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Milwaukee Sausages and a Condiment King

September 16, 2012

Hello hot dog fans, sorry I’ve been away since last month but I’ve got quite a lineup in store for you.  These past few months I’ve had the pleasure of traveling, eating new hot dogs, and getting some wild new condiments mailed to me by people wanting me to try them out.   I’ll be following up this post with a couple of the reviews, which I’ll have later this week, but in the meantime let me describe how my summer came to be consumed by condiments.

Back in April, Samantha and I flew in to Milwaukee and met up with my parents, who told me of the fabled sausage maker, Usinger’s.  Knowing their son has an unhealthy obsession with encased meats, they picked us up at the airport and drove into the downtown area.

After stopping by the Usinger’s storefront and feasting my eyes on coolers full of sausage, hot dogs, and other cured meats, we crossed the block so we could hit up one of the many beer halls that serve Usinger’s products.  I’ll be honest and say that stepping into the Hofbrauhaus we were greeted by an empty bar, which made me a little nervous.  The polka music was playing, however, and they were serving up a great draft line of Hofbrau, so we settled in and ordered up a round of drinks.

Imagine my pleasure when I looked at the menu and realized that ordering a beer entitled me to a free lunch.  Yes, please!  Sadly, ordering consecutive beers does not entitle you to more delicious sausages, but you can’t argue with a free meal.  Since the family was ordering a round of beers, the bartender set us up with a large plate of sausages (cut so we could taste an assortment), samplers of the side dishes, and a steaming bowl full of sauerkraut.

Amazing!  If I lived in Milwaukee I’d certainly be drinking for lunch because it’s a hell of a deal.  We got to taste the smoked bratwurst, knackwurst, weisswurst, and a weiner–and they were all huge hits.  If pressed for an answer, I’d probably have to say the smoked bratwurst was the best of the lot but I loved them all.

Samantha, on the other hand, found the fried cheese curds to be the highlight of her day.  Of course, when we got to Madison (and my sister’s house) later that night, we went out and ate some more for dinner.  Sweet jesus, I’d be a fat bastard if I lived out that way.

And here’s the reason why we visited Wisconsin–my sister’s first child, who is very cute, cuddly, and amazingly coiffed (she’s had a thick head of black hair since the day she was born).  I tried to get her started early on sausages but she wasn’t eating solid foods yet, so I let her suck on my finger in preparation of a lifetime as an encased meat enthusiast.

After eating several rounds of sausages and fried cheese curds we decided to get healthy and headed out to Mineral Point, an hour west of Madison, to locate one of the icons of Wisconsin cuisine: the pasty at the Red Rooster Cafe.

While eating in the restaurant, we made friends with a lovely German couple who had moved to town decades ago but still retained their thick accent.  After a while the 70-ish woman asked if we liked Betty White.  “Who doesn’t, but what the hell is she getting at?” I wondered.  Turns out Betty White’s husband grew up in Mineral Point was is buried there, so she gave us directions to the cemetery in case we wanted to have a brush with the local celebrity-dom.

Ah, the pasty!  An amazing tradition of combining all of the important elements of a healthy diet: meat (ground beef), starch (potatoes), and more starch (a buttery crust).  That’s all you need in my book!

On our way back to Madison we stopped in Middleton and checked out the Mustard Museum.  Who knew there was such a thing?  Well, it may not factor high on people’s “must-see” lists when visiting the area but you’d be silly not to stop in and spend a little bit of time.  There’s the obligatory educational aspect and a room lined wall-to-wall with jars, divided into the states and countries they originated from.

Best of all, however, is the ability to taste any mustard that they sell in the museum, which is literally hundreds of mustards.  Well, I’ll amend that statement: best of all are the employees of the museum, because once I told them that I write a blog about hot dogs they pulled out all of their favorite mustards and gave me an enthusiastic culinary tour of all the many forms the humble mustard seed takes.  The cucumber, garlic and dill mustard above comes all the way from Clovis, France (the city ring any bells, anthropology majors?) and was one of the standouts; while the garlic was the obvious overtone in the flavors, the subtle blending of cucumber allowed the dill and mustard to stand out.  Not necessarily a hot dog mustard, this was too mild to stand up to a beef or heavily smoked encased meat, but extremely enjoyable.

I have to apologize to the lovely women who were working the tasting stand that day because I was so caught up in their excitement about mustard that I didn’t ask their names.  One of them in particular was so enthusiastic about the two mustards in the picture above.  She told me a story about how, after working a long day at the museum, she was driving back home through a blizzard that was just beginning and heard her phone ringing.  Just minutes from home, she answered the phone and the summons of one of her co-workers: come back to the museum, because I’ve found an amazing condiment combination.  She turned around and drove the twenty minutes back through an ever-worsening blizzard and told me she would have done it again, this was such a great pairing.  Well my friends, she was right: the CaJohn’s “Dog on Good” mustard is a spicy, sweet thin yellow mustard with chunks of hot peppers; and the Terrapin Ridge Farms sweet beet & horseradish mustard is a thick condiment due to the whole mustard seeds blended with deep red sweet beets and a spicy horseradish.  I can’t properly describe how deep the flavor profiles of these two mustards go and when you pair them, the dual sweetness and spiciness form something awesome and powerful for the palette–not to mention the beautiful colors.  You can buy a tiny hot dog for a dollar at the mustard museum and put any mustard you want; I ended up eating two done up with the mustards.

After buying one of each (which I’ve since consumed entirely–I’ll have to put in another order through the Mustard Museum!), the ladies were telling me that I had to talk to Professor Mustard (his name is Barry Levenson, but everyone who worked at the Museum referred to him as Professor Mustard).  Even though he was on his way out, the ‘fess took some time to sit down and we had a great conversation.  He told me a bit about their annual worldwide mustard competition, which is ultimately judged by some of the best and biggest names in Chicago hot dog-dom, with greats like Doug from Hot Doug’s tasting and judging.  Oh, to be invited to a soiree like that!  I’d be in heaven.
The ‘fess and I also discovered that we shared someone we knew in common: having grown up in the Boston area, Barry still had family back home–one of whom was a librarian who I had worked with on the Reference Desk at my last job in Wellesley.  How crazy is that?

A quick aside, if you’d like to learn more about what would drive a man to dedicate his life to mustard, read about the Museum’s history on their website.  Want the reason condensed into two words?  Here it is: Bill Buckner.


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