Friday, April 18, 2014

Clan of the Cheeseheads

Recently in conversation with one of my UK acquaintances I made reference to “cow tipping”.  Shockingly she had never heard of this rural American pastime and inquired as to whether it was a real thing or not.  Actually, it happens to be the rural equivalent of an Urban Legend, but the simple fact that my ‘cross the pond pals were unaware of it made me wonder how many other aspects of life in rustic Wisconsin were alien to them. 

So on the basis of my decades long study of this distinctive culture I present:


I should probably start with the basic subject of self-identifying names.

Wisconsinites can be referred to as Badgers.  This dates back to the earliest settlement of the state at a time when lead mining was a huge industry in the southwest corner of the state.  Folks came from all over.  They dug holes.  Some used their excavations as crude shelters to winter over.  They were called Badgers.  Other folks, mostly from Illinois,  would come up the river in the spring and go back down in the fall.  As this mimicked the behavior of a similarly named fish they were referred to as Suckers.  The term has since evolved to specifically refer to any citizens of Illinois who still trust their State Government.

The Badger is also the mascot of the University of Wisconsin.  His nick name is “Bucky” but it has no special significance.  They held a contest to name him.

There are heated rivalries between Illinois and Wisconsin in both college and professional sports.  Chicago fans – not a gentle bunch – used the derisive term “Cheeseheads” to refer to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.  It became a badge of honor and fans started wearing home made foam rubber hats shaped like a wedge of cheese.  The prototype is said to have come from a discarded sofa.

The Cheeseheads gained additional attention when a private pilot on his way home from a game had to make a crash landing.  Alertly donning his foam rubber hat he averted serious injury.

The Cheesehead is one of three Ceremonial Attires found in Wisconsin.  The second is blaze orange hunting garb.  It has become somewhat less common in recent years but traditionally schools were let out of session and factories shut down for the duration of the fall deer hunting season.  The odds of the local newspaper displaying on their front page pictures of large defunct deer exceeds the probability of the sun rising in the east.

The Third Ceremonial Attire is team merchandise of The Green Bay Packers.  This is an American style football team that is the subject of adulation seldom accorded to mortal man.  Confusingly to the scientific observer, Packers football games can involve the wearing of all three styles of ritual garb….or if beer intake has been sufficient, of almost no clothing whatsoever regardless of the winter conditions.

Traditional foods in Wisconsin trend towards the carnivorous.  In the far southwest a hint of Cornwall is recalled in the ongoing popularity of the pasty.  In the northwest areas a Friday night “fish fry” is a grease laden carry over from the days when Catholic citizens were expected to skip meat that day.  The large German population has made the bratwurst a staple food item.  Larger meat markets sometimes have dozens of variations.  And if while traveling in the back country of the state you encounter a “hot beef” don’t be concerned that you are becoming enmeshed in a local disagreement.  The term refers to a sandwich prepared with sliced roast beef and onions.  It seems to be a requirement that they be served at all graduation parties.

Of course modern times have changed Wisconsin a little.  Now when you drive through the small farming communities that typify the state you find some of them much reduced in size as smaller farms are being replaced by larger operations.  Some of the little hamlets have in fact contracted down to the smallest possible unit of Wisconsin society: A post office.  A park with a war memorial cannon.  Two churches, one Catholic, one Protestant. And a tavern, where both faiths join hands to worship the Green Bay Packers.

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