February 1999
s m u g
Dionne Wood

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Cheese and Crack

I had been spending the Thanksgiving holiday with friends in Chicago, and we decided that a short road-trip was in order. Our intended destination: Milwaukee. Ah yes, the Milwaukee of sit-com fame, and an antique bargain haven in the rumors were true. All this is only a mere 87 miles from Chi-town.

Bright and early Saturday morning, in what I'm sure is a new world record, five people, myself included, pile into my Saturn sedan and hit the road. It's a tight squeeze, but as the driver, I am assured of a good seat with legroom-the rest of them be damned. No one can agree on a suitable road tape, or when to stop for potty breaks (consummate caffeine addicts, this is a necessary debate). We compromise on Frank Sinatra, every other exit, and that one fellow passenger must relinquish his slowly congealing egg-and-cheese on a croissant sandwich to the nearest trashcan.

We cross the Wisconsin border singing along to "Fly Me to the Moon". The landscape looks like, well, the pictures one sees of Wisconsin, though a bit more "dairy farm, on your right", than Frank Lloyd Wright. Considering that we drive through his hometown of Madison, this is rather surprising.

We cruise through Milwaukee, find bargain antiques in the hopelessly disarrayed antique malls on the outskirts, sing the theme to "Laverne and Shirley", and pay homage to the Schlitz brewery, without which many an underaged high school party would never had happened. We're tired, we're hungry, and we're sick of each other-we've had too much proximity for one day. We get on the highway headed for Chicago.

Did I mention that there are five of us in this really small sedan? And that we're singing along to Frank Sinatra?

Anyway, and here's where the real story begins, we all see the sign at once. It's hard to miss a screaming yellow billboard staring down at a Wisconsin night highway-there's nothing else to see. At least during the day, us city folk could marvel at cows, and point at those funny looking tractor thingies. "Mars Cheese Castle" the sign screams in bold letters, beckoning us "4 Miles Ahead in Kenosha: Store, Gallery of Art, Cocktails, Lounge!"

Of course we're stopping-there's really no need to discuss this. We need a break, and we can't pass this up. I point the car in the direction of the yellow glow and resume the chorus of "Luck Be a Lady".

We reach our destination, and there's neither a moat, nor a drawbridge, and the sign bearing the name "Mars Cheese Castle" depicts a planet that looks suspiciously like Saturn. At least the building looks like a castle. None of us can remember Frank Lloyd Wright designing any gimmick buildings, even during his commercial heyday. We pile out of the car (quite literally, considering that everyone is holding packages since the trunk is full to the brim), stretch our legs, and pass through the door of the aptly named Mars Cheese Castle.

First impression: cheese, and lots of it-and not just in a metaphorical sense. There's cheese in the shape of beer mugs, cows, pretzels, and most notably, in the shape of the state of Wisconsin. We sample some various cheeses, and they're good. They're good enough that we each drop about twenty dollars on delectably dairy products. And we each plunk down an additional 79 cents for official Mars Cheese Castle shopping bags, bearing pictures of the aforementioned suspiciously Saturn-like planet.

Next stop: the Gallery of Art/gift shop. The gift shop has, well, cheesy gifts and souvenirs of Wisconsin, which I've gathered by this time are pretty much one in the same. Can someone please tell me why it is considered a sincere form of flattery to call someone a "cheese-head"? It appears to be a recurring theme on souvenir items like ashtrays and bumper stickers. I try on several foam rubber Swiss cheese wedge hats of the type sported by Green Bay Packer fans on game day. Alas, I find none to fit my Ohio head.

The Gallery of Art in the rear of the gift shop displays, yup, you guess it, cheesy art. None of the paintings depicts actual cheese, but if you are the type who shops for "sofa-sized" oil paintings at Holiday Inn Starving Artist Sales, then there's probably something for you in the Gallery of Art. I'll leave it at that.

All this cheese is making me thirsty. I discover that behind door number three is the Mars Cheese Castle Lounge! My lush puppy friends quickly follow. The bar is nearly deserted, and the bartender, Roy, greets the five of us with a heaping helping of Wisconsin cheer. The bar actually has a decent selection of micro brews. While we peruse our options, Roy fetches us a complimentary cheese platter. He returns with a crock-o-cheddar cheese spread ("made right here at the Mars Cheese Castle"), surrounded by Ritz crackers.

The crock-o-cheddar is terribly addictive. We dub it "crock-o-crack", and before long, we are swilling beer and making triple-decker Ritz sandwiches. Any bartender worth his salt, and his tip, banters with his customers, and Roy is full of cheesy jokes (pun fully intended). Some of his jokes have the kind of punchlines that should be accompanied by Sesame Street-like trumpet wa-wa-wa-wa's, and several are of the sort my mother would send me to my room for repeating. Roy tells all of this in a heavy Wisconsin accent, which is somewhat Fargo-like, with fewer "don't ya know" interjections.

It's getting late, and we have dinner reservations at some Peruvian place in Chicago. Filled to the gills with cheddar crack, Ritz and beer, we thank Roy for a most cheesy time, settle our tab, and traipse out into the parking lot. We take the obligatory cheesy photos in front of the sign, none of which turn out since it's pitch black in every direction within a few feet of the sign, and speed off to dinner in the city.

A final note: don't ever, ever leave ten pounds of Wisconsin cheddar in the backseat of a Saturn while you have cocktails and dinner. Trust me.


in the junk drawer

and such
and such

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