A week or so ago, when I told you about my recent trip to Milwaukee, I promised that there would be a follow-up post, in which I’d talk about fish fries, public art, and the like. Well, I’m afraid that I’ve put it off so long now that I can’t quite remember what it was that I wanted to convey to you. Seeing as how I promised, though, I’m going to go ahead and give it a shot. You should know, however, that what you’re about to read very likely won’t attain the same level of quality that readers of this site have come to expect over the past decade.
FISH: Milwaukee is famous for its fish fries. Apparently, Lake Michigan, before the pollution, overfishing and introduction of invasive species, used to be just teeming with delicious fish, like walleye and perch. The honest, hardworking inhabitants of Milwaukee, a good number of whom were first-generation German Catholics, would pull them from Lake Michigan by the bushel, coat them in goop, deep-fry them until golden brown, gobble them up with tartar sauce and potato pancakes, and wash them down with copious amounts of beer. This was especially true on Fridays, when, due to a religious edict I’ve never quite been able to make sense of, Catholics aren’t allowed to consume the flesh of non-aquatic creatures. And thus a tradition was born that lives on to today, in spite of the fact that almost all the fish consumed at Milwaukee’s Friday night fish fries, which still number over 1,000, are now trucked or flown in from elsewhere.
According to the fellow doing the speaking on the boat tour we took down the Milwaukee River and into Lake Michigan, there’s presently not a single commercial fisherman in Milwaukee. While sport fishing is apparently a huge business, due to the fact that the Department of Natural Resources continues to stock Lake Michigan with salmon, almost everything else that’s wroth a damn is gone. The perch population, we were told, collapsed with the introduction of zebra mussels, which made their way from Asia to the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ships. (Apparently zebra mussels and perch compete for the same food supply, and zebra mussels invariably win.) The only fish that seems to be doing well are the alewife, which are also invasive. (The reason, I’m told, that the Department of Natural Resources began stocking Lake Michigan with salmon is that they eat a ton of alewife. Thankfully, though, they appear not to reproduce in the Lake, which is why they need to keep being restocked.)
[note: My people - the Scandinavians who settled not too far from Milwaukee - also loved eating fish. They, however, boiled theirs, along with potatoes and salt, in large cauldrons. As fried fish tastes a damn site better, it's not terribly surprising that, today, there's not a single Friday night white fish boil, while fish fries can be found on every corner. At any rate, I thought that it was worth a mention that my ancestors lost out, and deservedly so, in this epic battle for hearts, minds and stomachs in the New World... While we're on the subject, my grandmother still remembers, as a little girl in Galesburg, Illinois, when the door-to-door eel salesman would come to the Jacobson household with his sack full of eels, around the holidays. She says it was godawful. She and her sister would run up to their bedroom and bury their faces in their pillows in hopes of avoiding the smell... While I'm proud of my Swedish ancestry, I think certain traditions are probably better put behind us.]
On this trip to Milwaukee, we had our fried fish at a historic, old place called Turner Hall. Sadly, so much time has passed now that I can’t comment on the food. I do recall liking the place, though… Oh, here’s a hint for you, in case you ever decide to go. If there’s a line winding around the block, full of fourteen year old blonde girls in short skirts, don’t just assume that they’re there for the fish fry and queue up behind them. If you do, you’ll likely be embarrassed when the manager of the joint comes out, looks at you like you’re stupid, and tells you, “You and them aren’t going the same place. They ain’t here for the fish fry.” In this particular case, the girls were waiting for an execrable little pop singer who calls himself Passenger.
Before we move on, I wanted to share something that I overheard while inside Turner Hall, walking around with Arlo, trying to keep him occupied while were were waiting for our food. We were passing through the bar when I overheard an older fellow and a younger fellow talking about all the girls making their way upstairs to see the show. The younger guy, who was probably about 30, said something like, “Girls today, huh?” The older guy looked at him and said quite matter-of-factly, “They’re no different now than they were in the 50′s. You should have seen ‘em around Sinatra.”
Oh, and speaking of pollution in Lake Michigan, did you hear about the most recent nuclear plant spill? While I’d like to think that it’ll lead to enormous, tasty walleye, I suspect it’ll just mean more mutated alewife with open sores.
PUBLIC ART: I don’t know how they came up with the money to do it, but Milwaukee is full of public art. They’ve got park benches that you can beat with mallets to make music, and big metal pieces that you can pour handfuls of gravel through. Since my last visit, they’ve added a series of animated vignettes to the light poles surrounding the Milwaukee Art Museum. They’re kind of like flip books… As it’s a difficult idea to convey, I shot a little video…. Here it is.
The individual pieces, as I understand it, were scripted with input from the people of Milwaukee, and the actors are just local folks who showed up at open casting calls. I think that’s kind of beautiful… I know something like this would never fly in Ypsilanti, where we can barely keep our street lights lit at it is, but one does wish that there were a way to incorporate more public art into our lives here… Actually, I’m working on a related post right now, prompted by a letter from a reader about wheatpasting. He wanted to know whether or not affixing art to buildings using wheatpaste was viewed any more favorably by our police than spray painting. I reached out to a few people and began reading through the legislation, and what I found was kind of interesting. Apparently, according to statute, you can only post things on the kiosks which have been erected around town for the purpose of sharing information. The only problem is, no such kiosks exist… Like I said, you can expect a longer post on the subject sometime in the future. I just wanted to vent a little now, though, as it’s frustrating living in a town that not only doesn’t have public art to speak of, but doesn’t even have a way for community members to share ideas, artistic or otherwise, in public… And, when I say that Ypsi doesn’t have public art, I mean officially. There is, of course, our unsanctioned sculpture garden on Water Street, which, by the way, has a new piece as of a few days ago.
FOLKART: The Milwaukee Art Museum, in addition to have a very nice modern art collection, which I think I mentioned in my previous post, has a pretty cool little folk art exhibition, that includes a number of pieces by my old friend Howard Finster. I was particularly struck this time by a transplanted section of a folk art environment by the name of Possum Trot, which was the work of a fellow by they name of Calvin Black, and his wife, Ruby. Beginning in 1950, and working until 1972, the pair had made several hundred performing wooden dolls for their roadside attraction in the California desert. (Calvin did the carving, and Ruby made the dresses.) The following excerpt is from the Milwaukee Art Museum’s webpage dedicated to Possum Trot:
…Calvin based his characters both on celebrities and friends, creating distinctive personalities for each doll, like “Miss Mary Ripple”… He engineered a dedicated performance space, the Birdcage Theatre, for the wooden ladies, whom he rigged to move through various mechanical devices. In addition, Calvin wrote and recorded speeches and songs for each doll, which he played for the guests as a revue… In the original revue, customers were able to give each doll tips, which the Blacks used to buy jewelry, perfume, and trinkets for the most popular performers…
And, here, because you have to hear Calvin’s voice, is a bit of video that I shot of the “ladies” performing.
OK, I’m sure there’s more I could say about Milwaukee, but, as I’m falling asleep, I’m going to call it quits here. I hope that, between the two posts, I was able to at least pique your interest a bit. It really is a cool, little city, and I’d encourage you to check it out.
note: While I’ve never come across one in all my travels across the Midwest, I’ve been assured by several readers of this site that public fish boils do in fact still exist. So, I guess, my comment about how we Scandinavians ceded victory to the fish friers of the world was wrong. I still, maintain, however, that it’s just a matter of time. There is no way that a boiled fish can possibly compete with a fried one. Of this I am certain.