A sausage other than summer sausage truly defines Sheboygan. As the signs say when you drive into the city: “Bratwurst Capital of the World.” At a time when few in the country knew what bratwurst was, everybody in Sheboygan ate it. Our family certainly did. It was our Sunday dinner, eaten midday, at least every other weekend. Cooking it was the father’s job. It was always grilled over charcoal, never cooked in the stove or a frying pan. The father built a grill in the backyard beyond the detached garage. He poured a foundation, laid bricks in a rectangle to waist height with a door in front to scoop out ashes, placed iron bars for a grill, and then, for reasons unbeknownst to me, added over the back of the grill a chimney that went to six feet. All this was for bratwurst. Chicken, pork chops, and T-bones were cooked in the kitchen, and those steaks and chops were always, always well done. The grill was a monument to bratwurst, which in Sheboygan was well understood.
The grill, however, had a problem. That chimney did not draw well. Instead of accepting the smoke, it often expelled it forward into the face of the father. He was a great problem-solver with physical objects, and he made modification after modification, but the chimney won out.
That lack of drawing power also made it hard sometimes to light the charcoal. He did not use lighter fluid. The father regarded that as dangerous, but perhaps more important, lighter fluid, he thought, could impart a residual taste to the bratwurst. Instead, he started the fire with wood kindling, and when the contraption was not drawing well, he could have some problems. It took awhile to get the briquettes (who knew from lump charcoal back then?) to the desired white ashy state.
When I said we had bratwurst at least every other week growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I did not mean just in good weather. We had brats cooked on the father’s grill even in the dead of winter. The father bundled up against the cold, pulled on over-the-shoe galoshes (we didn’t say boots) closed with buckles and carried out the sausages, a pot with an inch of beer in the bottom that was placed at the back of the grill into which the cooked bratwurst were dropped to keep them warm until the rest were completely done—no underdone pork in this household—and water for flareups. Flareups were common when a sausage casing was pierced and fat—oh, yes, those brats had fat—dripped onto the coals. Flames shooting up were quickly followed by various imprecations and oaths from the father. (I worked with casings at the butcher shop. A large bucket in the walk-in refrigerator held a tangled bucket of guts in a brine. I would tug and unravel one strand until I found its starting point. I then attached it to a faucet and ran water through the intestine, or whatever it was, until liquid squirted out. I then cut the casing before and after the hole. I carefully arranged the section that I had proofed and attached the new end to the faucet and began again. Plunging my hands into forty-degree, heavily salted water made them cold, puckered, and almost unusable for hours afterwards, but I suppose I can boast that in a little way I have been a bratwurst maker.)
The brats my father cooked were eaten inside a semmel, a hard, crusty roll with a soft interior (think Kaiser roll) with an indentation down the middle that made it easy to divide it. Double brat = whole semmel. Single brat = half. The rolls were warmed in an oven while the brats cooked. We put ketchup on the sandwich. A few Sheboyganites used mustard. Onions, cooked or raw, and pickles could be placed on top of the bratwurst. I don’t ever remember tomatoes or lettuce.
Notice no mention of mayonnaise. On the not-yet-spouse’s first visit to the ancestral home, bratwurst was presented. She in ignorance asked for mayonnaise. Dead silence for two reasons. The family could not imagine mayo with bratwurst; it was too heretical for us even to imagine. (Perhaps akin to someone in New York wanting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich.) And we did not own mayonnaise. On many sandwiches we spread butter. (Good radishes placed between slices of bread slathered with butter was, and continues to be, a favorite. Gabrielle Hamilton sometimes had radishes and butter on her Prune menu. I like to think that I beat her to that delight.) After a lengthy pause, the not-yet-spouse was offered Miracle Whip, which was in our tiny refrigerator but almost never used, and she looked as if she were going to gag. I don’t remember how she ate her bratwurst.
(concluded June 8)