Visiting the Midwest? Here's Your Ultimate Survival Guide
Tips and tricks courtesy of Charlie Berens, author of "The Midwest Survival Guide."
Comedian, journalist, musician, podcaster, and Wisconsinite above all, Charlie Berens might be the Midwest’s biggest cheerleader. And they sure love him back. Just stroll into the Kwik Trip in his neck of the woods, and you can order the “Berens Alexander” off the secret menu, a creamy chocolate riff on a Brandy Alexander cocktail. (Brandy sold separately.)
As a stand-up comedian, Berens makes videos and travels the Midwest—defined "in alphabetical order so no one gets their feelings hurt” as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. He shines a spotlight on the many quirks that make his home turf special, like the church bar crawl (“It’s probably more organized than church, to be honest”), that accent, and the all-purpose “Ope" (a bastardization of “oops,” used for everything from “excuse me” to “I need a beer.”)
On stage, he can always count on a laugh from locals in the crowd. “That’s the nice thing about Midwest culture: we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Berens, on a phone call from his home in Milwaukee.
“When you’re in it, you feel like it’s normal. It wasn’t until I left the Midwest that I realized you can’t say 'bubbler' or 'Davenport' and have people know what you’re talking about. Then you kind of realize the goofiness of it and when you call it out, people really love laughing at themselves.”
For the rest of us who still don’t know what a bubbler is and had to look up Davenport (it’s a couch), Berens has written a 288-page instructional tome. Out this week, The Midwest’s Survival Guide is—we’ll just say it— an essential handbook for everyone from coastal newbies wanting to charm their Midwestern partner’s parents, to hardcore heartlanders who have already perfected their Midwestern Nice but just need a solid recipe for potato salad.
"It wasn’t until I left the Midwest that I realized you can’t say 'bubbler' or 'Davenport' and have people know what you’re talking about."
The book kicks off with the Midwesterner's five rules to live by: apologize, help, be nice, work hard, keep your word. There’s movie recommendations (beyond Fargo), fashion tips (flannel), and classic Midwest recipes for lefse, deviled eggs, buckeye candy, and Kringle (recipe: just buy the Kringle). Perhaps most helpful for the outsider is the dictionary (a three-way is not what you think it is), suggested alternatives to cursing (try criminy, cripes, or cheese and rice), and how to say a proper goodbye (there are 12 steps).
There’s indigenous history, and reflections on how native culture has helped shape a particularly hardy stock. There's tips for tailgating, and what to do if and when you hit a deer. Plus much more. We tapped Berens to help us put together a starter guide on visiting the Midwest. For the full shebang, well, you gotta buy the book. And oh, three-way is a type of chili.
What to pack when you have no idea what the weather will be
“It could be July and we could get snow, and I wish that were a joke. So you gotta dress in layers," says Berens."You start off dressed like Kurt Cobain, with a t-shirt and a flannel, and from there you dress for hunting chic: a hunting jacket, maybe a little camo with just a little orange for flair. Then you gotta get your big coat on because you never know when your car’s gonna break down." Food is also integral to the ensemble. "I would also have some jerky in your pocket at all times, and cheese curds to give to people you randomly see on the street," says Berens. "You always wanna come offering presents.”
What to eat in the Midwest (besides jerky, cheese curds, and deer)
“Supper Clubs are huge in the Midwest," says Berens. "Get yourself to a fish fry." He recommends the walleye but acknowledges that some people might prefer perch. "After that you’re gonna have hot dish or casserole. They are different, and we go through the nuances in this book. But the average Joe can use the two interchangeably."
And to start the day—or end it—there's Kringle. "Kringle is a Wisconsin breakfast cake situation. The easiest way to describe it is that it’s a little heaven in your mouth. In the same way people die and they experience heaven for a moment—you’ve heard about those near death experiences—and they try to explain it and you don’t get it? Same with Kringle. You don’t really know until you eat it. And then you know that God does exist."
Important regional terminology
If you're a clumsy sort, "Ass over tea kettle," will come in handy. "That means I tripped," says Berens. "If you stick your foot in a walleye hole and go ass over teakettle, that means you were ice-fishing, you stepped in a fishing hole, and you tripped."
And "screwed the pooch" is not as taboo as it sounds. "It just means I made a mistake," explains Berens. "I don’t wanna go into the history of where that phrase came from, but it’s pretty benign."
And then some basics: "Yous guys" (plural for “you guys”) and "bubbler." "That is a device used to drink water. Some people say why don’t you use 'water fountain,' but that is where we go to get change for the meter."
Places to visit in the Midwest
"I’m a big state park guy," says Berens. "There’s just so much beauty off the highway that is well-hidden. I would definitely say the Driftless Area of Wisconsin is one of the coolest areas in the Midwest. This is the area that the glacier missed and so it kind of looks like Ireland if you’ve had enough Old Fashioneds," (another Wisconsin fave, except they make it with brandy. Add that to the list.)
And then, get weird. "The Mars Cheese Castle in Kenshoa is a must," says Berens. "Also the Brat Stop. If you go to Brainerd, Minnesota, you’ve got the biggest Paul Bunyon. He’s got his hand outstretched and you can sit in his hand. And you gotta see the Chatty Belle in Nielsville. That’s a big ceramic cow you put a quarter in and she talks to you."
How to make friends
“Just walk the street and say hi to everybody. Because they’re gonna say hi to you," says Berens. "And then just say, 'what kind of a dog is that.'"
What to take when visiting someone’s lakehouse
“Bring ‘em beer. Bring ‘em jerky. Bring ‘em cheese. Bring ‘em a casserole. You know, if you come in empty-handed, let ‘em know you’ve left a casserole in the freezer. They probably already have thirteen in there, so they won’t know the difference.”
How to say “Goodbye, take care.”
“Watch out for deer.”