A folklorist eats her way through the Midwest, one café at a time

May 19, 2012

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Joanne Stuttgen’s culinary adventures started with a simple pie ride. That’s what the Wisconsin-based folklorist, her husband and their friends called their weekly bicycling treks in search of the best homemade desserts. They’d ride to a café 45 miles or so from home, enjoy a slice of pie and ride back.

One Sunday Stuttgen and company rode their bikes from their homes in Eau Claire to a spot called Angela’s Truck Stop in Cadott, only to discover the restaurant had closed. Instead of the tasty pie they’d come for, they were forced to snack on pre-packaged doughnuts from a nearby gas station.

“My friend Mark groaned and moaned,” Stuttgen recalls. “He said someone should write a book about where the good places are so we don’t waste our time — and our miles.”

Stuttgen decided that someone should be her. She’s spent the nearly two decades since visiting, cataloguing and writing about hundreds of tiny mom-and-pop establishments all across the Midwest. She documented the fruits of her labor in a pair of books, Café Wisconsin and Café Indiana, plus a follow-up pair of cookbooks. For her Wisconsin book, she stopped counting after she hit 500 cafes. “I really didn’t want to know after that,” she says. “It was getting frightening how many I was visiting.”

Her visits were sometimes awkward. She’d take one step into a place and know immediately it would make neither her list of recommendations nor her list of “next best bet alternatives.” When that happened, sometimes she’d pretend she was merely looking for the post office when asked if she needed help. But other times she struck gold. To tell if a place is worth it, she says, “Really you only need one good bite. You don’t need that whole slice of pie or plate of hot beef.”

The surprises were the best part of her mission, the places that weren’t initially on her radar, but would then jump into view. That’s what happened when she first noticed a luncheonette in LaCrosse, Ind. “You never know what’s inside until you walk in the door,” Stuttgen says. Take a listen to what she found in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Joanne Stuttgen spoke at an event presented by Culinary Historians of Chicago in April. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.