Anticipating the Wurst
By: John Shepler
In Charles Dickens classic novel, "A Tale of Two Cities," he opens with this intriguing line: "It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times." Clearly, Dickens is describing the period between late spring and early fall in the midwestern USA. It is a region where native campfires produce an uninterrupted haze of charcoal smoke laden with the sweet smell of cooking sausages. Aromatherapy for the masses. Mmmmmmmm. You can just lay back in the hammock and soak in the healing properties of this ground fog if you haven't the energy to create your own. For the most effective treatment, though, you'll need to actually consume the medicinal bratwurst.
No, I'm not a doctor and I haven't played one since childhood. But I can witness to the revitalizing properties of brats on the grill. Just last weekend, the Labor Day holiday, I was engaged in a major repainting of the house trim. After several hours of up the stepladder, down the stepladder, I found myself laying flat on my back in the grass, a victim of too much anti-sedentary behavior. Barbara suggested a refueling might be in order at the Cub Food Supermarket outdoor brat stand just up the street a mile or two. Oh, my gosh. Two crispy charcoal grilled bratwurst with ketchup, mustard and chopped onions and I was a new man. Paint the entire town red? No Problem!
What was the magic in those things? I had to know. The people working the stand all testified that what we were eating were Wisconsin bratwurst. I knew that there must be something important in that message. Thus began my quest to discover the truth behind the mystery of the bratwurst and its ilk.
Barbara did some in-depth research on the Internet and uncovered some fascinating information. For instance, the two cities that Dickens was referring to are most likely Sheboygan and Johnsonville, Wisconsin. The wurst of the wurst of times would then have to be Bratwurst Day, actually a two day celebration of all things bratwurst that is held every year on the first Friday and Saturday of August in Sheboygan. But why Sheboygan? Why Johnsonville? Why Wisconsin for that matter?
The history of bratwurst actually begins in Germany. In the mid-1800's many Germans settled in Wisconsin and brought with them their skills in making and preparing fine sausages. The German immigrants came from ten different regions of Germany, and many settled in the Sheboygan County area close to Lake Michigan. Their communities each had their own meat market. Butchering and sausage making was also done on most of the farms. Many still have cook houses and summer kitchens. In 1945, Ralph and Alice Stayer opened a butcher shop which they named after their hometown of Johnsonville, Wisconsin, near Sheboygan. Their sausage recipes were handed down within the family, going back to 19th century Austria. If the name of the shop sounds familiar, it's because Johnsonville is now a major company in the sausage business.
So what actually is in a bratwurst? This German sausage is made from ground pork and veal, and seasoned with a variety of spices including ginger, nutmeg and coriander or caraway. It's filled by shooting it into a casing to create links of curved sausages. Generally, bratwurst is not cooked as part of the processing, so it must be cooked thoroughly before consuming. The two most popular preparations are grilling and parboiling. In parboiling, you place the sausage links in a heavy skillet and immerse them in water or perhaps beer. The boiling mixture cooks and permeates the sausages for 10 to 15 minutes. Lagers are said to complement the sweeter sausages especially well. Onions can also be added to the mix for additional flavor.
Charcoal grilling or "frying" is the classic art of cooking bratwurst, but it must be done with a skilled tong. The grill should be pre-heated with the grate set six inches from the coals. The grill should be painted with oil to keep the brats from sticking. Bratwurst should be placed with at least a half inch of clearance between them and turned every 5 minutes for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Never puncture the casing with a fork or the flavors and the magic will escape.
Now, slip those cooked brats into a hard roll, one each, or two for a classic "double with the works" topped with pickles, ketchup, onions and stone-ground mustard. And now, Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
There you have the secret to tapping the magic energy source of bratwurst any time you feel the need. This is potent magic, so use sparingly, only as required. That reminds me. Tomorrow's a work day and I could use a boost. Any left for breakfast?
Books of Interest:
Sausage by A. D. Livingston. Mmmmmmmmmm. You'll almost want to stick a fork in the pages just to get to these tasty links faster.
Born to Grill; An American Celebration by Cheryl Alters Jamison, Bill Jamison. From the James Beard Award-winning authors of Smoke & Spice comes this all-new collection of 300 fantastic grilling recipes, packed with grilling lore and technique tips. While the Jamisons go well beyond the ususal burgers, steaks and sausages, they didn't forget them. Their chapter "Hot Burgers and Haute Dogs" will get even the most sophisticated griller's mouth watering.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
National Hot Dog and Sasusage Council - Learn all about hot dogs and sausages, with recipes, facts and trivia. Thanks to them and Michael Latil for his (c) 1996 photograph of sausages on the grill.
Johnsonville Sausages - Read the history of Johnsonville, official bratwurst glossary and more.
Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: September 12, 1999 as part of A Positive Light