From one Curd to another

Dan Curd explores the origin of cheese curds
From one Curd to another
Curd Girl food truck owners Kayla Zeal and Jessica Wartenweiler

“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.” For a long time, I pondered what curds and whey actually were–and a tuffet, for that matter. Granted, I was probably a bit more curious than most kids about the mystery meal consumed in this nursery rhyme, since my last name is Curd. Eventually I would learn that curds and whey are basically cottage cheese–the result of curdling milk, the first step in cheese making. The solids (the curd) are separated from the liquid (whey). The curd is subsequently cut, cooked and drained, resulting in a firm product. How it’s handled from this point determines the character of the finished cheese–or whether it will be marketed instead as cheese curds. If the latter, it undergoes a process called cheddaring, where it’s formed into slabs, cut, salted and packaged.

No doubt one reason this rubbery culinary oddity is so craved here is our proximity to so many cheese makers. Cheese curds need to be fresh. A quirky indication of freshness is that when eaten, they should squeak against the teeth, a characteristic that disappears about 12 hours after they’re made. More often than not, curds are a yellowy orange color, but sometimes left natural (white) and even flavored with garlic, herbs, hot peppers–really anything imaginable.

It wasn’t until I moved to Madison that I actually encountered my first curd (the food) at the old Crandall’s (where Tornado Steakhouse operates today). However, it would be some time before I actually grasped the veneration that cheeseheads hold for this delicacy. I now routinely add curds to salads and cooked spinach. Recently, poutine, a French Canadian dish of french-fried potatoes topped with brown gravy and cheese curds, has popped up on local menus. Yet, day in and day out, the overwhelmingly most popular way to enjoy curds is beer battered and deep-fried–inevitably with a side of ranch dressing.

Any supper club worth its brandy old-fashioned and prime rib will likely include this addictive, crispy-on-the-outside and gooey-on-the-inside appetizer. Everything served at the sophisticated Del-Bar in Lake Delton is wonderfully Wisconsin. Impeccably prepared artisan cheese curds served with honey mustard are no exception.

Curds are archetypical street food as well. Curd Girl, a Best of Madison winner, dispenses beer-battered bliss with a choice of brilliant sauces from a small downtown food cart. But cheese curds are anything but pedestrian. At Graze, a tabernacle of dining trendiness, titillating big orbs fried in a unique vodka batter come with truly exceptional house-made ranch dressing and are downright fabulous.

No one has done more to spread the gospel of this heavenly snack than Culver’s. A single Sauk City drive-in opened by the son of a cheese maker built its success on ButterBurgers, frozen custard and fried cheese curds and now boasts 560 locations in 23 states. Clearly, cheese curds, once a regional specialty, are destined to become a national obsession.