Those who did not have the good fortune to grow up in Wisconsin tend to play down its gastronomic charms as minimal, limited to cheap beer and government surplus cheese. That’s because they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re probably envious as well. You see, dining in Wisconsin isn’t just about the food; it’s also about a certain sense of comfort and happiness based in relaxing with, and feeling close to, your people – what we would call gemütlichkeit. You don’t have to be ethnically German to understand gemütlichkeit; just being from, or in, southeastern Wisconsin will get you there. Gemütlichkeit is the reason Summerfest happens in Milwaukee and not, say, Seattle, and why the University of Wisconsin has the greatest student union in America. It’s why no one minds waiting in line for sausages at Usinger’s, and random strangers will invite you to crash a party – and really mean it. It’s not really a Midwestern thing, either. Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is so much more gemütlich than other Midwestern locales that I found Minnesotans closed-off and positively chilly when I moved there.
Possibly the archetypical, most gemütlich, Wisconsin food is bratwurst, which translates in German either to “pan fried sausage” or “finely chopped meat sausage.” This description obviously doesn’t distinguish bratwurst from most other sausages, but if you’ve ever had a good brat, you know exactly what to expect – the snap of the casing, the cascade of juice, the aroma of mace and marjoram spicing up the pork and veal. It’s usually fairly coarse in texture, sometimes finer, but you always should be able to discern the texture of the meat; if it’s emulsified like a hot dog, it’s not a brat. And while we’re on the subject, it’s pronounced “braht,” like “father,” not “brat” like “apple,” or like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat.”
Brats are social food, the sort of thing you eat in the company of others, not like a sad box of Fruit Loops you eat by the handful in the car, alone. They can be pan-fried, of course, but the other standard Milwaukee preparation is to poach the sausages in beer enriched with onions and maybe butter until cooked through, and then grill over charcoal just long enough for the skins to brown, just shy of blistered. This ritual typically takes place in backyard Weber kettles, on the never-cleaned picnic area grills in the Milwaukee County Parks, or in the parking lot of County Stadium* both before and after the game. The centrality of bratwurst, and basically all sausages, to Milwaukee culture is reflected in the Sausage Race at the top of the sixth in every Brewers home game. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the Sausage Race pits people dressed as the culturally significant sausages of Milwaukee – a brat, a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, a hot dog, and a chorizo (the last two having joined the race in the last decade) – in a footrace around the stadium. The Sausage Race is highly gemütlich, providing Brewers fans a rallying point during games and uniting them around a common love of multiethnic tube meats, even while providing a source of friendly competition.**
I recently recounted to my husband a 2013 incident involving the heist of Guido, the Italian racing sausage. If you don’t recall Weenie Gate, you never heard the story in the first place, because it’s not the sort of thing one forgets. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, “The 7-foot-long weenie was lying unused in a backroom at the Milwaukee Curling Club. …[A] witness saw the sausage walk out of the south door about 7:45 p.m.” In the subsequent week, the giant foam sausage made its unauthorized rounds about Cedarburg, drinking PBRs, jamming at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, and signing autographs, before being returned by an unidentified hood-wearing man who entered TJ Ryan’s, deposited Guido on a barstool, said “You did not see anything” to the bartender, and strolled out. My husband, who has as keen an insight into Milwaukee’s essence as any non-native, immediately identified the parallels with another famous episode of gemütlichkeit gone bad: the ill-conceived “Martinifest” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In characteristic Milwaukee fashion, revelers drank so excessively that they soon engaged in such completely debauched group behavior as mounting and riding the Gaston Lachaise bronze of a standing woman. One might question why, especially in a city as soaked in alcohol and fun-loving criminality as Milwaukee, anyone thought unlimited martinis for $30 was a good idea. Perhaps the Texas-based corporate sponsor lacked the necessary cultural awareness.****
The most famed bratwurst in Wisconsin come not from Milwaukee but from Sheboygan, about an hour north on Lake Michigan. The other thing that happens in Sheboygan is chartered fishing expeditions for brown trout and Chinook salmon, but that’s another story. It’s a cute town. One time, my parents went up on an impromptu day trip without telling me and, when I came home from university for the weekend, I had to break into my own house. It’s pretty uncool when the neighbors call the cops because they see someone’s legs hanging out your kitchen window and those legs happen to belong to you.
Sheboyganites get kind of tense if you talk of poaching their brats in beer before grilling, they way we do in Milwaukee. They consider it an amateur move. I don’t know about that, but beer-poaching tends to make for plumper sausages, and soften the skins a little so they burst less readily during grilling. Anyway, don’t overcomplicate your sausage-making – no need for special modernist twists, just straightforward grinding and stuffing. There is a time and place for esoteric ingredients and complex technique in cooking, but making bratwurst is not that time. Let it be about good quality meat with a decent amount of fat, and a liberal quantity of both sweet and hot spices. Making sausage with at least one other person – who can turn the crank on the stuffer or even just hang out and work the bottle opener – is more fun than doing it alone.
950g veal shoulder
1350g pork shoulder (including a generous fat cap comprising about 1/4 the total weight of the meat)
7g each black pepper and white pepper
5g crushed red pepper flakes
3 tbsp chopped marjoram
1 1/2 tsp smoked granulated garlic
1 1/4 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Dice the meats and spread on a sheet pan. Incidentally, meat proportions here are not really crucial (I set out a 3:2 ratio of fatty pork to veal, but if veal is too expensive or unavailable, you could decrease the amount of veal, or go with all pork, for example). If your pork shoulder is mostly lean, substitute some fresh belly or fatback. Freeze until firm, but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients.
Toss with the frozen cubed meat and grind through a medium die. Add about 175g (2/3 c) ice water and mix lightly by hand just to distribute evenly. This is not an emulsified sausage so don’t beat in the water.
Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Cook within the next 3 days. If you don’t intend to use all your brats within that time, freeze on a silpat-lined sheet pan until solid and then vacuum pack in bags.
Note: If you have access to really small-diameter natural casings (18-20 mm), such as one uses to make breakfast links, you can make something very similar to the famous Nuremberger Bratwurst (Nürnberger Bratwürste). Change the ratio of veal and pork to 1:2 (about 33% veal to 67% pork), and omit the black pepper, garlic, and red chile flake. Pinch off at 8 mm intervals and, after grilling, serve three to a roll.
For beer bratwurst:
Per 6 bratwurst:
2 bottles German-style pilsner or some similar beer
1 large onion, sliced thinly pole-to-pole
2 bay leaves
about a dozen black peppercorns and a few whole allspice
2-3 tbsp butter
Combine all the ingredients in a pan with a lid and add the bratwurst. Bring to just short of a simmer (about 82C/180F) and cover. Don’t let the liquid boil or even simmer visibly or the casings will burst. Turn over, using tongs or even just a spoon, after about 8 minutes. Cook another 8 minutes or so until completely cooked through. Handle carefully to avoid piercing or otherwise damaging the sausage casings.
Remove to a plate and rest for about 5 minutes to dry out the casings. Finish over medium heat in an oiled pan, or on a well-oiled grill over indirect heat. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat or your brats will burst. They may take longer to cook than you like, but just have another beer and don’t worry about it.
Serve in a split crusty roll brushed with melted butter, thinly sliced onion (rinsed in cold water and drained), and dill pickle slices, and lots of mustard, or with German fried potatoes (bratkartoffeln) and some kind of cabbage product. If you go the sandwich route, know that eating brats two aside in a roll is considered normal Wisconsin behavior and not degenerate or unduly gluttonous.
Extra: Hard rolls
Wisconsinites are an easygoing people and not doctrinaire in most matters. Except when it comes to bratwurst. Opinions vary whether yellow mustard and ketchup are ever appropriate (certain hardass types say no, but reasonable people can disagree), and as noted above, there exists a beer/no beer parcooking divide. The one universal point of agreement is a categorical ban on the use of hot dog buns. You need a sturdy roll, crusty on the outside and airy within, to soak up the brat juices and still retain its integrity. If you do it wrong, you will be shunned.
Unless you live in Wisconsin, your supermarket bakery is unlikely to carry the right kind of roll. These hard rolls are a basic bread you can make at home in under three hours, most of which is rising time.
350g bread flour
6g barley malt powder
175g warm water
40g olive oil
Combine all ingredients but the salt and knead (by hand or in stand mixer with dough hook) until smooth and not sticky to touch. Knead in the salt and place in a deep bowl or lidded container. Cover the bowl tightly and rise an hour or until doubled. Heat oven to 400F.
Divide into 6 balls and form into ovals. Press to flatten slightly and mark vertically through the center with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place on a lined sheet pan sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and rise until puffy.
Spray with a fine water mist, place in the oven, and spray the walls of the oven with water. Bake for about 20-22 minutes until deep golden. About five minutes after putting in the rolls, mist the walls of the oven again.
* I’m aware it’s supposedly called Miller Park now. I’m not used to that name, much like the city airport in Washington DC is and always will be National Airport.
** As the fame of the racing sausages spread, other major league ballparks adopted the use of comically oversized foam racing icons. The Pirates were first to emulate Milwaukee, with the racing pierogies, and the Nationals of course have the Presidents’ Race. This is not the first time Milwaukee set a trend rooted in gemütlichkeit. In the late Seventies, a local songwriter penned a promotional tune for Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate (WISN) extolling the virtues of the city, especially its “thousand yesterdays,” “magic ways,” and how “we’re all good neighbors passing by.” I remember all the words as every third grader in the WISN viewing area ultimately was forced to sing it at spring concerts for the next three years. In any case, the song, “Hello Milwaukee,” was co-opted by 167 cities around the United States and Canada in the ensuing years. I’m sure the residents of each of these cities thought the song was their own, but it isn’t. It’s ours. You’re welcome.
*** Published pursuant to Wikimedia Commons License.
**** In any case, Scientific American used Martinifest as a case study for how not to conduct a fundraiser in any proximity to valuable works of art. Milwaukee is pleased to contribute to these advances in scientific research.