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.
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.
In header image at top: Women make sausages at the Oscar Mayer company in the mid-1900s. WHi Image ID 37403.
Today’s seemingly limitless sausage diversity wasn’t available to residents of the 1800s, but they enjoyed plenty of sausage variety nonetheless. Wisconsin’s rural immigrant settlers did their own butchering; this took place during the fall and was a hectic, demanding time. Families used nearly every part of the animal in the creating of edible links, and nearly every member got into the sausage-making action. (One task that nobody wanted, however, was preparing those casings, which involved emptying, scraping and washing malodorous animal entrails.)
Town dwellers depended on local butcher shops to supply them with both fresh and processed meats. Some of the urban sausage-makers later became top names in the meat-packing industry. Usinger's of Milwaukee, for example, was started in 1880 by an apprentice sausage maker from Frankfurt. In 1919, Chicago butcher Oscar Mayer opened a meat-packing plant in Madison which eventually became, and continued for decades as the company's headquarters.
Today, Wisconsin remains home to many small, specialty meat markets; they’ve survived far-reaching changes in the meat industry in part because of our deep-rooted tradition of sausage making and the continued presence of small farms that supply local meat for processing. They also have support from another Wisconsin legacy—deer-hunting. Custom venison processing is big business to small shops; some work into late spring processing thousands of pounds of venison sausage annually. What's more, one of the busiest days of the year for a Wisconsin butcher is the day before rifle season opens, when camouflage-clothed deer-hunters stop in on their way out of town to stock up on enough summer sausage and brats to last for a week of hunting.
In very recent times, the rise of the farm-to-table movement has given the state of sausage yet one more boost. In Madison, Underground Meats is one of several new nose-to-tail butcher shops that market unusual, hand-crafted charcuterie, including fennel-y finocchiona and ‘nduja, a fiery, spreadable smoked salami made with roasted peppers. Conscious Carnivore offers hands-on sausage-making classes that include a sausage feast at the end of the lesson. On the Madison restaurant scene, the chefs at Heritage, Osteria Papavero and Steenbock on Orchard, among others, break down whole hogs to create everything from upscale linguica to old-timey head cheese.
There is one sausage that stands out in the crowd, old or new, of course. Bratwurst—king of the links, core of the cook-out, Wisconsin’s own soul food. The legacy of early German immigrants who substituted easier-to-find pork for the veal in traditional sausage, bratwurst is an excellent example of how transplanted foodways survive by adapting to new surroundings. Wisconsinites are brat specialists who down the beer-soaked, flame-kissed wurst at backyard picnics, church suppers, Green Bay Packers tailgate parties, community festivals and county fairs. Unlike blackened catfish, fajitas and other American specialties that found a place outside their regions of origin, brats are only occasionally seen on menus outside the state. But this matters not to brat fans, who will tell you that a sausage made out of state is only a pale imitation of the real thing, anyway.
Thus, no one is ever very surprised that the most frequent winner of the Brewers’ sausage race is Bratwurst. But in Wisconsin, everybody knows that when it comes to sausage types, we love them all.
Sausage Pate Cakes: You might not be up for making your own head cheese or dry-cured salami, but with this recipe you can follow a long line of Wisconsin sausage makers easily enough.