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In 2010, Kathryn Conrad and Walter Moores moved to Milwaukee’s East Side from New Jersey. Eager to immerse themselves in Midwest culture and to connect with their new community, the couple started visiting neighborhood bars.
They were soon schooled on multiple aspects of Wisconsin tavern life: Bloody Marys served with beer chasers and oodles of garnishes; bar dice with different-at-every-tavern rules; patrons doing shots with their bartender.
“We had never seen anything like it and fell in love immediately,” says Conrad.
But one tavern custom that took a minute for the East Coast transplants to embrace was the inclusion of crock-pots in bars. The concept of customers bringing in food from home and sharing it for free was both endearing and befuddling.
"The first time I saw a crock-pot in a bar was at the Y-Not II during the 2011 playoffs – and it was more like five or six crock-pots. I remember one with a floral and fruit motif, like poppies and peaches or something, was being plugged in as we came through the door,” says Conrad. "I thought we had crashed a private party. Actually, I was sure we had.”
Conrad says the bartender as well as a couple in Packers sweatshirts noticed her confusion and assured them that the food was part of the game experience and free for anyone.
"We liked the local-dive-friendly-neighborhood feel of the place, but that’s not the same as walking into a bar with steaming crock-pots of brats and onions on high-top tables right next to the bar. Plus a folding table covered with buns, condiments, chips, baked beans and napkins," says Conrad.
Conrad, who is a professional food stylist and lover of food in general, was won over by the communal crock-pot.
“My 'crock shock' faded pretty quickly,” says Conrad. “I love hearing people describe their recipes and see how much pride they take in them. Now when I see a crock-pot or two or three or five in a bar I just get excited to see what’s cooking.”
Bobby Greenya, owner of Champion’s Pub, 2417 N. Bartlett Ave., says the crock-pot has been the cornerstone of bar gatherings around televised sporting events for decades. Particularly, Packers games.
“I will bring in a crock-pot during the season and once a year the customers throw the party and bring in all the food,” says Greenya. “Usually for the Vikings game.”
Greenya says customers’ crock-pot chilis and stews sometimes include meat they shot or caught during hunting / fishing season and that’s always an added bonus.
“Crock-pots are and always have been a staple of tavern food,” says Greenya.
According to Franky Creed, owner of Creed’s Foggy Dew in St. Francis, customers regularly bring in crock-pots of food for birthdays, anniversary parties and, of course, Packers games. Everyone in the bar is invited to take a scoop from the crock-pot, regardless if they are there for the game or celebration.
“Packers game fare is chili, soups and cheese dips. Baked beans and scalloped potatoes are also really popular,” says Creed. "It really brings a friendly vibe into the atmosphere.”
The Standard Tavern, 1754 N. Franklin Place, ups the crock-pot game with two annual events that revolve around the beloved appliance. They have a chili cook-off in January and a “soup & stew” event in March. (Stay informed about these upcoming events via The Standard's Facebook page.)
“It started with five guys talking smack at the bar about who makes the best chili, and it just grew from there,” says co-owner Steve Gilbertson, who makes both chili and venison stew.
Bartenders at The Standard sometimes bring in crock-pots of food for no particular reason.
“Cassi (a bartender) likes to make food and bring it in just for the fun of it,” says Gilbertson. “The crock-pot is perfect for that. It stays warm for the entire shift. And like the corner bar, crock-pots build community.”
In the 1970s, crock-pots became the coveted set-it-and-forget-it cooker – especially for working women with families. The appliance made it possible for household heads to start dinner before work and have it completely ready to eat when they got home.
Crock-pots dominated the countertop cooking appliance market for decades and were available long before microwaves. In recent years, they've been rivaled by the Instant Pot, but the beauty of the “slow and low” crock-pot is forever the cooker of choice for many local tavern owners and goers.
“The crock-pot is a necessary part of any celebration in Wisconsin. It’s just not a party or a Packers game if there isn't a crock-pot on the table,” says Patti D’Acquisto, owner of Patti's Power Plant, 2800 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. “It’s called tradition.”
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.