When you drive through rural Wisconsin, whether on the vast network of county rural routes or the sparse network of interstate highways running along the Fox River and Lake Michigan, there's one thing you can find at almost every gas station along the way - fresh donuts.
By "fresh" I mean made that day and delivered still warm on arrival from a local bakery. I'm not talking about Kirspy Kremes or Dunkin Donuts or anything made out of buckets of frozen dough and delivered by semi truck. I'm talking about a breakfast confection made from scratch using an old family recipe by people who work just down the county road and delivered by one of their kids.
These are the genuine article and a reminder of why ventures like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts seemed like viable endeavors to begin with. But like most things in Wisconsin, the rural gas station donut is still connected to its origin, and those mass-produced counterfeits seem like so much sawdust and fluff in comparison.
Which is one of the truly great things about Wisconsin. Despite the dehumanizing winters and brief growth season, Wisconsin has remained remarkably close to its food. It is still predominantly rural, making even the more urban stretch through the Fox River Valley from Milwaukee to Green Bay a bastion of fresh and local food. Sure, there are the usual national chain restaurants. But there is also a plethora of local eateries and food markets. The proximity of the vast farmland may serve to remind people of where food actually comes from - not a box or a can or a drive-through window, but from the land, from the fields, from their neighbors. And for much of the population, from their family and ancestors.
The area I live in - northeast Maryland - is similarly rural with many local farmers and produce markets, yet we do not share this attitude about food. Harford County is littered with "casual dining" chains and local imitators. Despite the closeness of cattle farmers, vegetable farmers, small dairies, etc, for every Broom's Bloom Dairy or Deer Creek Beef Co-Op, there is a corresponding Applebee's or Chili's. It seems as if Maryland is not interested in food the same way Wisconsin is.There is a common sense thinking about modern, commercially-produced food in Wisconsin that is missing from the culture out here.
Most people are aware of Wisconsin's Germanic and Norse heritage, what with the prevalence of beer, sausage, and cheese in the state. There is also a good dose of French, with the popularity of booyah in the northern regions originating from an attempt to recreate bouillabaisse with what was available in the New World. What is less apparent to the outsider is the Belgian influence on rural Wisconsin culture.
It is only when you drive through the state and look at the architecture - utilitarian, well-proportioned, well-spaced - that you notice something different about many Wisconsin farms. The Belgians did things differently from the Germans and Scandinavians and were thought of as odd. Among the ethnic jokes of questionable taste that I heard in my youth, the butt was always the Belgians. Yet a closer look at their heritage and influence on Wisconsin reveals a practical sensibility not seen in other areas.
The Belgians first settled in Northeast Wisconsin. The largest population of Belgians in the US runs up the peninsula form Green Bay up through Kewaunee and Door counties into Sturgeon Bay and beyond. The society they left int he Old World was multi-cultural, and they retained their open-mindedness and respect for their neighbors even in the face of extreme differences in lifestyle and belief. It is felt that this Belgian sensibility of "live and let live" helped give rise to the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century.
Their country of origin also had a high regard for community. More social than the dour Lutherans of Scandinavia, the Belgians that mingled among them in Wisconsin helped ensure that the communities they inhabited ensured that local sources of groceries and sundry items were kept close, including food. The result is a definition of "local" that means within the county - or maybe the next county over. Compare that to Maryland where food from Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New Jersey is considered local.
In Wisconsin, food is grown closer, travels less, is more likely to be allowed to ripen before it is picked. There is less processing involved, and non-homogenized milk in glass bottles from local dairies is still available in Wisconsin grocery stores. Wisconsin still has a palate that knows how food is supposed to taste. It's easy for the outsider to get a reminder of this. All you have to do is hit the road and find the nearest gas station.