Driving from the airport through Madison, Wisconsin, I kept saying: “Look, it’s the Midwest! It’s the heartland! It’s Big Sky country!” I wasn’t talking to myself—though that seems to be happening more and more—but rather to my stalwart travel companion: Lucy, age one.
Though I like to think I’m a fairly seasoned traveler, I’m definitely not experienced at traveling with a baby. But when I was invited to present my book at UW Madison’s Maison Française, I decided to bring my daughter on a Mama-Lucy adventure. We stayed with friends who have twins of about the same age and explored Madison in two-hour chunks squeezed in between naps. Here are my suggestions:
Pack appropriate baby toys. Keys, wallet, passport—all suitable for a one year old, n’est-ce pas? :) Seriously, when I posted this photo on Instagram, someone left a comment saying that airports should offer a play area at the gate. I couldn’t agree more!
Be patient at the farmers market. On summer Saturdays, the Dane County Farmers’ Market circles the State Capitol building. Pedestrian traffic flows in one direction (clockwise) and it moves slowly, especially for this impatient New Yorker. This is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the States and it’s worth a meander (you won’t be able to move much faster than that). My favorite purchases were bratwurst sausages, cheese curds (they squeak against your teeth—Lucy loved ’em), and Yukon gold potatoes with such a rich, earthy flavor that I felt like I was eating real potatoes for the first time in my life. Runner up: Wisconsin corn, sweet and juicy.
Find a grill. It’s the best way to cook those local brats. The skin gets snappy, crisp and smoky, the interior juicy and succulent, salty with a peppery punch. We enjoyed them on buns, with grilled onions and a dab of mustard.
Play with cheese curds. After we sampled them and fed them to the babies, we still had the better part of a bag. I made a potato gratin with the rest, layering potato slices with grated curds and cream. It was heavenly. (And good for you! ;) Funnily enough, even when grated, melted and combined with starchy potatoes, the curds still squeak against your teeth, a sensation that’s not entirely unpleasant.
Meat up at Metcalfe’s. This family-owned supermarket chain features loads of local products including Neuske’s bacon and an entire aisle of hot dogs (photo above). Lucy’s favorite part was riding in the shopping cart (the very first time for my city girl :)
Find fellow Francophiles. UW Madison’s Maison Française—which hosted my book event—was so cozy and welcoming, I was tempted to curl up on the living room sofa and watch films of the Nouvelle Vague. Students sign a language pledge to live here, and all conversation takes place en français. But here’s the best part: On Wednesdays and Fridays, the dining room is open to the public for French conversation à table over lunch or dinner! (Seriously, if I lived in Madison, I would be a regular.)
Sunday (or any sunny day) is for raspberries. I’d never been berrying before, and found it amazingly satisfying, reaching between the thorny stems to pluck the softest, sweetest, most unblemished raspberries I’d ever seen. Every few minutes, a plump little hand crept into my pint box and helped itself. Sutter’s Ridge Farm also had U-pick apples, a couple of friendly goats, and a rather eclectic kitten shed.
Eat downtown. Madison has so many great restaurants, though I was limited to baby friendly territory. We enjoyed a lunch of grilled cheese and Mexican corn chowder at Graze (very kid friendly, in case you’re wondering :) Next time I want to try Marigold Kitchen. If you’re in the mood for drinks and porky bar snacks, I recommend the spiced nuts and candied bacon at Heritage Tavern.
Shop for cheese. Wisconsin produces so many different types of cheese—during my brief visit, I sampled Alsatian-style Muenster, brebis, chèvre, cheddar, and burrata—all locally made. The variety reminded of France, except it was better because Wisconsin cheesemakers aren’t limited by tradition—the sky’s the limit! Fromagination, in downtown Madison, is a wonderful place to shop for cheese, with knowledgeable staff who are generous with samples. Hook’s twelve-year cheddar was nutty and tangy. I had to buy a wedge to bring home.
(Photo of me and Lucy by Heather Willis Allen.)