Susan Manzke looks back on her 40-year writing career

Susan Manzke
Susan holds the scrapbook of her first Wisconsin State Farmer columns from 1982.

I started writing my weekly column in January 1980 for a newspaper called “Farmer’s Friend.” I had a nice following in northeast Wisconsin, but I wanted more.      

Forty years ago, in Spring 1982, I approached the Wisconsin State Farmer newspaper (WSF) and asked if they would be interested in running my quirky stories about a family living on a farm in Wisconsin.

I gave the editor WSF five columns to try out for free. When those were successful, the editor decided to take me on and actually pay me.

It was a different world in the early 80s. Russell was a newborn in 1980 and Rachel was a newborn in July 1982. I had my hands full but I still wanted to write. My ambition was to be like Erma Bombeck. Well, I’m no Erma Bombeck, being Susan Manzke is good enough for me.

I was asked to provide a photo or a sketch of myself to put on the column. My friend Colleen Sutherland drew me. I wasn’t exactly happy with her depiction, she gave me a little double chin because that’s what I had. Her sketch was what I used for the first few years.

First column depiction of Susan.

Though I had been writing weekly for two years, I continued to look for column ideas, as I do today. Most days, until I actually start writing, I don’t know where my words will take me.

I did try including both family and farm as column subjects. The kids always were doing crazy things I could write about. Bob did his fair share, too—myself, well, I’m pretty boring.

I thought I’d share an April 1982 column with you today.

Squeaky cheese

When I came to Wisconsin, four years ago, it was more or less as a naïve foreigner, as many tourists are to this day. Because of this handicap, I had to struggle to learn the local language.

One word that constantly puzzled me in the beginning was ‘curds.’

New friends would rave to me about a buffet they had attended somewhere, and the fresh curds served. I would nod politely, without a word of question, never wanting to show my ignorance on the subject of curds. Keeping quiet this way, I remained quite ignorant.

To me, curds were something out of a child’s nursery rhyme. Little Miss with her curds and whey didn’t tempt me as a three-year-old. As an adult, it simply turned my stomach.

It was inconceivable to me how any human in their right mind could be so wild about those white, soggy lumps from sour milk. But if liking curds was part of being a Wisconsinite, I was bound and determined to get some, on my own, and force myself to like them.

My first fresh curds were finally located at no less place, a cheese factory. I ordered a pound and was surprised when the clerk handed me a bag of yellow-orange strips; very unlike the Little Miss Muffet variety. I would have questioned the clerk, but again I didn’t want to reveal my stupid side.

Outside the co-op door, I tasted my first cheese curd. It was love at first bite. No wonder why my friends talked so highly of these thick cheese chunks.

I finished the pound on the stoop and returned inside for more for my family. Back home the kids immediately took to the curds, too, and renamed them Squeaky Cheese.

In my next letter to my parents, I expounded on the joys of my new love, cheese curds.

It was a little difficult telling others, equally as ignorant as I had been, about fresh curds. I had to search for just the right words to get my point across.

“It’s kind of like chewing on an eraser that tastes like cheese,” was what I said. I’m afraid that didn’t bring in hundreds of new customers for curds. But at the next family potluck, curds were slipped in among the ham slices and deviled eggs. And without one word of explanation, the curds were a big hit.

Cheese curds are one of the seven wonders of Wisconsin. My vocabulary and my palate were both enriched because of them. It’s amazing what one small word can accomplish.

My next Wisconsin lesson was string cheese…but that’s another story.

Thanks to all my editors and those of you who have read my stories through the years. Your support and kindness have kept me going.

Susan Manzke, Sunnybook Farm, N8646 Miller Rd, Seymour, WI 54165;;;