The Stuff of History: Sausage in Wisconsin

Feature Stories Winter 2013 Issue

The Stuff of History: Sausage in Wisconsin

By Terese Allen | Photos By courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Terese Allen 2

Most people call them the Sausage Guys, those costumed mascots who race against each other before the bottom of the sixth inning at Milwaukee Brewers games. Their names, in true plain-spoken Midwestern fashion, are Bratwurst, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage, Chorizo and Hot Dog (also known as Frank), and they make a comical reminder of the Wisconsin penchant for ground meat and spices stuffed in casing—that is, our hot love for sausage.

Wisconsin’s small meat markets, like Ray’s Meat Market in Unity (Trempealeau County), get very busy in November processing venison for hunters. Photo by Terese Allen.To me, however, the “sausage guys” will always be the Neuser brothers, operators of Buddha’s Meat Market, a shop located near my home during my growing-up years in Green Bay. It still makes me grin with pleasure to recall a chin-high view through glass display cases, past trays of chubby links, to the various Neusers in their spattered aprons, wielding long knives and hoisting ring bologna across the counter. When my family needed cold cuts, I’d volunteer to run down the street for silky braunschweiger or thin-sliced hard salami. The store's Belgian trippe—a soft-textured, funky-scented pork and cabbage sausage—made frequent appearances on our table, while on Easter mornings, the other half of my heritage dominated with garlicky pan-cooked coils of Polish kielbasa. To this day, the definition of a real bratwurst to me is one that tastes like the “Golden Brat,” Buddha’s spiced-up signature product.

The bad news is that Buddha’s is closed now. All that I have left besides my memories is a red-framed “Sausage Checklist,” a menu of nearly fifty varieties that my hometown butcher shop once carried. But the good news is that family-operated meat markets similar to Buddha’s still dot the state like pepper in a pork link.

Which is as it should be, for sausage is our heritage.

From Pemmican to Prosciutto

The practice of processing meat into sausage has been around these parts for a very long time, going back to primitive Indians who made pemmican by combining game with wild rice, corn, fat, herbs or berries, and packing the mixture into animal skins or forming it into cakes to be smoked. Lush prairies and woodlands supplied wild game to the region’s first peoples and earliest white settlers. Those same resources were ideal for raising domesticated animals and—once European immigration began to increase—were often transformed into farms that readily supported livestock. And that’s when sausage making began in earnest around here.

The chief factor in the development of Wisconsin’s sausage culture was nineteenth-century emigration from Germany, Bohemia, Poland and other “link-loving” European countries. Each ethnic group that came here brought old-world recipes and methods that—along with the nation’s regional traditions plus specialties from new American cuisine—formed today's vast assortment. In contemporary Wisconsin, sausage joins cheese and beer as a statewide signature food.

Wherever immigrants settled, particularly the Germans and particularly in the Milwaukee region, they opened butcher shops which quickly drew crowds hungry for a taste of the old country. Shop-owners made Bavarian bratwurst, Bohemian jaternice and dozens of others. The broad spectrum of ethnic groups that populated Wisconsin in later decades added more flavors to the mix: Italian soppressata, Mexican chorizo, Albanian cevapcici and many more. Some, like the Belgian trippe of the Green Bay area, remained local favorites; bratwurst, of course, went on to become a state icon. Eventually sausage-makers began creating new types of wurst, flavoring them with regional products like cheese and cherries, or drawing on international cuisines and trends to offer everything from Cheddar brats to Cajun andouille.

Madison Packing Company workers produce sausages, 1931. WHi Image ID 19049

In header image at top: Women make sausages at the Oscar Mayer company in the mid-1900s. WHi Image ID 37403.

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