Beginning today, nearly 600 objects of folk and self-taught art will be on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art" features a whimsical installation of paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography, textiles and decorative arts drawn from the museum’s celebrated collection.
The art itself is impressive visually, but even more so in the breadth and depth with which it captures American folk art in numerous categories including advertising, portraiture, civic life, religion, history, animals and more.
Equally impressive, however, is the menu at the museum’s Café Calatrava, which was created to provide a cohesive artistic experience through sustenance. Created by Chef de Cuisine Micah Kaufman and Sous Chef Jamie Nelson, dishes on the menu parallel the folk art exhibit by providing regional specialties focused on cuisine from the Southwest, Appalachia and Wisconsin.
But the process wasn’t easy. It began with a meeting with the museum curator, who went over the finer details of the exhibit with kitchen staff.
"Then we came up with two or three times the number of ideas we’ll actually need for the menu," says Kaufman. "We went through our ideas with the food and beverage director, narrowed down our concepts, and then went about costing and finalizing the menu."
He admits that some exhibitions are easier than others. For example, during the "Summer of China" exhibit in 2011, the café served a variety of Chinese inspired fare. But, reflecting the concept of folk art in a menu wasn’t quite as straightforward.
"The fact is, the menu was really challenging," Kaufman says. "There are so many pieces in the collection. We had to stand back to see the forest for the trees. Ultimately, we decided that what we wanted to be most consistent with was the craft, the artisanal nature of the exhibit."
Local artisan favorites like Bolzano salami served with crackers, olives and mustard ($12) populate the appetizer menu alongside a selection of hand-crafted Wisconsin cheeses served with crackers and jam ($10).
A generous portion of crisped cider braised pork belly atop thyme scented applesauce and served with a relish of fennel and green beans ($10) gives a nod to true farm to table fare. Meanwhile, dishes like fried green tomatoes served with chow-chow relish, field greens and red pepper coulis ($8) capture both the brightness of summer and the spirit of Southern mountain staples.
"I love the research aspect," Nelson admits as she talks about her foray into Appalachian cuisine. "Chow-chow is a relish that really captures the spirit of the region – what’s available, what can be grown on the land."
The condiment, she explains, has infinite variations. But, common ingredients include green tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage mixed with vinegar and pickling spices.
"We created our own version for the menu," she says. "It brings real life to a number of the dishes. It’s colorful, zesty, lively."
Midwestern comfort food like an uncommonly good hot ham sandwich on a pretzel roll with house-made honey stone-ground mustard ($10) and beef and cabbage stuffed pasties served with chow-chow relish and smoked paprika sour cream ($13) evoke memories of leisurely Sundays and blue-collar lunches. Meanwhile, entrees like the roasted Cornish hen with mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and mint pea puree ($14) will easily transport diners’ palates back to comforting weekend dinners with family.
Other dishes, like cast-iron pan trout with grilled asparagus, fingerling potatoes, toasted hazelnuts and brown butter vinaigrette ($14) were inspired by memories associated with individual pieces of the exhibit – like the collection of nearly 30 masterfully carved duck decoys that comprise a portion of the "Animal" section of the exhibit.
"I see duck decoys and I think of lakes and lake fishing," Kaufman admits. "So, that’s what inspired the trout."
Meanwhile the desserts, with selections like sweet potato pie, salted caramel apple pie and stone fruit tartlet, evoke the homemade appeal of State Fair favorites.
On the whole, the menu reflects a similar diversity to the art on exhibit – along with a whimsical flair that makes ordinary dishes pop. Best of all, there’s virtually something for everyone – from gluten-free diners to vegans and vegetarians to flexitarians and omnivores.
Café Calatrava is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., so it’s the perfect spot to enjoy a bite to eat either before or after a leisurely stroll through the museum.
"Uncommon Folk" runs through May 4. Special related programming includes Gallery Talks, Duck Decoy Day, a quilting workshop as well as special family events on Sundays. For a complete list of programs related to the exhibit, visit mam.org.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.