When I was growing up in Milwaukee in the Seventies, my city was the epicenter of American prime time television culture, what with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and all. The interesting thing is it came by this fame not for displaying its contemporary charms, but by portraying a sort of idealized vision of a Fifties-era Milwaukee, evoking a sagging nation’s fondness for its own better days. If you doubt the prominence of Wisconsin in Seventies pop culture and its use as a nostalgic prop, I submit to you that, twenty years later, Fox set That Seventies Show not in New York or San Francisco or Southern California, but in my home state. As viewed through the lens of television, the whole idea of Wisconsin is like standing in one of those bathrooms with a mirrored shower door opposite a mirrored wall. You can stand there and watch yourself traveling backwards through time into infinity.
Fairly or not, in any case, the Midwest as a whole has come to represent the situs of not only American nostalgia but a sort of anti-progress, looking backward at our past as though into the endless regression of those reflected mirror images. Is it true – that we stand still while time eddies around us? Does it matter? Which brings me to South Dakota, where I recently spent a week driving around with a colleague, another transplanted Midwesterner now living on the east coast.
Here’s the thing about living in the city: it can turn you into a glutton for novelty and status. You get to the point where you always order the one unfamiliar item on the menu, which you have scanned for words like tripe, foraged, and hay-smoked to ensure the chef, like you, has been doing his homework. Securing a cronut comes with bragging rights, until that sudden moment when they’re so over, as over as cupcakes and salted caramel, fodder for copycatting on mommy blogs and the Starbucks bakery case. You watch that Portlandia episode with an expanding sense of unease, like, are you this ridiculous? Maybe you are this ridiculous.
None of this is an issue in rural South Dakota. Your dining options are basically limited to truck stops and taverns, and you had better like beef, or you’re shit out of luck. One night during our visit, we ordered grilled ribeyes, which came with a trip to the salad bar. “You first,” I gestured to my colleague. He returned a few minutes later with a frosted glass plate of iceberg lettuce and what looked like macaroni salad. “Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned me in his low-key Michigander way, as I stood for my turn. Nestled beside the bowl of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce in the salad buffet was something I thought could be creamed mushrooms. For one demented, dissociative moment, I even thought it might be edible soil folded into mayonnaise. I took a big spoonful. It turned out to be crushed Oreos folded into vanilla pudding, which, I learned the next day, is called “cookie salad” locally and may be varied by substituting other cookies or candy bars for the Oreos, and Cool Whip for the pudding. “That sounds great,” my husband said later that night, when I gave him the post-game over the phone. “Not as salad, though.”
This is the kind of food that makes sophisticates on the coasts cast knowing glances of pity and scorn on their Midwestern associates. And plant foods are not the strong point of rural South Dakota at end-of-winter, based on our visit. But the ribeyes were deeply marked from the grill, rimmed in charred fat, and mine was the perfect medium rare I’d requested. The macaroni salad turned out to be a very good potato salad, the potato grated into long shreds and bound lightly in mayonnaise. Beers were icy, served in frosted mugs. Cookie salad notwithstanding, our dinner was the kind of thing – like grilled cheese or meat lasagne – most of us love when we’re not trying to keep up appearances. Sometimes moving forward is less important than standing perfectly still.
A good breakfast is a lot like a good dinner in the rural Midwest. It’s inherently retrograde – probably taking you back a couple of decades at least – and delivers total familiarity, not intellectual demands first thing in the morning. Maybe you deploy a few tricks here and there – your eggs are cooked in a water bath, your sausage is house-made – but always in the service of improvement, not novelty. Like Steve Austin. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. But also like Steve Austin, the perfect modern breakfast still basically looks like the breakfast you remember.
When I was a kid, I figured out pretty early that I could do almost anything I wanted during weekend mornings if I was quiet enough not to wake my parents. This awareness inevitably led me down one of two paths: slice upon slice of white sandwich bread, toasted one at a time and immediately spread with thin curls of cold salted butter; or eggs, either scrambled with slices of American cheese (one per egg), or beaten and poured into a swirling vortex of chicken bouillon until just set, like a fluffy, poached, chicken-flavored omelet. Both were eaten watching Super Friends while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter; both were always followed, once my parents came down a couple hours later, by what I liked to call “second breakfast.”
What follows is a modern breakfast interpretation of one of my favorite second breakfasts, over easy eggs with maple-y sausage links and bacon, toast on the side. The yolk should run somewhat; you accomplish this by cooking the egg until only the white is set, chilling, and wrapping the chilled egg in sausage. If you let the egg come to room temperature before frying, you probably will end up with a set (if soft-ish) yolk.
Transglutaminase is not strictly necessary. It binds the protein in the pork to that in the egg white, but you can achieve a pretty ok effect by rolling the eggs in flour. The downside to flour is it can form an unappetizing pastelike substance when it combines with the moisture in the pork, so use only the merest coating. And if you don’t keep quarts of bacon fat around the house, pretty much any vegetable oil will do, though your eggs won’t taste all that bacon-y.
For the eggs:
6 large eggs, at room temperature
Prepare an ice bath.
Bring 3000 ml (3 liters, about 3 qts) salted water to a boil. Carefully add the eggs. Cook just at the boil (not a rolling boil) for 4 1/2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and deposit in the ice bath. Once the eggs are just cool enough to handle, tap lightly all over to form shallow cracks, including at both ends. Allow the eggs to rest in the ice bath under refrigeration at least 3 hours. This allows the eggs to cool but also permits water to penetrate the cracks and loosen the shell.
When ready to coat in sausage, remove the shell. Store the eggs upright in an empty egg carton lined with clingfilm.
For the sausage:
700g/1.5 lbs pork shoulder, quite fatty (2:1 ratio shoulder to belly if a fatty cut of shoulder is not available)
2 1/4 tsp smoked salt
2 tbsp maple sugar
1/8 tsp pimentón
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
leaves from 3 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled
Cube the pork shoulder and season with the salt, sugar, pepper, and pimentón. Freeze briefly and then add the thyme leaves and thinly sliced garlic. Grind through a small die. Cook a test quenelle and add seasoning if necessary.
2-4 slices bacon, depending on thickness
4 g transglutaminase (Activa RM)
4 c bacon fat
1 c flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp water
2 c panko
Set the bacon slices on a rack over a quarter sheet pan and bake at 150C/300F for 8-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until the bacon, including its fat, is just cooked but not browned. Reduce heat to 82C/180F and continue to dry the bacon until crisp, about 3 hours. Not browning the bacon is important, as browned bacon will burn once fried later. Drain well on paper towels, cool, and grind to a powder. Combine with the panko. Up to this point, you may store the panko blend tightly covered for several days in the refrigerator.
On a large square of clingfilm, spread about 75g (around 3 ounces) sausage in a thin (about 3 mm) layer large enough to cover the egg evenly once completely rolled. Note: You should do a test run to get a sense of the size of the sausage layer before proceeding to the next step as mistakes cannot be undone without an adverse impact on texture.
Sprinkle transglutaminase over the sausage surface in a thin layer (about 1% by weight, so just over .5g per egg). Place an egg in the center and gather the clingfilm upwards, covering the surface of the egg with sausage. Twist to enclose completely and form into an ovaline ball; repeat until all the sausage and eggs are gone. It is best to place these in a muffin/popover tin as you work so they remain round while they chill. Chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.
Set up a standard three part breading station and heat the bacon fat to 163C/325F. Unwrap the sausage-covered eggs as you are ready to fry. Ensure the sausage is well attached to the egg; dip in the flour, the egg wash, then the panko-bacon mixture. Fry on each side for about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with rye toast for dipping in the runny yolk.
On the way home from South Dakota, I stopped at O’Hare. I never complain about laying over in O’Hare because I can stock up on Garrett’s cheese corn and have molletes at Tortas Frontera. This time, I added a cocktail to my routine. The bartender was kind enough to put it in a to go cup so I could use it to take the edge off my flight. Midwesterners are so thoughtful.
I’ve consumed many a michelada, but this was by far the best. I attribute it to the extra lime I requested. If you like drinking with breakfast at weekends, this is better than bloodies – more refreshing and far less drunk-making. I have no idea if this is how Frontera makes micheladas, but it tastes right.
Tajin* or Valentina fruit seasoning (Note: these are both dry seasonings of chile, lime, and salt and are pretty much the same. Excellent on melons, mango, and papaya. Substitute a chile salt)
One 12-ounce Negro Modelo or similar; Corona or PBR will do in a pinch
1 tsp or so Valentina hot sauce (specifically)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Maggi
Juice of two limes or one really juicy, large lime
Optional: between 1/2 and 1 shot tequila (NOT silver or blanco, and nothing really expensive)
Several ice cubes
Moisten the rim of a pint glass and dip in a plate with a shallow layer of Tajin.
In the glass, stir together the hot sauce, Worcestershire, Maggi, lime juice, and tequila if using. Add the ice cubes. Slowly pour in about 1/3 of the beer and stir gently just to combine. Add the rest of the beer. Drink with more lime.
*Note: The Tajin bottle bears an interesting warning: