Bratwurst is in my blood, almost literally. My parents met hitchhiking, my mom and roommate looking for a ride from the University of Wisconsin–Madison to the small town of Sheboygan for the annual Bratwurst Days festival. My dad and my future godfather picked them up, and as the story goes, they ate a few brats (rhymes with pots, not pats) and danced a few polkas, and the rest is history.
My parents were brought together by bratwurst, and I grew up with the brat fry as an anchor of every summer weekend. (Inexplicably, these barbecues are called frys in Wisconsin, though the sausages are always grilled.) It was the only occasion on which my father was ever allowed to cook, so he took on “doing a brat fry” with the zeal of new religion.
He would spend all day preparing: First stop was City Bakery before 10 a.m. to snag still-warm, hearth oven–baked German “hard rolls.” Next, Dad would head out the windy county road past farmland and dairy cows to Miesfeld’s Meat Market, 15 minutes north of town. (They still make their subtly spiced, coarsely ground pork bratwurst by hand according to a generations-old family recipe.) The parking lot was always a zoo and the line long, but that all suited my dad just fine; he knew everyone there and could catch up on the news of the day while he waited.
He’d spend the rest of the morning procuring side dishes, stopping at Piggly Wiggly for watermelon, his favorite deli for ridiculously creamy coleslaw and bacon-studded German potato salad, and yet another market for the dill pickles. No detail was overlooked.
Back home, Dad would start up the kettle grill with crumpled newspapers and a pile of charcoal, then wait (and wait) for the fire to ash over while he swigged Milwaukee’s finest beer and listened to Brewers baseball on his transistor radio. He would fuss over the brats like a nervous hen, never using tongs (they might pierce the sausage casings and allow precious juices to escape) but instead turning the sausages over with his fingers, a cloud of swear words mingling with the rising smoke. Small grease fires broke out from time to time, so a water spritzer was at the ready to tame the flames; a brat fry not carefully tended can become a brat burn in seconds.
Dad would then place the grilled brats in “The Sheboygan Hot Tub,” a beat-up, chipped, yellow enamel saucepan with a wobbly handle set directly on the grill and filled with simmering beer, sliced white onions, and a pat or two of butter. The aim was threefold: The simmering liquid finished cooking the brats, infused them with flavor, and kept them warm. So if you wanted seconds, you could just reach into the ol’ hot tub for more.
I moved west to Portland, Oregon, 20-plus years ago, but I still practice the bratwurst ritual, with some healthy upgrades. I seek out brats that are lower in sodium and saturated fat. I make low-calorie vinegar-based coleslaw and potato salad with less bacon, and I’ve downsized the buns.
I may live far from Sheboygan, but the whiff of a charcoal grill, the aroma of sliced white onions, and the sizzle of bratwurst will always spell the beginning of summer for me.