Just as there were many Sheboygan butcher shops in my youth making bratwurst, there were many neighborhood bakers making semmel, the rolls for the brats. Each butcher had his own blend of spices and secrets for making the pork sausages, and everybody maintained that their source produced the tastiest brats. My friends and I thought the bratwurst we ate were the best, but since I almost always ate bratwurst at home, as my friends did, we did not really have a base of knowledge for our bragging. We all just assumed that our moms bought the best.
Aside from festivals—oh, I will get to that—I remember eating bratwurst not bought at our local butcher twice. Johnny M. asked me to go to a Milwaukee Braves game with his parents. They may have thought that would be a treat for me, but since I was so shy around adults, it was torture. Mrs. M. had packed food featuring cold bratwurst. I thought that gross, perhaps even worse than mayonnaise on them. I had eaten leftover brats many times, but ours were always heated in the pot with beer.
The family did get an irresistible bratwurst yearning sometimes when it was not Sunday and we were not geared up for our own grilling. The answer was to go to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a commercial street, the Come On Inn. It had three or four counter stools and a perpetual charcoal fire. They may have had something besides bratwurst, but that is all I remember. We would get brats to take home, the only takeout we ever got. I don’t believe the Come On Inn got their brats from our butcher, but they tasted good.
I do know, however, that all brats were not the same. At least one butcher made a beef brat so the Jewish population could participate in the Sheboygan tradition. It comes as a surprise to my New York friends that this little town in the Midwest had synagogues, but about ten percent of my school classes had Jewish children. (Jackie Mason, yes, that Jackie Mason was born in Sheboygan, but I believe he left at a young age.) In my circles, we were all friends no matter what the religion. I went to some bar mitzvahs, but that does not mean that we understood much about Judaism except that every so often the Jewish kids were not in school because of some holiday not known to the rest of us. I ran for president of the high school, and Barry Goodstein was my campaign manager. (His personal slogan was, “The only Goodstein is a full one.”) I won. (I wanted to win but only for the glory not the job and was a terrible president.) My mother, who really wanted me to be senior class president because that person gave a speech at the high school graduation and she could then gloat at the ceremony about her son, wanted to celebrate my election. We invited Barry. We, of course, served bratwurst, but we had no idea that he could not eat our brats. Instead, after ours were cooked, Barry scraped and scoured our grill and cooked sausages he had brought. We felt awkward.
While the butchers might have produced slightly different sausages from each other, I never heard any discussion of which bakery made the best semmel. They were regarded the same no matter which of the many bakeries they came from. The mother bought the bratwurst; the father bought the rolls on the Sunday mornings. The father brought the siblings and me to Sunday School at our church at nine o’clock and picked us up afterwards. He went to the bakery. He did not then go home, but to his local bar. You might have to be a Sheboyganite to understand the joys of a tavern at nine on a Sunday morning. (Perhaps another time I will tell you about the time when I was home from college or law school and the father and I got more than a little tipsy playing pool at Dick’s Club while having draft beers and shots of brandy on a Sunday morning. It was a bonding moment as we tried to hide our state from the mother as we ate bratwurst when we went home.)
I grew up with bratwurst. So did everyone in Sheboygan. Sheboygan was famous for bratwurst. Throughout the state in those days when there were no national purveyors of the sausage, restaurants would advertise that they were serving authentic Sheboygan bratwurst. The local movers and shakers (not my family) thought the town should capitalize on its fame, and the Jaycees, when I was eight, started Bratwurst Day. The festivities were centered downtown at Fountain Park. Not surprisingly, that block-square park had a fountain. It also had a band shell and bubblers—of course, you know what those are; if not, ask a Wisconsinite of a certain age—and a spigot for “mineral water,” regarded by some as healthy. People would fill up jugs to take home. The water tasted to me as if it had been stored in a rusted cast iron pot for several winters and then unwashed socks were dunked in it.
I don’t know what Bratwurst Day is like now. It has been more than fifty years for me, but I gather it caused a bit of a brouhaha when professionals entered the brat-eating contest to grab the $1,000 prize. Perhaps still now, but back then, the Miss Sheboygan contest was held on that day. She may have been crowned Miss Sheboygan, but it was hard not to call her Miss Bratwurst. Make what jokes that you will.
In my youth, bratwurst was a local thing, but now, of course, bratwurst can be found just about anywhere, often under the Johnsonville brand. Johnsonville is a village in Sheboygan County about fifteen miles from the great metropolis. The Johnsonville company, located there, does not play up the Sheboygan connection. No one I knew growing up ate Johnsonville brats. They weren’t authentic Sheboygan bratwurst.