In the interest of full disclosure I feel I should say I’m a fan of Wisconsin. Not necessarily the football team… I don’t really have a favorite college football team since I grew up and went to college in the northeast. I’m just flat-out a college football and, obviously, a tailgate fan. But yes, I love Wisconsin. The state. The way of life. The cuisine. The history. The values. The people. The geography. The accent. Everything about it.
Wisconsin is the most genuine state there is. It’s hip. The people are who they are, but also have a sense of humor about themselves. It’s the most underrated state in the union and, minus an ocean, has just about everything anyone could want. It’s affordable. The quality of life is tremendous. And people live for recreation, family and friends. They do elsewhere, too. It’s not like Wisco or Sconnie has the market cornered on these notions. But other states weren’t built entirely on meat, cheese and beer, either.
So yeah… or should I say, with classic Wisconsin accent in place, “Oh yeah!” I was predisposed to love everything I encountered heading into the weekend. I just wanted to encounter a little bit of everything I loved about The Dairy State. And I did. And it was awesome.
Oh, and there was also a football game! And a big one, too. Oh, yeah! (can’t help it) Minnesota @ Wisconsin is one of college football’s great annual rivalry games. These Big 10 competitors meet each year and play for Midwest dairy and lake state bragging rights, but also Paul Bunyan’s Axe, easily the coolest trophy in all of college football.
And I’m not just talking about the trophies that go back and forth between teams in these rivalry games. It’s cooler than the Heisman trophy, that old silly Waterford Crystal football for the BCS Championship, which always reminded me of something your grandmother bought you via mail order because you got married and needed to “class up the house.” And don’t even get me started on this new College Football Playoff trophy. It looks like a giant golden waffle cone, but without the never-ending supply of ice cream from what I can tell!
No, Paul Bunyan’s axe is a man’s trophy, a fitting prize for a group of men who battle other men with all their physical might. I mean, have you seen this thing? It’s mighty! It looks to be the size of an axe a mythical hero like Paul Bunyan could swing to fell hundred-foot tall tress in one swoop.
I have relatives in Wisconsin, so I’ve been to the northern part of the state many times. And work’s brought to me Milwaukee and Green Bay before, too. But I’d never been to Madison, the capital and, as far as the internet says, one of the highest quality-of-life cities in America. New fun to be found in this delicious state. Love it!
We started the post-Thanksgiving weekend off Friday night talking up the locals at State Street Brats, one of the dozens of great college/sports bars in the Madison area. To get a “Taste of the Town” you have to go out for beers ’n brats (pronounced “broughts” not “brats”) and talk sports. Many local bars told us that since it was Thanksgiving, most of the student body would be away, and the crowds might not be what they normally would be. So instead of being beyond fire code-busting packed, the bars would just be packed. Got it.
Given the short distance to Madison, a lot of Minnesota fans made the trip in for what easily is the friendliest rivalry I’ve ever witnessed. C’mon! Minnesota and Wisconsin are one in the same. They’re sister states, really. It’s a sibling rivalry. You can compete with a sibling but you can’t hate them. So there was plenty of well-intended chop-busting, chanting and cheering Friday night, with an ample amount of Golden Gopher fans mixed amongst the Bucky Badger pals.
We hung out for hours, interviewing fans, partaking of the local brew (make sure to try some New Glarus when you’re out that way) and testing my terrible version of the Wisconsin accent out on folks. (I was told sounds kinda Minnesota.) These folks are so nice that instead of telling me I sound like an idiot or making fun of me or being insulted, they’d laugh and say, “Oh no, you’re fine” when I apologized. Throw in a basket of fried cheese curds — this night was a gem.
Some crazy Minnesota fan who bought me a beer to get an interview threw $5 at me to get a shave, and asked for $3 change. Then he offered to show me his 60-year-old girlfriend’s boobs. That’s when I knew it was time to call it a night and get ready for game day.
Game day was just dandy. Things got going later, so arriving five and a half hours prior to kickoff lead to a slow start. Probably a bit more of the Thanksgiving hangover and departure, but we weren’t worried in the least. This is Wisconsin. It’s a top-10 tailgate and party school. A security guard speculated all the local hunting might be getting the best of some folks attention, too. Just like where I live back in Brooklyn!
Anyway… one thing to keep in mind is that the school is rather large, and located all around and about town, but somehow never feels too spread out. The capital and the university integrate perfectly. And the stadium, Camp Randall, is right in the middle of downtown. So the entire city feels like a huge party on game day… an ideal situation. The fun can be found pretty much anywhere — bars, house parties, tiny pockets of tents and tailgaters in parking lots of all shapes and sizes for miles around.
In one lot we met up with the Mucks family, a wonderful clan who’d been coming for over 50 years! A mother and daughter named Lucy and Cassie Mucks were our hosts, and they taught me how to make a “walking taco,” which is a great name for a show, or a band. And it’s kinda what I feel like sometimes the morning after a long night of 12-ounce curls. ANYHOO, a walking taco is a small bag of Fritos with all the taco ingredients poured into it. GENIUS! Classic Wisconsin culinary creativity and party-person resourcefulness. Tacos are messy. You need something to sop up the liquid merriment, but need it in a handheld convenient delivery. BOOM! Walking taco. Cassie was a delight. Soooo Wisconsin. I had a little indigestion at one point and had to clear my throat, and this adorable intelligent woman just casually says, “Oh, ya got a little burp there!” I wanted to ask her to be my tailgate wife. Men, marry a Wisconsin woman and be comfortable, and yourself, forever. Beauty, brains, beer and beef… in a bag of corn chips.
And you guessed it — the bar scene is ridiculous. It’s just as big a part of the Wisco tailgate without taking away from the traditions that make tailgating so great. I know Milwaukee has the most bars per square mile of any city in the US. Well, Madison can give them a run for their money. There’s someplace you want to pop in to for a cold one and a brat every 100 feet. These two approaches to pre-game partying work in tandem beautifully, so you can have a family gathering by the grill, then grab a cold one or three on the way to the stadium. Genius!
Everyone was as nice as advertised… Midwestern hospitality with Wisconsin and Minnesota flair to spare. One great tailgate invited us in (we filmed our show’s intro with them), chock full of Wisconsin folks who left and went to U of Minnesota, and vice versa. It was weird… kinda like the Boston and New York educational and residential exchange, of which I am a member.
This one dad made me a Bloody Mary, called it a “Bloody Badger,” using fresh local tomato juice, lots of spice, a beer topper and a skewer of Wisconsin cheese, summer sausage, olives and pickles. It. Was. UH-MAY-ZING. He was enjoying a Minnesota Mimosa, which was just a mimosa in a giant glass. But the way he pronounced it – Min-nuh-soh-duh Muh-Moh-suh — accent in bloom — had me laughing for 15 minutes. I followed up my encounter with this cool dad by eating a bratwurst off a hunting knife.
A half mile later we were outside Camp Randall watching tens of thousands of fans pour into the stadium. They were loud, boisterous and full of pre-kickoff confidence, but never obnoxious or cantankerous. No video bombers. Nobody swearing into our mic. I’m telling you: you can live out loud and tailgate proud without being a complete jackass. It’s possible. Let Bucky Badger and buddies show you the way.
It’s easier to love this place — and its fans — than anywhere else, I swear. Just go for a few days, game day or not. Milwaukee. Madison. Green Bay even (and this coming from a Pats fan whose team lost to theirs that weekend — all good!) If you like what makes life good, then you should be “On, Wisconsin!” as soon as you can. We’re home-stretching here. We’re on to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game. We’ve seen Florida State (aka anti-Wisconsin) in action, but we’re curious how Georgia Tech will represent itself. No offense, guys, but I’ll probably still have Sconnie on my mind.