Science is everywhere, even at a Friday night fish fry.
That’s the message of a new event this Friday called “Science of Supper Clubs,” part of the four-day Wisconsin Science Festival held at various venues around the state.
“Science is in everything, probably something that you’re passionate about,” said Laura Heisler, the festival director. “We have a physics of football activity, the science of chocolate. Whether or not you realize it, science is an important part of your life.”
That includes the Wisconsin supper club tradition, from the pickles on the relish tray to the maraschino cherry in an Old Fashioned cocktail.
“I’ve been describing it as Taste of Madison meets science exhibition,” Heisler said.
The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is the hub for the fourth annual Wisconsin Science Festival, though events take place all over the city and state.
Organizers have discovered that what brings people out on a Friday night can be different than a Saturday afternoon.
“One thing that worked really well for our first festival was we had (psychology professor) Richie Davidson and (musician) Ben Sidran do a joint performance,” Heisler said.
“It was part neurology lecture, part meditation, part jazz concert. That worked really well.
“What worked less well was last year we had a Nobel laureate in chemistry give a talk with an artist he’s collaborated with. People came, but it was more information and less what I would call ‘edutainment.’
“I think edutainment works really well, and straight up lectures which might be perfectly appropriate on a Thursday afternoon, are not necessarily what people are going to do on a Friday night.”
Science of Supper Clubs opens with a musical happy hour from 5-6:30 p.m., part of an ongoing series called SoundWaves that combines music and science.
There will be beer for sale, a performance by the Wind Eagle Singers, a Menominee ensemble from Green Bay, and quick chats with professors of soil science, anthopology and zoology about “What Makes Wisconsin Wisconsin.”
At 6 p.m. the tasting starts. Attendees who want to get all the food — cod fish fry, a mini iceberg wedge salad, “cider kissed” coleslaw, deviled eggs and baked macaroni and cheese — must purchase a $12 ticket in advance. If you’re content to browse, though, that’s free.
This portion, held all over the first floor, will have the feel of an eighth-grade science fair, more a “trade show format ... than people delivering lectures,” said Heidi Zoerb, assistant dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).
“There is a huge amount of science behind everything we eat, we just don’t spend very much time thinking about that,” Zoerb said. “The nice thing about the supper club theme is it gives a parameter — it’s not every single food in the world.”
Among the tables will be vegetable breeding scientists talking about carrots and beets, an associate professor talking about Wisconsin-grown potatoes, meat scientists, a food science professor from dairy research talking about cheese curds, even a geneticist with an interest in wild yeast and beer.
Babcock Hall Dairy will be offering samples of “Happy Cranniversary,” vanilla ice cream with cranberry swirls and whole dried cranberries created for CALS’ 125th anniversary.
“We have an alum of the college who runs a maraschino cherry factory in California,” Zoerb said. “He’ll be on hand with a lot of maraschino cherries to tell the story of where the maraschino cherry comes from, which of course is a key ingredient in an Old Fashioned.”
A related event at the Steenbock’s on Orchard bar called “Science of the Old Fashioned” sold out quickly, and will involve instruction in muddling and, of course, tasting.
Finally, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Book Festival, three Badger state authors will present “Fish Fries and Rib-Eyes and Highballs, Oh My!: The History and Lore of Supper Clubs in Wisconsin” starting at 8 p.m.
Panelists include Terese Allen, a longtime local food writer of “The Flavor of Wisconsin” and the Wisconsin Local Foods Journal, Ron Faiola, who wrote “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old Fashioned Experience” in 2013, and Robin Shepard, who has written several beer-centric books and writes “Beer Here” for the Isthmus.
“When people talk about supper clubs, they don’t only talk about the menu,” Zoerb said. “They talk about the decor and the culture around supper clubs.
“I think the three authors are going to be able to nicely address those kinds of questions.”
Ultimately, Heisler and Zoerb want to make the Science Festival both something fun for science lovers and a launchpad to other parts of the university’s scientific resources, from greenhouses to dairy research.
“This is fun and it says ‘Friday night’ to you, and yet is a little bit more than just going down the street to get a fish fry,” Heisler said. It’s about “connecting people with their curiosity, enriching their awareness of what science is.” ￼