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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cultural Stronghold

Elegant farming in Mukwonago

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Youreally can’t miss it. A giant smiley face painted on the eastern facade of a massive yellow barn peeks over the rolling countryside from its long-standing location at the intersection of County Roads ES and J in Mukwonago. The Elegant Farmer has humble roots as a fruit and vegetable stand that brothers Dave and Elmer Scheel began to operate in 1947 to supplement their dairy farm. By the early 1950s, business at the seasonal roadside stand was brisk enough to build a permanent year-round market.

In 1958, the Scheel brothers sold their herd of dairy cows to concentrate solely on their burgeoning business, the newly named Davelmer Market. Elmer’s son Dan and his wife, Karen, inherited the market in 1970 and changed the market’s name to The Elegant Farmer. It was this second generation of Scheels who grew the simple country market into a thriving combination of farm kitchen, deli, bakery and garden center.

After visitors pass through a pair of refurbished silos to enter The Elegant Farmer, they are greeted by a wooden sign that reads, “Enter as Strangers. Leave as Friends.” The market’s physical layout is designed in such a way that customers must walk through The Elegant Farmer’s voluminous selection of necessities and luxuries to get to the checkout. Wooden shelves are stocked with dry goods like unpopped kernels of corn, bags of flavored popcorn, honey, syrups, spices, mixes and homemade jams, jellies and applesauce. Next are the refrigerated deli cases featuring national and international cheeses and spreads, as well as a nice selection of locally purchased meat. It’s here you can find The Elegant Farmer’s signature CiderBaked Boneless Ham, pork that has been cured in apple cider before being hickory smoked.

The Farm Kitchen serves up delectable homemade soups, salads and sandwiches that can be carried out or enjoyed in the small dining area. From a list of 15 soups, two are served daily and a selection is available in the frozen foods section. Sandwiches are built with homemade breads (garlic Parmesan, sauerkraut rye, honey wheat, carrot and Kaiser rolls) and layered with ample portions of cheese and deli meat. Forgo the chips and pickle and opt instead for one of the kitchen’s homemade salads, like the voluptuous and creamy German potato salad.

Further on is the produce section and freezers that hold bags of locally grown vegetables, and sweet treats like ice cream and berry cider licks. At this point, the rich smells wafting from the industrious bakery entice you to move forward to the jumbo cookies (they measure about 6 inches in diameter!) and fresh fruit muffins, breads, crisps and pies.

Out of everything, however, it is The Elegant Farmer’s Apple Pie Baked in a Paper Bag that has elevated them to dessert-dynasty status. According to John Bauer, who, with Mike Bauer and Keith Schmidt became The Elegant Farmer’s third generation of owners in 2005, The Gourmet Farmer sells from 175,000 to 200,000 apple pies a year.

“A major key is that we only use fresh apples, either from our orchard or a farm in Michigan, that have never been frozen,” Bauer explains. “Enclosed in the bag, the crust is protected while the apples are stewed, resulting in a crust that tastes like a sugar cookie.”

The Elegant Farmer also bakes other pies in a paper bag, like caramel apple, peachy apple and rhubarb apple, as well as seasonal favorites like blueberry apple and strawberry apple.

In an era when corporate agribusiness takes the heart out of growing and harvesting the food we eat, businesses like The Elegant Farmer, which celebrate the growth and harvest of the food we enjoy, become not only an important symbol, but a stronghold of traditional farming culture.

Located at 1545 Main St., Mukwonago. (262) 363-6770.
Open September–May from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., June–August from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.