Story and Photography by Joe Laedtke
Bento Boxes at the Beach
There is, perhaps, nothing more distinctly Milwaukee than a summer day spent enjoying Cooler By The Lake. While the land lubbers a few miles inland are sweating like farm animals, slumped over oscillating fans and looking longingly at their obstinate thermostats, those in the know, the city-hip with their board shorts and tank tops and Golden Retrievers on red braided leashes, have abandoned the heat island of blacktop and bungalow and hauled their cookies to the beach.
These are metaphoric cookies we’re talking about here—no room for Twix or Twinkies when one is looking for the ultimate lunch fashion statement. Fear not, fair beachgoer, and don’t sweat your zinc oxide off. There is hope! Enter the bento box.
This traditional symbol of Japanese lunch-on-the-run has become a fixture in American cafeterias and lunchrooms as of late, and the appeal is apparent: portion control, distinct compartments to keep food separate, flexible layouts and robust construction. These qualities make bento boxes incredibly well-suited to a day enjoying our freshwater bounties.
How we packed our bento
With a nod to traditional Japanese cuisine and Bento themes, we commissioned David Lau and Guy Roeseler of Ono Kine Grindz in Wauwatosa to create a masterpiece. The contents build off of the time-tested bento standbys—meats, rice and pickled veggies—but with a distinctly Hawaiian twist. Here’s what David and Guy recommend:
- Purple sticky rice (There’s not much space in a bento, so you have to be efficient. Our rice is under the meats in the main compartment.)
- Char Siu chicken
- Kalua pork
- Hawaiian macaroni and potato salad
- Carrot and pineapple li hing salad
- Wakame seaweed salad
- Tuna poke with spring and white onion
Tiffin Carriers on a Trek
The clanging of Indian dabbas must be a common cacophony around Mumbai, but Milwaukee hasn’t seen the likes of armies of dabbawalas, or lunchbox delivery men, just yet. Still, the beautiful ballet of stainless steel lunchboxes ant-marching across the Indian landscape isn’t lost on us, with our active, traveling lives, and need for sustenance away from home.
The beauty of the tiffin carrier (so named for the British-Indian midday snack) is in it’s devil-may-care rugged handsomeness. Constructed to withstand hundreds of grueling trips on Indian mass transit, it is a beacon of flight-ready dinner defense—individual steel canisters interlock with a snapping latch to keep contents safe and sound, and still warm a few hours later.
How we packed our tiffin
We headed over at Bombay Sweets on Milwaukee’s South side, and talked with Jay Kumar, son of the proprietors Narinder and Babita Kumar. Jay tutored us in tiffin packing, and soon we were awash in spicy curry bliss. Here’s what Jay designated for our tiffin:
- Roti (soft wheat flatbread)
- Saag paneer (spinach with homemade cheese)
- Vegetable korma (mixed veggies in a sauce of cream, herbs, and cashews)
- Rice pullao (basmati rice mixed with mild spices, peas, and nuts)
Representing Bombay Sweets, Jay couldn’t let us leave without some amazing desserts as well:
- Jalebi (a deep-fried, syrup soaked pretzel-shaped slice of the divine)
- Stuffed gulab jamun (a deep fried ball made with homemade cheese, stuffed with crème)
- Stuffed chomchom (made with paneer, sugar, and sometimes saffron, stuffed with crème)
- Rasmali (paneer balls bobbing in a sweetened, thickened mixture of cream)
- Peda (milk and fudge—all you need to know.)
- Petha (ethereally translucent candied ash gourd)
Picnic at the Park
Serenity, peace of mind and oneness with nature are just a few of the things that can be found in one of the over 140 nearby city- and county parks. Pastoral green swaths across our great urban landscape. You may find, though, as you’re hiking up the walls of an old gravel quarry at Hawthorne Glen, exploring the history of early Milwaukee fishing communities at Kaszube’s Park, or marveling in the horticultural masterwork in the Mitchell Park Domes, that hunger is a foe to be wary of. All of that outdoorsy-ness works up an appetite.
The intrepid park-goer in Milwaukee knows the secret to keeping their strength up is in the picnic basket: an oft-overlooked, but delightfully retro vestige of leisurely summer days past. Within its wicker bounds hides a veritable bounty, perhaps a staid luncheon of fried chicken, bread and fresh fruit, or even a romantic meal to be relished by the side of the Washington Park Lagoon. However you pack it, the old-fashioned picnic basket still holds a few modern tricks.
How we packed our picnic basket
No wimpy brown bags for Edible Milwaukee, mind you. We went straight to Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson at Larry’s Market in Brown Deer to set us on the path to picnic basket righteousness—and they didn’t disappoint. Beautifully appointed, rich in content and flavor, Larry’s Market baskets offered a beach blanket banquet worthy of the finest park system in America:
- Cheese and paté tray
- Cooked and peeled gulf shrimp
- Sliced medium-rare tenderloin with horseradish cream
- Crisp fresh salad
- Fresh fruit (we went overboard and added ours to the champagne glasses)
- Individual flourless chocolate cakes
- Something bubbly
Joe Laedtke is a photographer native to Milwaukee. He grew up in a cozy Milwaukee Bungalow in Washington Heights, and now spends most of his time trying to wrangle in the boundless energy of his tuxedo cat, Theo. When not prying kitten claws out of his head, he’s enjoying his vinyl LP collection or honing his Cantonese cooking skills.