When you keep circling the courthouse square for 30 minutes, along with dozens of other cars, and can’t find a parking spot within three-quarters of a mile from where you want to go, you know you’re in the right place.
Where? Cheese Days of course: the every-other year extravaganza that brings (maybe) a 100,000 people to the courthouse square in downtown Monroe (population 10,900), which on normal weekends would be calm and quiet except for a few cars and a handful of strollers. Not so on Cheese Days.
The line of eager fried cheese curd eaters — three or four people abreast — extended for a block and a half on Saturday and moved very slowly toward their destination, the Monroe Optimist tent from where the delicacy emanated.
"Why are you waiting in this long line for so long?" I asked a family group. "You know, you can buy fried cheese curds in many places?"
“Yes, we know,” a lady replied. “But these fried cheese curds are the best. We come up from near Chicago every year just to get them, so we’re not in a hurry.”
That reasoning must apply to many others of the hundreds of people in line — a line that makes the long lines at June Dairy Breakfasts look rather puny in retrospect.
More long lines
There were more long lines on each end of the huge cheese sales tent where seven Green County cheese factories were displaying, giving out samples and selling their cheese.
Klondike Cheese, Monroe, and the owners (the Buholzer family) and employees had a dozen or more plates of their Odyssey Feta for sampling with packages for sale. I got the impression many folks were tasting feta cheese for the first time. As one lady commented to me: “But this won’t be the last time. It’s great. I’m going to use it on my salads when I get home.”
The one and only
Bruce Workman, master cheesemaker, was hovering over his 180-pound wheel of Emmenthal Swiss, displayed in a glass case at his Edelweiss Creamery exhibit, answering questions. A curious visitor asked how much the wheel would cost. “Give me $1,000 and we’ll even load it in your car,” Bruce replied. “Cut it into small pieces and sell it to your friends, and you’ll make money.” The questioner smiled and walked away.
What Workman didn’t say was that this Swiss wheel was made in the only cheese factory in the United States that makes the big cheese wheels in the copper kettles.
A sharp taste
Decatur Dairy, Brodhead, featured cheeses made at the Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op and other local factories and, as the other factories in the tent, faced a never-ending line of curious, interested and serious potential cheese buyers,
Steve Stettler, master cheesemaker, manager of Decatur Swiss and owner of Decatur Dairy, Inc. (the marketing arm of the co-op), admitted it was a hectic three days as his family and employees helped visitors select and buy cheese.
“Flavored cheese curds, smoked cheese and sharp cheddar were popular, “ Stettler said. “And surprisingly, we sold a lot of limburger. This year, buyers seemed to want cheese with a lot of flavor.”
Yes, Emmi Roth USA, headquartered in Switzerland but with a cheese factory in Monroe, was giving out samples of their World Champion Grand Cru Surchoix.
This is the first American-made cheese to win this honor since 1988. It defeated nearly 3,000 entries in the prestigious contest held last March in Madison.
The Old World Cheesemaking demonstration draws a “full house” of listeners/watchers from the always-filled three sections of bleachers, as cheesemakers create a 200-pound wheel of Swiss cheese the old-fashioned way in a copper kettle.
During the process, current and former cheesemakers tell about the past and present in cheesemaking. Most is fact; some is legend or long ago stories with a history connection. Master cheesemakers Gary Grossen (UW-Madison cheesemaker) and Jeff Wideman of Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe, “plugged” a block of cheese and demonstrated the grading and judging process using the criteria of the USA and World Championship Cheese Competitions.
Wideman will soon leave for Spain to serve as a judge in a large cheese contest, for the third time. He has also judged contests twice in Switzerland.
Cheese Days in not all about cheese. One could also buy a pancake breakfast, roasted corn, nachos, deep-fried pickle chips, chicken wraps, brats, hot dogs, corn dogs, steak and pork sandwiches and, of course, cream puffs. Cheese day is also about information and entertainment, most of which you can watch while eating, drinking or just resting. Cheese Days' entertainment stage includes yodelers, accordions, dancers, polkas and little kids happily dancing in front of the stage.
The Cheese Lady
I just had to stop at the small tent where famed “Sarah, the Cheese Lady” was carving fun sculptures from local cheese. If you don’t know, Sarah the Cheese Lady is Sarah Kaufmann from Manitowoc who has carved intricate cheese sculptures all across the country.
As I approached Sarah’s display area, she saw me coming and flew into my arms while telling the small group of people watching: “Here’s the man who got me started in this career. He hired me for my first job in 1981.”
How well I remember. Sarah was hired as a graphic artist in the ADA of Wisconsin’s advertising department (I was manager) and got her first exposure to dairying and cows. She then worked for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board before becoming a full-time cheese carver in 1996.
Admittedly, I was a bit embarrassed Sarah (with you in my arms) but it was a great move for both of us so long ago.
Not long enough
One day is not enough at Green County Cheese Days. It’s come and gone until September 2018, and cheese lovers will have to find their own fried cheese curds — not as good as those served during those three days in Monroe, but keep looking.
Oh, there were 6,665 pounds of fresh cheddar curd, from Maple Leaf Cheese, deep fried (in a secret recipe) by the Monroe Optimist’s 120 members and 150 volunteers. There were 27 people per shift manning 10 deep fryers, serving customers and selling tickets. Optimist Club co-chair Bob Ruffue, a retired CPA, said, "It’s hard work, and we do make a lot money — all of which we give away to county youth programs.”
While you wait for the next Cheese Days, visit the famed National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe and learn about the cheese and dairy history and how it evolved over the years (see nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org).
Several cheesemaker friends agree with me that the 2016 Cheese Days crowds were bigger than that of the 100th anniversary two years ago. Blame it on the cheese!
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.