This past summer, I visited the state of Wisconsin for the first time. I arrived knowing very little about the state and left with a great deal more knowledge, and an appreciation for all that this beautiful, upper midwestern state has to offer.
I came to the state knowing that the name "Wisconsin" comes from a Native American word. While visiting, I learned that the Native American word was "meskonsing," meaning "it lies red" or "this stream meanders through something red." I also learned that this is a reference to the red, sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells, through which the Wisconsin River winds.
Before visiting, I also knew Wisconsin to be a U.S. leader in dairy production, but did not know that it is also the nation's leading ginseng producer and that 60% of the nation's cranberries also come from Wisconsin.
Lastly, I knew that Wisconsin was known as the Badger State, but I had no idea that the name does not refer to the animal. Rather, it refers to the 19th century lead miners ("Badgers") who cut into the Wisconsin hillsides to find lead, and would burrow themselves in those caves or dens during the winter, as would a badger.
With that, I'll share about my time in Wisconsin, during which I learned and discovered much more.
I began my Wisconsin adventure in Milwaukee, the state's most populated city, which lies on the western shore of Lake Michigan. In addition to the lakefront, the city is situated where the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers meet. Milwaukee is also the city where Carmex lip balm, the first typewriter, answering machine and Harley Davidson motorcycle were built.
My first stop in Milwaukee was for lunch, at Kegel's Inn. I learned about Kegel's from the show 'Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi.' Who knew that some of the country's most authentic, German food could be found in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at Kegel's Inn? Kegel's is a family owned and operated restaurant, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
For four generations, the Kegel family has been serving up made-from-scratch, authentic German food, in a gorgeous building, filled with colorful, stained glass windows and hand painted murals in every room.
German Potato Salad
Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' is not the only television show that has noticed Kegel's Inn. In 2022, the CBS show 'The Talk' featured Kegel's potato salad on its "Food Face-Off" competition for best side dish. Kegel's German potato salad ran opposite a crab-flavored macaroni salad from W&M Bar-B-Q Burger in Hawaii. Kegel's German potato salad won. Making the German potato salad is a three day labor of love that results in this hot, tangy, creamy and comforting side dish.
While visiting Kegel's, I tasted my first, authentic weiner schnitzel, which is not a hot dog, despite what I assumed based on the American fast food, hot dog chain Wienerschnitzel, and the "Wienermobile," a fleet of vehicles shaped like hot dogs, that circulate to promote Oscar Meyer products.
In German, "weiner" means “Viennese,” as in, coming from Vienna. And a schnitzel is a thinly pounded piece of meat that is breaded, fried and garnished. At Kegel's Inn, their schnitzel is made of veal from Midwestern calves that roam freely in pastures. My server emphasized that the meat is hormone and antibiotic free, which produces what Kegel's calls a "true wiener schnitzel." After this filling and satisfying meal, I set out for a tour of Milwaukee.
Perhaps more than anything else, beer is what made Milwaukee famous. Milwaukee's brewing history began in 1840 with beer barons like Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz, but the only fully-restored beer baron’s home in Wisconsin, and in America, is the Pabst Mansion. The mansion was built in 1892 by Captain Frederick Pabst and still stands today as a testament to the Gilded Age.
Henry Maier Festival Park
From Pabst Mansion, I headed to the park. Henry Maier Festival Park is located on the shore of Lake Michigan. This 75 acre park hosts Summerfest, dubbed the "World's Largest Music Festival." From noon to midnight on three consecutive weekends each summer, 800 bands perform on 12 stages at this park.
Milwaukee Pierhead Lighthouse
I walked from the park and the festival grounds, for a little less than a mile, to reach the Milwaukee Pierhead Lighthouse. This is the only lighthouse in the county that is actively operating as a lighthouse. The walk along the water was picturesque and peaceful on what was a warm, sunny day with a perfect breeze.
Milwaukee City Hall
From the lake, I headed downtown to City Hall. This Flemish Renaissance inspired building is one of the tallest in the city today and was one of the first ever to feature an open atrium in the center. I learned that during the Great Depression, eight people lost their lives here. Seven jumped to their death and the eighth died of a stroke, when a jumper nearly landed on him.
Near the top of the building, just underneath the clock, is a bell tower which first chimed on New Year's Eve in 1896. Today, its size is surpassed by others, but when it was built, the 18-foot clock was believed to be the third largest in the world.
Milwaukee Brat House
From City Hall, it was on to dinner, which I enjoyed at the Milwaukee Brat House. The Brat House has been serving up sausages at this location on the riverfront, since 2008.
The only sausages that the Brat House serves are from Usingers Famous Sausage. The Usingers factory is conveniently located just across the street from the Milwaukee Brat House. Usingers is a nationally recognized, family run business, that has been producing traditional sausages since 1880.
You will only find essential ingredients in Usingers sausages such as meat, onions, garlic and spices, unlike other sausages which use binders, fillers, and monosodium glutamate. In addition, Usingers prides itself on using only the best cuts of meat to create and serve the best possible product.
All of that dedication and fidelity came through in the bratwurst I had for dinner at the Milwaukee Brat House. The sausage was robustly flavored, lean, fresh, grilled to perfection and served on a warm, soft, pretzel roll.
This was my last stop in Milwaukee before heading north for a short stay in Green Bay and then onto Door County, where I spent the majority of my time in Wisconsin. Both of those destinations are up next and I look forward to sharing my adventures there with you.