My grandfather grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm that was started by his great-great-great grandparents, who were the first farmers in Pine Creek, Wisconsin. He later moved to Chicago, and his family sold the farm, but his heart remained in the verdant, rolling pastures.
Though I grew up in the suburbs, milk runs through my veins. At least once a year, my parents would pack my sisters and me into the car, and we’d visit the homestead. I remember walking with my mom through the forests, which were adjacent to the fields where the cows roamed.
Though we frequented Wisconsin enough that I could recognize the bend that was in the highway just before we crossed over the border, I had never tried cheese curds until I was an adult. After I moved to Wisconsin, I reconnected with my roots, acquired a taste for them and became a full-on “Cheesehead.”
My friend Susan introduced me to curds that first summer I spent in Wisconsin, when I was 23. “You know they’re fresh if they squeak,” she instructed me. Milky, fresh and almost sweet with just the right amount of salt, their dense, creamy goodness gently rubs against your teeth to create one of the most satisfying sounds. They’re just so good — and I don’t know anyone who can eat only one.
Later, when I was working on my first cheese book, I learned that (unsurprisingly) Wisconsin makes the best— and the most —curds out of any state. Wisconsin boasts more than 7,000 dairy farms, most of which are small and family-run, and though some of their milk is sold as milk or goes into ice cream, butter and yogurt, the vast majority of it goes into cheese production. I also learned, first hand, how curds are made.
For those unaccustomed: cheese curds are like baby cheese— un-aged, unadulterated, pure dairy goodness. Every cheese starts out as curds - the curds are produced after cheese cultures and then rennet are added to the milk. At this point, the cheese looks like a shimmering vat of gelatin, and then cheesemakers cut the cheese, and the whey is drained, and the curds are pressed together. Though every cheese starts out as pressed curds, the curds that are eaten as, well, curds, come from a process called cheddaring, which happens after the whey is drained. In fact, most cheesemakers in Wisconsin make curds to sell fresh— even if they don’t make cheddar. Sometimes, curds are flavored with garlic, while others are dyed green and gold to celebrate Green Bay, and a lot of these curds find their way into the hands of chefs - who add them to everything from polentas and potatoes, to pizzas and tacos, or even gourmet salads.
The squeakiness of curds becomes fainter if you cook them, but that same taste of fresh milk remains front and center on your palate. This is especially true for fried cheese curds — another delicacy Susan introduced me to. When she found out I hadn’t ever tasted them fried, she drove me straight to a Culver’s, and we had them fresh from the fryer. Instantly, I found another reason to love curds. Crisp on the outside, creamy, stringy, gooey on the inside, they make for a perfect snack, a fantastic cocktail accompaniment, or even a great meal. Yes, you can dip them in ranch or barbecue, but I think they’re best fresh, just out of the fryer by their lonesome.
Last summer, my entire family took a trip out to Pine Creek where my grandfather grew up, milking cows. My son and his cousins saw the family farm for the first time. They walked in the same woods that I did when I was a girl. While the original farmhouse where my grandfather grew up is no longer there, there were still about two dozen cows, grazing, who moseyed up to the red wooden fence to say hi to us. After petting a few bovine beauties, everyone was hungry, especially the kids, so we went out for pizza… and fried cheese curds.