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January 25, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—January 25, 2008

Madison. Sweet home of beef, bread, and beer. Lovely wheels of sharp yellow cheddar cheese, bratwursts boiled in water and vinegar, pint glasses of milk at every meal. Having visited, I think I finally understand the meaning of the word “heartland.” It’s the place that stops your heart—by hook or by crook.

As you drive north from Chicago, the first town you hit on the way to Mad Town is a charming little meth den known as Beloit, whose saving grace is a marvelous roadside establishment known as the Beefaroo. I have not had a better fast-food cheeseburger since the last time I was at an In-N-Out Burger in California, and it’s actually the best cup of coffee I think I’ve had in the Midwest not brewed in my own kitchen. They also make a delicious sort of Italian beef sandwich, and the milkshakes are nice and thick.

As for Madison itself—well, it’s really not the sort of city in which you plan to eat out. For one thing, it’s far too cold for walking. I thought Chicago was a very cold place, but not in comparison. Watching the car thermometer tick down steadily as we drove north was like watching the minutes tick away before an execution. The high this weekend? Four degrees. Celsius, you ask? No, no, my friend—Fahrenheit. And I think it only got that warm for a few minutes on Saturday morning.

So you must rely on the fair Mad citizens for your food, if you visit. They do not disappoint, however, particularly on dramatic football weekends. Our host for that tragic evening (the “Pack” lost in overtime to my beloved New York Giants) really knew his way around a crock pot. I particularly enjoyed his artichoke dip, as I always enjoy artichoke dip—probably because I remain blissfully unaware of its caloric content. The other various baked cheese products were also tasty enough, though not tasty enough to interest me in his drunken descriptions of their conception in the very cesspool he was content to call a kitchen.

Breakfast, however, is a meal eaten out in any college town, and Madison is no exception. I found the usual preciously decorated college breakfast bistro on State Street, which goes by the name of The Sunshine Cafe in Madison. I was actually quite surprised to be served a delicious, moderately nutritious meal: buttermilk blueberry pancakes, huevos rancheros, sausages, a delicious bloody mary, and three cups of coffee (or “the usual,” as I like to call it). Of course, the coffee was cold by the time our lazy, good-for-nothing, faux-hawked, art-history–major, waitress person brought it to me, three times running, but what can you do?

As anyone in his right mind would have expected, the beer was just fantastic. I knew it would be going in, but even so, I was floored. There’s a wonderful place known as the New Glarus Brewing Company that just spoils you for choice with their delicious, hoppy ales and porters. The local favorite is Spotted Cow, a delicious, milky ale with orange citrus high notes and caramel lows. I also very much enjoyed their Snowshoe Red Ale, which has less body, making it far easier to consume a very large volume of alcohol quickly. Two-Hearted Ale, a delicious 90-minute Indian pale ale by the Bells Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is also widely available and cheaper than commonly thought.

More erudite selections can be found at Riley’s Wines of the World, on State and Gorham Street—possibly the best liquor store I’ve ever visited. They have the widest selection of microbrew beer I’ve seen since the last time I went grocery shopping in Vermont. I bought a delicious Two Brothers Ale there called Cain and Ebel, which you may be familiar with—the brewery is located in Chicago’s western suburbs, as well as a sort of fruity Lambic, again by New Glarus Brewing Company, known as a Strawberry Tart.

I nearly died of heartburn on the drive home, by the way, so be forewarned: This is not a town for the faint of stomach. I also haven’t had an ounce of red meat since getting home Monday, which I think is pretty much a record for me. My personal goal was two pounds of beef in a weekend; I think it’s quite possible I surpassed it. I would recommend 1 1/2 pounds as a reasonable beginning gourmand’s goal—it’s good to keep your weights low when you’re just starting out so that you leave yourself some “room to grow into.”