By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 07, 2006 at 5:08 AM
The search to create a vegetarian replacement for the beloved hamburger has led to all kinds of ingredients. But nothing prepared me for the walnut burger that I sampled one weekend day while shopping at the Outpost.

Sweet, yummy and addictive -- and of course, nutty -- I probably ought not to admit having doubled back to nab two more samples before making a bee-line to the frozen foods section.

The walnut burger is a Badger State invention. More specifically, it is an invention of the Historic Trempealeau Hotel in Trempealeau.

“When we opened the restaurant in 1986, we wanted to have a vegetarian item on the menu,” recalls Jim Jenkins, who co-owns the hotel with his wife Linda. “We were vegetarians ourselves, and knew how difficult is was for vegetarians to find good options on most restaurant menus.  We had a recipe for a burger made with walnuts that we really enjoyed, so we used that as a foundation.  Along with our kitchen staff, we played around with the recipe until we got it tweaked just the way we wanted it.”

Originally made and packaged on-site for customers who just had to have some to take home, the burgers are now manufactured in nearby LaCrosse and are now widely available throughout the state, including at the Outpost, most Sendik’s and Beans and Barley in the Milwaukee area. They can also be found at most Woodman’s and many Piggly Wiggly locations.

Jenkins says that samplings, like the one that hooked me, have been key to the success of the burger.

“It never fails to amaze me how many people that try the walnut burger when we do in-store demos just rave about how great the flavor is, and that has reflected back in sales,” he says. “We've had store managers tell us that the walnut burger has been their best in-store demo ever.”

The meatless patty has become the signature item back at the Historic Trempealeau Hotel, Jenkins says, and even inveterate meat eaters can fall victim to its charms.

“We couldn't be happier about the response. At the hotel, we have a very eclectic menu with a real diversity of options from steaks to seafood to pastas to Mexican items,” Jenkins says, “but year after year the walnut burger is our most-often ordered menu item.

“I think that speaks volumes for the burger, because it's obviously not only vegetarians who are ordering it.  I've had a lot of close friends who are real carnivores tell me how much they enjoy the walnut burger. People go out of their way to come to the Trempealeau Hotel to get it and we've seen the positive response continue now that the burger is getting wider distribution.”

Health conscious eaters will also be happy to consider the studies that show that walnut are a good source of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The burgers also provide a dose of calcium via Wisconsin cheese and eggs.

Although Jenkins says he has no plans to tinker with the recipe of the walnut burger, he is considering some new forms.

“We don't have any plans to add more flavors, but we are hoping to be able to market our ‘walnut balls’ eventually,” he says. “The walnut ball is an item made from the same recipe as the walnut burger, only scooped into a ball shape instead of pattied out.

“We use it for an appetizer served with salsa and honey mustard and also for a meatless ball in a spaghetti marinara on the restaurant menu. Both items are very popular.  You can make the balls out of the retail four-packs, but we're hoping to reach a stage where we can produce them in bulk and package them.  We just don't have the equipment to do it yet.”
Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.