would be perfect, but all of these are perhaps a tiny bit impractical for the home cook. Because I wasn’t sure any of you would want to stick it out through sauerkraut’s three week fermentation process, I settled on something simpler.

German potato salad! Hot German potato salad! I’m only a tiny bit German, but the concentration of Irish in my blood will enthusiastically co-sign any recipe that starts with potatoes and ends with bacon. Margaret Schumaker was onto something with this very traditional German potato salad, but just for you, because I like you, I’m going to modernize it a bit (people reallllllllly liked raw eggs back then) and class it up a bit for your summer parties.

German Potato Salad

8-10 medium yukon gold potatoes
1 red onion
4-6 strips thick cut bacon
1/2 c plus 2 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 c sugar
2 T flour
1/4 t celery seed
1/2 t salt
1/4 finely chopped fresh parsley

First, take your onion. Chop it coarsely, and toss with the 2 T vinegar. Set it aside, and let marinate for about an hour, until it’s starting to go a little pink. You are (essentially) quick pickling the onion, which will cut the pungency (so that cooks can be kissed!) and add a special crunch to the salad. (Quick pickled onion is my favorite condiment this summer, and I haven’t gone a week without a jar of it in my refrigerator. Try it on toast. Or stirred into vegetables. Or over any kind of meat. It’s amazing.)

While that marinates, boil your potatoes. I boil them in their skins and then peel them. My Idahoan mom would be horrified to hear me say that. She peels them, then boils them. I think my way is easier, and I like to think it preserves the structural integrity (nerd alert) of the potato. However you do it, boil them until fork tender, let cool and slice.

Can you do three things at once? I’ll bet you can. While the potatoes boil, and the onions marinate, dice that bacon and gently brown it in a skillet. When crisp and brown, remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon. (Dear sweet vegetarians, by all means, try this with your favorite bacon substitutes. I’ll bet it’s delicious!)

Now for the dressing. In the red-hot pot you just used to brown the bacon, stir the flour into the rendered fat. When it’s smooth, add the vinegar and sugar. Cook over medium heat until it thickens; it shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the celery seed. Pour the hot dressing over the potatoes, onions, and bacon. Toss to combine and stir in the finely chopped parsley.

Serve it hot if you’re feeling traditional. Serve it cold if all your furniture is from Ikea. It’s delicious either way. Take it on a picnic; there isn’t any mayo to spoil in the sun/your fun. You should probably serve it with a nice beer, a brat and a side of your homemade sauerkraut. This is Milwaukee after all.

But don’t take my word for it … try it!

And come visit us one of these days, Milwaukee would love to have you.


Mary Catherine

#german potato league cookbooks#Milwaukee#night train and friends