In my returns to Sheboygan after I moved east, I would note changes—some building gone, a reconfiguration of the downtown, a new motel on the Lake—but even so, it seemed the same. It was always a town predominated by modest single family homes with a few double deckers (we lived in one where my paternal grandparents lived on the second floor), and a few low-rise apartment buildings with the tallest structure, an office building, at seven stories. Well maintained houses and lawns on respectably-sized, but not extravagant, lots and churches of many different denominations. Sheboygan has a motto: “The City of Cheese, Chairs, Children, and Churches.” The chairs part of the slogan referred to the many furniture factories. I got a second-hand, full-length mirror for my Brooklyn bedroom long after I left Wisconsin. When I hung it, I was surprised and pleased that on the back a stamp said that it was made in Sheboygan. Brooklyn, New York, where I have lived a half century, had a motto before it was incorporated into New York City: “The City of Churches.” I first learned that from the Buddy Hackett character (miscast?) in the movie of The Music Man. It must say something, but I don’t know what, that I have spent my life surrounded by, but not in, churches.
Sheboygan always seemed unchanged partly because it never seemed to grow or shrink. Its population was about 45,000 when I grew up and has only a few thousand more residents today. It was, and is, overwhelmingly white, although now it has a significant Asian population after Hmong people settled there, and about half of Sheboyganites, including me, could trace at least part of their ancestry to Germany. That meant beer and bars. The town always had many, many neighborhood taverns. That heritage also meant sausages.
When I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, many butcher shops dotted the town, and each butcher made sausages. My mother worked in a small grocery store. Attached to it was a separately owned butcher shop where we got our meat. I don’t remember its name, but it gave me my first jobs—sweeping and later delivering orders in the owner’s Studebaker with a three-speed stick shift on the column at which I was not very good.
That butcher shop also gave me my first food epiphany. Outside the butcher shop was a smokehouse, and when I was four or five the butcher took me into it. Most of the smoke was gone but it was still warm from the smoking. Hanging all around me was baloney after baloney, some in circles and some straight. The butcher took one down, pulled out a knife, and cut a chunk. He extended it to me and said, “Eat. You won’t find anything better.” I ate. It was drippingly juicy. It was warm. It was smokey. It was fragrant. And it was delicious. I could not find anything better. I may have found food sensuous before, but I certainly did after that.
The butcher may have made kinds of sausages, but the family primarily got two. The first was summer sausage, which always made a great snack and sometimes was diced into scrambled eggs. It puckered into a little cup when thrown into a hot frying pan. I always thought that in the restaurant I am never going to run I would serve a poached egg on top of a round of fried summer sausage.
I also learned about my family from that butcher shop. Sent to the store when I was eight to buy a summer sausage, I went to the counter and told the butcher that I wanted one. He said, “With or without?” I had no idea what he was asking and being incredibly shy and not wanting to show my ignorance, I hesitatingly said, “With.” He saw that I was flustered and asked, “Is it for your mother or grandmother?” When I said that it was for my mother, he replied, “Your grandmother likes it with garlic. Your mother, without.” Garlic. I may have heard the word but did not know what it was. We never had garlic. If Gilroy, California, had been dependent on the likes of us, it would have disappeared. But I learned that my grandmother did eat garlic. I did not know what to make of that revelation. What other secrets did she have?
Although I try to avoid it now for health reasons, I continue to love summer sausage. (Why is it that someone my age has concerns about what to eat? Even if I cut off ten percent of my expected longevity, it isn’t much.) Every so often, the NBP has given me some summer sausage for Christmas, and I get excited. I vow to ration it carefully, but before the sun has set three times, it is gone. On the last trip to Wisconsin, to celebrate the sister’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, we did not stay in Sheboygan but nearby at a resort on Elkhart Lake, where I had spent many days in my youth. I wanted the spouse and NBP to see what a Wisconsin lake was like, and they loved it. On our way back to the Milwaukee airport, we stopped in Port Washington, best known to me as the town halfway between Sheboygan and Milwaukee, for lunch. As we walked about the downtown looking for a likely restaurant, I peered through the windows of a butcher shop and saw stacks and rings of sausages. I was inside in an instant and bought a long summer sausage. I felt a bit conspicuous boarding the plane with that three-footer, but it was worth it.
(continued June 5)