Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wisconsin Fish Fry

It being Friday, and Lent, we piled into a car with another couple and headed out of town, down the Mississippi and across the bridge to Prescott, Wisconsin. Once across the bridge we cut a hard left and continued east along Highway 10 across the rolling hills of western Wisconsin toward Ellsworth. It was a drizzly day and the snow had vanished entirely from the fields. It was a melancholy spring afternoon, you might say, and melancholy is of the essence of spring—especially for the fish—but we were in high spirits, and we asked ourselves once again why it is that once you cross the border into Wisconsin suddenly everything seems different? (Is it because of the glaciers?)

The hills were lovely, and the trunks of the trees in the distant woodlots were almost black in the gray air, but it seemed we were headed for nowhere—not a town, not a building, and nary a car in sight. Finally a building appeared at the top of a hill, with a string of trucks and SUVs parked alongside it. It was on the wrong side of the road, however. A place called Jimmy’s Supper Club.

At the bottom of the next hill the Valley Bar and Grill came into view. With trucks and cars jammed in every which way and some oozing out onto the edges of the highway, it was clear that we had come to the right place. A line stretched out the front door and alongside the building under an awning, and we joined it. We asked the tall slim man standing in front of us if he’d eaten here before, and he said, “I come here all the time. I live four miles away.” And he gestured to the north with a half-crooked finger.“This place is good; but have you been to the Bluffs, down by Red Wing? Also very good.” Clearly he was a connoisseur.

He told us he owed 57 acres, and I asked him if he was a farmer. “No, I work at Anderson Windows.”
“My brother used to work there,” I replied, as if that would form some sort of bond between us. “What do you do with the land?”
“I just like the space,” he replied. “Forty acres are woods, and some is in a government set-aside program.”

He explained how that worked. You put in a bid, and if they accept it then that’s what they pay you not to work the land. “This year I put in 65 dollars an acre and they took it. If they won’t take it you go lower. But what I don’t like are the taxes. I paid $8,500 last year.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad to me,” I said. "for all that land."
“But all I have on it is a house, a garage, and a shed!”

His wife, a petite, attractive middle-aged woman (whom we later learned was a grandma twice over), was only half-listening to the conversation, but she perked up when another man came up with a boisterous Hello.
“You remember the Hargesheimers,” she said to her husband. “Their daughter used to baby-sit for us years ago.” The man extracted a stack of snapshots from his pocket and soon they were all engrossed in a private world of “catching up.”

Once inside the low-sling building, we saw that we still had a ways to go. The line snaked around the pool table and along a rather lengthy bar, then turned the corner and continued down the other side to a cash register, where you paid your $11.25. Beyond that was the buffet. We ordered a beer as we inched along and pondered whether to snag a table.
“You could do that. Nothing wrong with that,” our new friend said. “But they sort of regulate the flow so there’s always somewhere to sit.”
In the end, we decided that it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the place. The way things were going, someone could take the same table, eat there, and leave before we even got to the buffet. We did claim some places at the end of a long community table just before we reached the register —so we could set down our beer—and then, finally, we began to work our way through the food.

The woman at the cash register told us that there were only two people working in the kitchen, plus a dishwasher. Then she showed us the long list of take-out orders that people would be coming by for soon. “They must be doing a good job back there,” Hilary said. “And you’re good, too.”
“I know I am,” the woman smiled.

The odd thing about a buffet is that even if the offerings are uniformly good the desire to sample everything leads to some very strange combinations. Undaunted by this consideration, I filled my plate with little dollops of baked beans, herring, au gratin potatoes, three-bean salad, and a potato-flour roll before arriving at the fried fish and ham. I applied a generous slathering of tartar sauce to my crispy fish chunks, ignored the marshmallow salad and French fries entirely, and determined to return later for the celery, coleslaw, and macaroni salad—wondering all the while what happened to the pickled beets!

The $64 dollar question at any fish fry is this: How greasy are the fish? These fish were light, flaky, and very hot. The chunks were the size of a thick wallet, and the supply was replenished every few minutes by an adolescent boy from the kitchen who would dump an oversized plate of the compact fillets into the stainless steel bin and then retrieve any strays with his bare hands and return them to the pile.

Yes, the fish were good. The ham was also good. The beans were surprisingly firm and free of that overly-sweet bacony flavor, and even the tartar sauce, though straight out of an industrial-sized plastic jar, was (refreshingly) less sweet than is often the case. The potatoes? Cheesy and good. In fact, everything was good.

Two women wearing baseball caps and carrying very small glasses of thin red wine sat down at the other end of our table.
“We won’t bite,” I said.
“And we won’t spill,” one of them replied, with somewhat greater wit. But they spotted a free table elsewhere and moved off without further comment. A middle-aged couple arrived a few minutes later, and we soon established that they lived four blocks from our friends in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul. But I doubt whether many of the people enjoying the fish had all the way from the Twin Cities. River Falls, Prescott, Hastings, Hudson, and Red Wing are a lot closer, not to mention Martell, El Paso, and Hager City. And then there are all the ex-urbanites and genuine country folk roundabout.

As we were finishing up, the wife of the man we’d been talking to earlier came up behind our table. “Are you enjoying the food?” she said pleasantly. Indeed we were.
“You should come back in the summer,” she said, “when it’s less crowded.”