Rick Cooks Home Brats and Metts

When I was about eleven or twelve, I went to my first professional baseball game, at Crosley Field, in Cincinnati. The "Redlegs", as they were then called, were hosting the Milwaukee Braves. A German Ohio town versus a German Wisconsin town. With a few black ballplayers, like Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Hank Aaron mixed in.

They didn't sell hot dogs at Crosley Field in the 1950's. But they did sell "franks" (some called them "wieners") and sausages that they called "brats" and "metts". These terms were all Cincinnati shorthand for the common German sausages originally called frankfurters, wienerwurst, bratwurst, and mettwurst. Whether they bore any resemblance to their original German or Austrian versions, I can't say. Probably not, considering Cincinnati's mixed Bavarian-Austrian-Irish-Jewish-Greek heritage, but so what?. As a kid from Kansas, I thought they were damn good, and a far cry from the salty, jerky-like hot dogs I had known in Kansas and Missouri. ("Hot Dog" was coined for a sausage sandwich served at the St. Louis World's Fair a half-century earlier and the term had not completely caught on in Cincinnati.)

These sausages were locally made and were named for their ingredients. The franks were skinless and made from beef (and not lips and snouts as the supermarket brands are); the brats were made from pork and veal and mild spices; and the metts were made from pork and pork liver and coriander (the best metts were made in Hamilton, Ohio, a town north of Cincinnati, and were called Hamilton metts). The metts are said to be similar to the Polish kielbasa, but I don't agree.

They were usually eaten on a plate (but at the ballpark served on a bun), steamed or cooked, just like franks (hot dogs), but accompanied with "kraut" (sauerkraut) and mustard, not (yecch) ketchup and relish. Delicious. Wash it down with Hudepohl or Schoenling beer (are they still around?). What memories.

Later on, as a student at Purdue, I became homesick for brats, and was introduced to the Wisconsin style of bratwurst by a classmate from Sheboygan. I must say that I thought Sheboygan brats beat Cincinnati's hands down. They had a way of grilling (vice cooking) the brats, steaming them in beer, serving them split on a hard Kaiser roll (not a soft, sweet bun), and topping with a wonderful Wisconsin German-style mustard. And washing it down with Kingsbury (a brewery in Sheboygan that no longer exists) beer. Nirvana.

For several years afterwards, we were hooked on the Sheboygan brats, but lived in areas like Florida, Virginia, and California where they didn't know a brat from a brat, much less a Sheboygan brat. (We could occasionally find local bratwursts, but they weren't the same, and had mysterious ingredients.) But in the mid 1980's we found a company in Johnsonville, WI (just outside of Sheboygan) that would ship their brats by mail, and we began ordering from them regularly. The company is called Johnsonville.

A decade later, the Johnsonville company began supplying their famous brats to supermarket chains, and now you can find them just about anywhere. Is America a great country or what? (Note: I am not getting paid to say this.) I guess our years of mail-ordering and recommending to friends paid off.

Johnsonville has since come up with new flavorings for their brats (like Cajun? gimme a break) but we stick with the original.

I used to grill them first and then steam them in beer, according to the Sheboygan method. (In Sheboygan, sometimes they skillet-brown them and presssure-cook them in beer, resulting in a hard, overcooked but tasty sausage). But lately I've been steaming them first (puncture the skin first to let the excess fat and moisture escape without splitting the link) and grilling them just before serving. The steaming can be done well ahead of time.

You can use brats in any recipe that calls for sausage. Brats aren't spicy, so if the recipe calles for spicy sausage (like chorizo or linguiça), just add a little cayenne pepper or hot pepper flakes. They're also not nearly as seasoned (salty) as most commercial sausages (from the major meat packers like Hormel and Armour), giving you more flexibility in recipes. They are superior to English bangers and French saucisson but on a par with Italian salsicce.

Leftover brats can be used in a multitude of dishes, from soups, omelets, lasagne, stuffed cabbage, and ratatouille to chili. But you can't beat them on a roll with a good Dusseldorf or Dijon mustard (sweet or yellow mustard is not allowed, but English mustard is OK) and sauerkraut. Definitely skip the wine and have a beer or ale.