Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Food and Place, volume 10 (Milwaukee)

You say Milwaukee, I say beer.

But this is supposed to be about food. OK, leaving aside for the moment the argument that beer is food, let’s try again.

You say Milwaukee, I say… bratwurst!

What beef on weck is to Buffalo, what five-way chili is to Cincinnati, what Malt-O-Meal cereal is to Northfield, brats’n’beer* is to M’waukee. (According the many Wisconsin refugees who live in Minnesota but pine for the old country, the proper pronunciation is M’waukee.) There are many, many cheeseheads where I live, and my personal favorite is Bob Bjorklund from Oconomowoc. Just say that aloud with me one more time: Bob Bjorklund from Oconomowoc. Pure poetry.

So, where does one go for the authentic M'waukee dining experience, and what is bratwurst, and how does one properly prepare bratwurst? Hey! One question at a time, please.

The ballpark is one place to start, though neighborhood taverns are of course the culinary temples, synagogues, churches, and mosques of M’waukee.

Miller Park: The marriage of two corporate giants of mediocrity is celebrated at Miller Park. Bud Selig, erstwhile owner of the Brewers and master shake-down artist, joining forces with Miller Brewing, maker of that weak excuse for a beer, Miller Lite. The brats at old County Stadium were the same as those at Miller Park (made by the Klement’s sausage company), but the aroma of the old ballpark (sweat, urine, mown grass, charcoal smoke from the tailgaters) somehow made them taste better. The new park (which is not so new any more, I guess) makes everything taste like aluminum. All the more reason to bury your bratwurst in an avalanche of sauerkraut.

Bratwurst is a simple pork sausage, sometimes with a little veal added. The spices are pretty mild and pretty common – celery seed, marjoram, mace, maybe a touch of ginger. Sometimes the makers get carried away and stuff 'em with cheese or infuse them with beer, or even use turkey, but the original is just pork and veal and some spices.

The preferred cooking method (in the USA) is direct grilling. The little buggers can be parboiled (as in Germany) or broiled or sauteed, but there really is no substitute for the charcoal grill.

Neighborhood taverns. You can get a good bratwurst just about anywhere in M’waukee, but the old German/Austrian/Polish bars are best.

Wolski’s Tavern is famous. It’s on Pulaski Street. Kasimir Pulaski is of course the great Polish hero for whom so many things are named in this country. I worked in South Bend, Indiana, for a while. It has a sizable Polish-American population that at one time controlled pretty much everything in that town (a smaller version of Richard Daley’s political machine just up the road in Chicago). If you wanted to build anything in South Bend, from a laundromat to a juvenile detention center, all you had to do was name it after Kasimir Pulaski and any opposition evaporated rather quickly.

Other classic M'waukee taverns are the Von Trier and the Port of Hamburg.

Othere uses for bratwurst: For those who won't eat pork or don't fancy BHT or polybutylmethylparabenzinate on their dinner plates, bratwurst does have some other practical applications:

  • When frozen, makes a handy tack hammer.

  • If all the moisture is cooked out, one end may be filed to a point and the bratwurst used as tent stake.

  • Form a ring with about a dozen links and it becomes a festive holiday wreath

  • Sliced into narrow discs and dried, may be used as poker chips (also sometimes works as a quarter in vending machines)

  • The perfect nose for a Cyrano de Bergerac snowman.

  • Freshly cooked and garnished with cinnamon, use one link as a stir stick in hot chocolate or hot buttered rum.

  • At a Polish wedding, substitute bratwurst for kielbasa in the groom’s sandwich and videotape his hilarious reaction.

  • Split open one large link lengthwise and wear as a hat for a Packer’s game

*Has anyone over the age of 20 ever eaten a brat without a beer? Ever?

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