La Tierra del Queso

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul and Chef get a little cheesy on book tour in Madison.

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Local cheese from Whole Foods Madison

All I had to do was mention “artisinal cheese,” and Chef’s bags were packed for an Alphabet City Book Tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin.  My sweet friend Jimmy, who makes a couple of guest appearances in Alphabet City, moved there a few years ago with his husband, so it seemed like the perfect add on to my Chicago stop.  While some might have thought the town was an odd choice to be part of our 10th Anniversary trip, not my beloved—he didn’t need any arm twisting for a visit to “La Tierra del Queso” as he likes to call it.

With my Subaru Legacy at the Cheese Chalet

As much as I love living in New York City where I have been able to beat my Texas-born addiction to cars, I do enjoy the opportunity to test-drive a swanky vehicle through America’s heartland.  Subaru stepped up to the plate with an offer to drive around in a Legacy—a titled Chef liked solely because it was the name of a dancer on So You Think You Can Dance.  I, on the other hand, appreciated the sedan’s powerful pick-up that allowed me to outrun some irritating 18-wheelers on I-90.  Even better, the Subaru engineers have placed the cruise controls right on the face of the steering wheel—I hate when I mistakenly activate the wipers when trying to give my leg a break from the pedals.  Most importantly, Legacy was an expert at last minute maneuvering when Chef insisted on a stop at a roadside Cheese Chalet.   Chef bought some famous squeaking cheese curds and indulged in a little Wisconsin wine-tasting (not me, the designated driver), picking up a surprisingly not-terribly-sweet Pinot Grigio.

Pulling into Madison in Legacy we fit right in—various Subaru models were everywhere.  Clearly, the 4WD capabilities make it an excellent choice in a town with 40 days of snow.  And in a city that supposedly has the highest per capita percentage of gay and lesbian citizens in the United States, Subaru’s rainbow flag marketing messages are definitely paying off.  Especially during Madison’s Capital Pride festivities that were in full force.

My 9th Pride Festival of the Summer!

Wisconsin’s state capitol dome presides over all activities in Madison—including the country’s largest farmer’s market.  Now, I always snicker at claims like that.  Who exactly goes around and counts?  How exactly is it measured?  But no doubt was it true.  The stands surround the capitol grounds and by noon it’s as busy as tourists searching for a Chanel knock-off on NYC’s Canal Street.  As Chef perused each and every stall, I listened to young actors reciting Shakespeare lines, and some political theater about the Palestinian conflict getting underway.  Ignoring the bounty of fruit at one table, a young kid said to his mother, “When are we going to McDonald’s?”

Just off the square, a gorgeous cheese shop called Fromagination called out to us.  The store has a terrific selection of local artisanal cheese and wine that definitely captured our imagination.  But here’s a money saving tip: if you’ve got the time head off to Whole Foods Market about 10 minutes away (everything seems only 10 minutes away since there never was traffic anywhere) where you can snag many of the same local cheeses for a little less money.

Whole Foods Madison's bounty for the party!

In fact, the Whole Foods Market Madison helped out with a gift card to support Jimmy’s Alphabet City Book Party—and for less than $100 we loaded up on local cheese (my favs: Carr Valley’s Cocoa Cardona and Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar), and a range of 365 brand chips, hummus, salsa, Italian sodas, and wine.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned helping plan the many of parties on book tour is that Whole Foods let’s you get local quality for great value—focus on WFM’s 365 brand to economize on staples, and then spend the savings on local products.  It was great to see that the Madison store had a nice selection of local artisanal cheeses that were a huge hit with the locals at the event.

Later at the party, I ran into a former colleague Patrick—we had worked together at Condé Nast Traveler many years ago.  Patrick moved to Madison and started a gay and lesbian magazine for the community called Our Lives that was celebrating its 1-year birthday (and included a lovely write-up of Alphabet City).  He asked me what was my very first impression of Madison.  I thought back to when we arrived, driving down the streets lined with classic two-story homes shaded by towering trees and kids playing in the lawns and beagles chasing chipmunks.

Dixie enjoys Alphabet City

“I wondered if it could possibly be this idyllic,” I said.

“It’s a little bit like Austin—thirty years ago,” Jimmy chimed in.

And so it is.  Not much traffic.  An economy dominated by a state university and government.  Fresh local produce from Whole Foods and a farmer’s market.  Madison definitely has it’s charm.

Just then, Jimmy’s beagles Dixie, Tatum and Silas barked—they were tired of playing with my faux-Oscar and wanted to go chase squirrels.  I smiled at my wonderful summer travels—this book tour had taken me to so many unexpected spots.  What a treat.

With Jimmy at his lovely home

With Chef under the Capitol Dome

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