A Sausage Made It Famous (continued)

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)

The Gracious Chefs (concluded)

In our early days in New York City, our exploration of cuisines in restaurants was largely limited to places like Alfredo’s and middle eastern places because that was all we could afford. The most famous eating places in New York, which generally had French food, were too expensive for us. And then we learned that many of these outstanding, beyond-our-means places had weekday prix fixe lunches, which, while not cheap, we could afford once in a great while.

A few times a year we would go to one. The spouse and I would work in the morning but take off the afternoon and meet at some well-regarded restaurant for a late lunch. After that we might head off to a gallery or museum. We considered it a mini-mini-vacation.

This once-in-a-while lunching at the top restaurants finally led us to Lutèce, then considered by many to be New York’s and, therefore the country’s, best restaurant. Located in an eastside townhouse, we were seated in a second-floor dining room where women with expensive pearls and men in expensive suits and, presumably, expense accounts sat.  I don’t remember all we ate, but we thought it was marvelous and as the dining room emptied, we talked over the exceptional dishes. And then we saw the man with the tied apron and the toque—the Alsatian-born chef-owner, and legend, André Soltner, considered to one the most important chefs in the world.

We knew that his peers held him in awe. This regard comes across from Gabrielle Hamilton, one of New York City’s most outstanding chefs with one of the City’s best restaurants, Prune. In her book, Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef she tells of the time her sister, an editor at a cooking magazine, cooked omelet’s with Soltner. Just his method of cracking open eggs was noteworthy to other professionals. (I can’t recommend Hamilton’s book too much and not just to foodies. The elegantly-written memoir is fascinating on many levels. On the other hand, if you don’t know her restaurant, I won’t recommend it to you. It is already too hard to get reservations there.)

At our Lutèce lunch, after Soltner emerged from the kitchen, he exchanged a few words with one or two of the remaining patrons, who, by the way he talked to them, I assumed were regulars, but then he headed straight for us. He said that a waiter had told him in the kitchen how much we had enjoyed lunch, and especially a salmon dish, which the spouse had said to me might have been the best fish she had ever eaten. Soltner asked, “Would you like to know how to make it?” We mutely nodded. He pulled out a chair, sat down, and proceeded step by followable step to explain how he had made the dish. (The secret was bacon fat.) We thanked him. He got up and smiled and concluded, “I am so glad that you enjoyed it.” He walked back to the kitchen. We recognized how kind and gracious this was. It was clear that we were not regulars, that we might not ever even be back again, but sharing the recipe made us feel welcome and as if we belonged. And in fact, the spouse did a creditable job of recreating the salmon dish at a number of dinner parties.

André Soltner. And Alfredo Viazzi. Fame, running a wonderful organization, in this case a kitchen, and natural graciousness. They can all go together.