People who are serious about tailgating are serious about encased meats. And no one is more serious than Fred “Fritz” Usinger. He’s more than an encased meat enthusiast, he’s an encased meat specialist.
Usinger’s turns out countless bratwurst, wieners and frankfurters, as well as bockwurst, weisswurst, knackwurst and landjaegers, kishkas (with blood and without), hessische landleberwurst, braunschweigers, regular summer sausage and peppercorn-studded Thueringer ones. Chorizo, linguica, andouille, bacon, smoked pork butt, corned beef and pastrami fill pockets of modern demand. There’s even Beer Salami, a beer bottle-shaped salami complete with PBR logo and label.
Usinger’s old-world German recipes and techniques have spread the gospel of sausage within Milwaukee and throughout the Upper Midwest for 125 years. In the 1880s, Fred Usinger was the Thomas Edison of German sausage-making, blending spices, selecting meat and generating flavor profiles to create these portable, edible assets. Today Fritz Usinger religiously and stubbornly uses the same recipes and techniques his great-grandfather pioneered.
Every culture has some type of spiced, encased ground meat. “Sausage is universal,” says Usinger, “only the spices and manufacturing techniques differ.” Back in the day, when we were less squeamish, cultures consumed every inch of every animal. Protein was precious and wasting any part of an animal was a sin.
That “how the sausage is made” is a metaphor for discovering unpleasant, ugly truths shows how removed we have become from our agricultural roots. We don’t spend summers on grandpa’s farm seeing animals being raised and bred as agricultural commodities. They are not pets. They are products. There’s a difference.
While Wisconsin tailgaters wait for their tasty agricultural-product-turned-bratwurst-or-wiener to heat up, they often slice into Usinger’s football-shaped summer sausage made with hand-sewn casings, complete with laces.
“Wisconsin tailgating is all about brats and summer sausage,” says Usinger, and to a lesser extent, hotdogs. Summer sausage is pork or pork and beef that needs no refrigeration. Think Slim Jim only bigger and better.
Bratwurst is actually a family of pork sausages. “Brat” in old German means “finely-chopped meat” and “wurst” means “sausage.” There are many variations in the brat theme but the mac daddy of them all is the classic version made with veal. It’s a light and fluffy mixture of finely ground uncured pork and veal nicknamed the White Wiener. Usinger’s coarsely-ground, pork-only brat, however, is the bigger seller.
“Hotdogs” technically are either wieners, which originated in the Austrian capital of Wien -- Vienna to you -- or frankfurters, which hail from Germany. Wieners have a smaller diameter than frankfurters and are tenderer. “That’s because sheep or lamb are the casings for wieners,” says Debra Usinger. “Frankfurters use hog casings,” she explains. Don’t get her started on “skinless” hotdogs. “There’s no snap! What’s the point?”
Slaughterhouses in Usinger’s day churned out sausage because they added value by utilizing every cut of meat. Usinger’s was never in the slaughterhouse business. It was able to buy the cuts of meat it wanted, rather than forced to make use of the cuts it had. “Muscle groups taste different and they emulsify differently and have different bind value,” he explains. You want to be able to pick and choose.
Sausages are carefully calibrated emulsions of lean protein, water and fat that hold together when cooked. Since protein stabilizes the mixture, lower-quality cuts with less protein and more connective tissue need soy, dairy or hydrolyzed vegetable protein fillers. Filler is a four-letter word for Fritz but smoking is not.
They pit-smoke their sausage over smoldering embers in two-story brick buildings and not in thermal processing ovens that pump smoke vapor over food. Combustion is an essential to their flavor profile. “We don’t use fillers and we don’t alter recipes. If it’s going to cost more, it’s going to cost more,” says Usinger. “That’s the product we make.” Told you he was serious.
Small, multi-generational companies like Usinger’s survive precisely because they do lower-volume runs. Smaller companies have the flexibility to supply a market of adventurous tasters who seek bolder, robust flavors with heavier spice and garlic. Consolidation actually creates markets for regional specialty retailers like Usinger’s to supply a food audience dissatisfied with the limited flavors of large processors. “It puts us on their radar,” says Usinger.
Cheeseheads may rule Wisconsin but bratwurst will always be the unofficial state food. “We stick to our knitting,” says Usinger. “We’re not going to be the biggest, but, boy, we sure want to be best.”