How could anyone ignore this sign? (Photo: Nick Aster)
We’re greeted at the spacious door by a sizable woman wearing a black T-shirt that says “Eat Cheese or Die.” She isn’t nearly as bellicose as her shirt would lead you to believe. In fact she merely shrugs and checks her iPhone when I ask her to show me her selection of dairy wares.
A worthy directive. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
The amount of both Wisconsin and cheese kitsch occupying Mars Cheese Castle is overwhelming, but in the right kind of way. This roadside stop off I-94, which has been called a “cheese landmark,” an “icon for generations of travelers,” and Wisconsin’s “most visible cheese interchange,” is a 60-year-old institution along the drive from Chicago to Milwaukee or vice versa. Its 40-foot sign is impossible to ignore along the stretch of strip malls intermingled with soybean and corn fields.
Storming the castle drawbridge. (Photo: Nick Aster)
I’ve long been a believer that the Great American Road Trip doesn’t have to be the epic multi-day experience epitomized by Chevy Chase. Rather, I’m fond of the micro road trip, a lazy meandering when you have just a few hours to spare. That’s how I found myself (during a recent trip to visit my future in-laws) heading south of Milwaukee with no plan other than to storm the cheese castle.
On a Sunday afternoon, the parking lot of Mars Cheese Castle is brimming with minivans and SUVs, and the cash register lines wind around through the aisles. Shoppers top up their baskets with selections of more than 400 types of cheese, sausages, beers, and wines.
There are few places in America where you can purchase a wheel of cheese, not in the shape of a wheel but in the shape of a beer, a cow, a motorcycle, or the mitten shape of the state of Wisconsin herself.
Is this a shopper’s paradise? For a certain kind of shopper it is. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
It can be overwhelming to enter a palace of cheese with no agenda, but I migrated toward the cheese hats, an artifact that my brother-in-law calls an abomination. I had an agenda and its name was Instagram. I wanted to hashtag the hell out of those cheese hats and I succeeded spectacularly.
#Wisconsin #CheeseHat #Happy #WeddingCostumes #Roadtrip (Photo: Jo Piazza)
I had been informed by the kind of people you expect to know such things that cheese, like wine gets better with age. This sent me on the hunt for a five-year-aged sharp cheddar wherein I interrupted a shopkeeper extolling the virtues of freezing a cheese curd before you deep-fry it.
“You can throw it in the batter … but unless you freeze them individually, they are going to fall apart,” he explains in front of one of the most extensive selections of cheese curds you’ve ever seen — fresh cheddar, hot pepper, peppercorn ranch.
Cheese curds were new to me. Fresh curds are meant to squeak when you bite into them. They’re the solid part of soured milk and quite the local delicacy.
The castle, with its tasting stations and aggressive sales staff, offers up a singular experience, but cheese connoisseurs may find their palates better served at the lesser-recognized Bobby Nelson’s, about a half football field away from the castle. If you want cheese in bulk, go to the castle. If you want high-quality Wisconsin cheese, take a little stroll to Nelson’s.
“I feel like you guys kick Mars Cheese Castle’s butt when it comes to real cheese,” I said to the shopkeeper as I entered the worn-down building, grabbing a piece of jalapeno salami.
“We do,” the bearded fellow behind the counter said with a satisfied nod. “Try the pickled asparagus.”
Nelson’s even wins at cheese-head hats. It doesn’t stop at the standard wedge. Oh, no. Nelson’s offers a cheese-head crown and a cowboy hat and a fez. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
They have more than 12 kinds of homemade bratwurst and a perfect 18-year-aged sharp cheddar.
This is a truly happy place. (Photo: Nick Aster)
Nelson’s doesn’t take credit or debit cards, but it does take personal checks.
It’s the real deal when it comes to Wisconsin cheese and sausage. That’s why we purchased the jalapeno salami, some five-year-aged cheddar, and a few crackers with the only cash we had in our wallets.
Armed with both cheese and sausage, we went off in search of a picnic area.
A sign propped along a tractor on the side of the road to Kansasville announced an open winery just 3 miles down the road.
The AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery produces small-batch cider and spirits. Its definition of cider comes from the pre-Prohibition days. That means it is hard (or alcoholic) cider.
For $10 you can purchase the “full tipple” that allows you to taste everything on the menu, from a spiced cider similar to chai (with a kick) to a cider-based whisky with one of the best aftertastes of any brown liquor I’ve ever tried.
The winery uses Wisconsin-grown crops in all of its products. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
From there we drove along a rural road out toward the Bong Recreation Area (that is indeed it’s proper name), a former air base turned into a prairie sanctuary with one of the most photographed, and stolen, highway signs in the country.
We settled in for a picnic at Bong which was perfect save for an insistent breed of giant mosquito I’ve only seen in the midwest, one that resembled a chihuahua with wings.
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Our bellies full of cider, cheese, and salami and our arms littered with skeeter welts, we were ready to trek back to Milwaukee proper on the backroads, past classic red barns and spotted cows. Then we saw it. There was a weathered sign, the kind you often see at “rustic barn weddings,” pointing off to the left: “The Dirty Hoe.”
“What’s that?” I asked Nick.
“Probably a joke,” he said, fiddling with the radio.
“I’ll bet it’s a great bar.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t.”
“Let’s find out.”
And we did.
The Dirty Hoe is a biker bar that’s been dropped smack in the middle of cornfields. It’s amazing and intimidating for a couple from New York and San Francisco.
Harley parking only. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
“I don’t want to get in a fight with bikers,” Nick said, sighing.
But I was already out of the car.
“Let’s get a beer!”
The Dirty Hoe was everything you’d want a biker bar to be and more. Men wore tank tops, and women wore shirts that looked like bras. The men’s room said “HIS,” the women’s room said “HOES.” And yet, everyone was civil, incredibly nice and accommodating.
The bartender, a stout woman in a Dirty Hoe tank top with a rusty perm, ignored us in favor of customers who drove in on a Harley instead of in their dad’s borrowed Volvo.
“I call her Lil’ Bette,” a regular told us. “She looks like Bette Midler if you squint.” Indeed she did. And as charming as the Broadway star, no doubt.
It’s hard to find the perfect end to a road trip, but this was it. A cold beer, some new friends, and some leftover cheese in our pockets.
Check out our original adventure travel series “A Broad Abroad.”