The Badger State’s influence is simultaneously under-the-radar and prolific, the result of cultural touchstones ranging from the 2016 Presidential election to television series like Laverne & Shirley and That 70’s Show. And then, of course, there’s the Packers, whose fans, cheesehead-clad and ride-or-die loyal as any Army buddies or biker gang, are almost as legendary as the players.
Wisconsin’s got food clout, too. Maybe not the James Beard Award–winning kind (the state was snubbed in this year’s nominations), but the historical and cultural kind. It’s most visible in Green Bay (population: 105,000), the city named for the shores of the Lake Michigan inlet on which it’s built.
This might surprise some. Milwaukee has more, and arguably better, restaurants. But what Green Bay lacks in volume, it makes up for in specificity. Locals don’t just preserve and celebrate their food traditions; they live them, incorporating the typically hearty, occasionally weird (to outsiders), but always 100 percent authentic recipes into their daily lives. In an Uber Eats world where food is for the ’gram as much as for sustenance, that lack of pretension is rare and wonderful.
I didn’t grow up in Green Bay, but from my first visit, its food felt familiar even though I’d never had it. Chili with noodles sparked memories of Bob’s Big Boy’s spaghetti topped with a slice of neon yellow Kraft cheese; a brothy stew known as booyah conjured my mom’s “kitchen sink” soup; and regional wines—yes, Green Bay produces great wine—returned me to Paris circa 1998 and my first solo backpacking trip abroad.
There’s something whimsical and optimistic about both the people and the food in Green Bay. Whatever that something is, you’ve got to actually go to Green Bay to get it. If you do, here’s what to eat and where to eat it (plus a few non-food but no less quirky points of interest).
Kringles are buttery layered pastries that were introduced to Wisconsin by Danish immigrants in the 1800s. Six years ago they were declared Wisconsin’s State Pastry. For the best kringle in Green Bay, head to Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe. Opened in 2001 by owner Michael Vande Walle after working 20-plus years in his family’s bakery and candy shops, Uncle Mike’s uses only 100 percent European-style butter to make its signature dough, which takes three days to prep and comprises 36 layers of batter.
“Other kringle makers use a blend of butter and margarine, or just margarine,” says Vande Walle, whose focus on quality ingredients extends to fresh nuts roasted in-house and homemade fillings that are carefully measured to achieve the perfect fruit to dough ratio. “The difference [in flavor],” says Vande Walle, “is night and day.”
It’s likely why Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe has garnered acclaim both in and outside Green Bay. Its Sea Salt Caramel Pecan Kringle was voted “Best Kringle in Wisconsin” by the Wisconsin Bakers Association, and its Turtle and Caramel Apple Kringles won respective second and third prizes at the 2015 Bakers’ Best contest.
Booyah is how Green Bay warms up. A long-simmering Belgian stew brought to Northeastern Wisconsin by migrating Walloons more than 100 years ago, it’s made with hearty vegetables, thick broth, and a variety of meats. An oxtail is sometimes added for zip. Despite its labor-intensive preparation (it’s cooked over a fire in cast iron barrels so big that stirring it often requires an ore and multiple hands), booyah is ubiquitous at gatherings like picnics, church potlucks, and birthday parties.
To taste booyah without all the stirring and waiting, visit The Booyah Shed, a mobile restaurant most often found at the Saturday Farmers Market. Bring cash—they don’t take credit—and check the restaurant’s Facebook page for precise hours and locations.
The first thing first-time eaters of Green Bay chili notice is the spaghetti. Unlike chili outside the upper Midwest, which is typically served on its own or with rice, Green Bay chili is a flavor-packed melange of kidney beans, raw onions, cheddar cheese, sour cream, buttered spaghetti, and finely ground beef.
At Chili John’s, Green Bay’s original Green Bay chili spot, that ground beef is blended with “spicy oil,” a secret sauce invented a century ago by "Chili" John Isaac, a Lithuanian immigrant who, in 1913, began serving his now famous chili in a small storefront by the docks of Green Bay. The spicy oil saturates the beef, giving it a surprising hint of heat and distinguishing it from its kissing cousin, Cincinnati five-way chili. Krolls West, a football game-day favorite among local Packers fans, serves a similar version of Green Bay chili and gets bonus points for the old-timey service buttons at its booths.
If you haven’t eaten cheese curds in Wisconsin, you haven’t lived. That’s because they’re fresher—in some cases, from cow to countertop in under six hours—and thus squeakier than their non-Wisconsin counterparts.
For the freshest of the fresh cheese curds, hit up the 102-year-old Saturday Farmers Market, where an average 10,000 Green Bay residents gather each week to shop from among 150 local vendors selling, in addition to just-made cheese curds and local produce, everything from pet treats and prepared foods to fresh flowers and artisanal hummus. (The farmers market also hosts live bands and yoga classes, and is the starting point for the Fox River Trail, a paved, 25-mile bike- and footpath spanning the historic Fox River corridor.)
If you prefer a sit-down cheese curd experience, The Cannery is your spot. A restaurant, meat market, and grocer, it serves cheese curds sourced from nearby Ponderosa Farmstead, which crafts small-batch cheeses on site using only milk from their cows. Design aesthetes will appreciate The Cannery for its original exposed brick walls and rough-hewn timber. Housed in a 102-year-old former vegetable cannery in Downtown Green Bay’s Broadway District, it exemplifies the architectural preservation and economic revitalization at the heart of the “Main Street America” movement.
Thirty minutes outside of Green Bay is Parallel 44 Winery, so named for its location at 44° North Latitude. The same latitude is shared by Bordeaux and Tuscany, whose annual rainfall, length of daylight, and seasonal growing climates mirror those of northern Wisconsin. It’s because of these similarities that Parallel 44 owners Steve Johnson and Maria Milano were convinced that, despite Wisconsin’s reputation as a “frozen tundra,” beer-drinking state, they could produce exceptional wines. In 2005, the couple opened their flagship winery—they have since opened a second in nearby Door County—on the site of a corn field and former gravel pit. Today, their 7,000 vines yield spectacular cool climate grapes, among them bright, acidic, and fruit forward Marquette and Frontenac.
The must-try, though, is Parallel 44’s ice wine. Owing to its challenging growing and harvesting requirements (grapes must be repeatedly exposed to temperatures below 15° and can’t be picked until frozen solid on the vine), most wineries produce ice wine only once per three or four years. Parallel 44 produces ice wine every winter. Visit on Saturday to sip while listening to live music on the vineyard’s terrace.
In addition to food, Green Bay serves heaps of Americana. The Automobile Gallery is a must-see for anyone with an interest in classic cars. Opened in 2016 by William “Red” Lewis (aka Green Bay’s “Car Wash King”), its rotating cast of pristine vehicles spans 100 years of carmaking. Highlights include a 1912 Maxwell and a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, the latter the model made [more] famous by the Back to the Future films.
At The National Railroad Museum, visitors are invited to step back in time. Nearly all of the museum’s extensive collection of vintage trains are open for boarding—among them a Union Pacific Big Boy No. 4017, one of the world’s largest steam locomotives, and a train used by the Supreme Allied Commander and his staff in the United Kingdom and continental Europe during World War II. None, however, have been restored. Kitchens, dining cars, and sleeping quarters have original floors and upholstery; washrooms have tarnished, black-edged mirrors. Walking through them summons the stories of lives lived and gone, and is at once eerie and beautiful.
And then, of course, there’s Titletown, Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Football fan or not, this trifecta of sports heritage celebrates the American identity—specifically, grit, good humor, and neighborliness—through the lens of the NFL’s only community-owned franchise. The Hall of Fame is home to a treasure trove of Packers ephemera. Football aficionados will appreciate the Lombardi trophies from Green Bay’s four Super Bowl wins; historians will enjoy the newspaper clippings, photographs, and recorded stories of fans shoveling snow from the field on game days and kids shuttling players from the clubhouse to summer training practice on the backs of their bicycles.
If you go, be sure to take the stadium tour. Walking through the players’ tunnel onto the Kentucky bluegrass of legendary Lambeau Field is the urban equivalent of standing at the edge of a mountain: Eyes wide, breath shallow, and mouth agape, you feel big and small at the same time.
And isn’t that—wherever your next trip takes you—the point of travel?