Time for another edition of “Allison in Madison.” For the most part, the previous entries in this category feature things about this fair city that I truly admire, appreciate, and downright love. However, this entry profiles something about the Mad City that, well, leaves me scratching my head a little bit (although, to be upfront, I refrain from holding my nose and raising a stink over it). It has to do with this:
That, for those unfamiliar with meat products, is bratwurst. And before you let your mind drift into the gutter (this is not that kind of a post, or a website for that matter), bratwurst is a meat product. That you grill. And put on a bun. And eat. Along with a plate full of potato salad or chips. And wash down with beer. Bratwurst (or just “brats” in American English) originated in Germany as far back as the 14th century. There are many varieties and *ahem* lengths of bratwurst, but inside that hard casing is mostly veal, beef, and pork. There is also the “beer brat,” in which the bratwurst is simmered in beer before being grilled.
The incorporation of beer in some varieties aside, the German immigrant history and resulting heritage and culture that are part of Wisconsin also makes bratwurst, by default, a part of Badger State culture. It’s commonly found everywhere from backyard barbecues and fundraising events (more on that later) to the big game at the ballpark. Speaking of ballparks, brats have been such a popular food item at Milwaukee Brewers home games (and, when they called Milwaukee home, Braves home games) that Miller Park is the only Major League Baseball stadium where brats outsell hot dogs, according to one 2008 survey.
Brats are especially popular in Sheboygan County, which is located in eastern Wisconsin. Sheboygan County is home to Johnsonville Foods. Sure, Johnsonville does make other types of hot dogs and sausages, but brats are their most popular product. Indeed, Johnsonville is famous for the commercial (and its shouted-from-the-top-of-the-lungs tag line) posted below. This ad dates back to at least 1980 (it’s as old as my little sister!) and ran for almost a quarter century, even with the occasional update or two to reflect changes in company logo and packaging.
So now that you’ve got an idea of how and why brats are so popular here in Wisconsin, let’s circle back to here in Madison, and the Memorial Day weekend event that brats are such a big part of — so much so, in fact, that it’s in the name of the event!
Yes, it’s called Brat Fest (“The World’s Largest Brat Fest”). The 4-day event originated in 1983 as a customer appreciation to-do for one of Madison’s Sentry Foods supermarkets. It was traditionally held in the parking lot of said Sentry location, but it became so big that by 2005, it moved to its much more accommodating current location — the park-like Willow Island, which is just next to the Alliant Energy Center arena and exhibition hall on Madison’s south side.
In its one-third of a century in existence, Brat Fest has also moved from a “Thank you, customers!” event to an event that raises funds for local charities and not-for-profits. Who are the recipients, you may ask? Well, there are lots of them. I mean lots! Just look at this list of “benefiting organizations” on the event’s website and you see quite a few scouting troops, youth groups, food pantries (including one name that Male Mode Me has volunteered for in the past), churches, religious groups (more than quite a few of those), and other organizations even I’ve never heard of. Which leads me to my first gripe about Brat Fest, and it’s not so much a gripe as it is a “This could be better if…” thought: There are so many “benefiting organizations,” well, benefiting from Brat Fest that it becomes, sadly, too hard for them to jockey for position and prominence. Perhaps that’s by design, I suppose, and I certainly don’t fault them for seeking funds for their work in any way they can (I mean, good for them!). But it’s better if there was a way (on the Brat Fest website, at least) to promote these organizations’ year-round efforts rather than just have them volunteer to sell brats, soda, etc. on Memorial Day weekend and reap the benefits afterwards. As it stands now, their admirable efforts outside of Brat Fest tends to get overshadowed by the spectacle of Brat Fest (buying brats, listening to music, etc.). But then, there are indeed so many worthwhile organizations in Madison and Dane County, it would be hard to single one or a few over the 4 days of Brat Fest.
But these groups do indeed reap the benefits of the Brat Fest proceeds. Here’s the basic gist of how it works: When the 3,000+ volunteers — those from the benefiting organizations as well as “celebrity servers” — sell brats (including those from the above mentioned Johnsonville Foods), beer, soda, and other culinary items at Brat Fest, they each make $8/hour, which is then turned over to their preferred charity or charities once the event has concluded. And they go at it for the full 4-day Memorial Day weekend Friday morning thru Monday night, rain or shine.
I’m not kidding about that Friday morning part in that last paragraph, for Brat Fest’s big early push is “Take Your Brat to Work Day.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: Drive to Brat Fest first thing Friday morning, dodge the TV stations doing live remote reports, buy a brat (or get it for free if you’re traveling by bicycle), take it with you to work, eat it at your desk… then use the restroom right afterwards lest that brat stay in your digestive system all morning long (seriously, brats can feel like a lead weight in your stomach). Which leads me to the next thing about Brat Fest that turns me off about Brat Fest: I’ve never considered bratwurst a breakfast food, even if those who I work with believe it is, even if they think so for the sake of charity. It’s for this reason that yesterday, I had to flatly refuse a brat our department manager offered (“But we bought it to support a good cause!”). No, I’m sorry; I’m seeking to hit my production goals, not the need to use the euphemism before my break time.
I used the word “spectacle” a few paragraphs back to describe Brat Fest, and indeed there is a lot more to Brat Fest than buying and consuming brats, soda, etc. at ungodly hours of the morning: There are carnival rides. There are children’s activities. There are several ways to
burn off the calories stay active, including a 5k/10k “Bun Run.” There is a fireworks show on Sunday night. There is a military memorial exhibition, lest anyone forget the real reason for Memorial Day is not consuming several thousand calories in one sitting.
Oh, and there is music. Lots and lots of music. On four stages! The audio genres run the gamut from blues to big bands, pop to country, secular rock to Christian rock (there’s a lot of the latter this year). And the names are everything from the local cover bands to up-and-comers, regional and national touring acts to those whose days of prominence have long since past. Which leads me to another thing that turns me off about Brat Fest: Sitting on a sticky park bench in hot, muggy conditions on the first weekend of summer, surrounded by an audience concentrating on no more than diving face-first into a 2500-calorie (actual number may vary) plate of food, all the while listening to a musical act giving their all while dealing with a sub-par sound system… is not my idea of having a good time on the first weekend of summer. At least Madison has a lot of non-Brat Fest activities and attractions going on during this 4-day vacation.
But, of course, more than the music and the mugginess and the food and wondering which charities will be receiving how much amount of proceeds, there’s one other Brat Fest-related thing I don’t care for: I hate bratwurst. Sure, I’ve consumed my share of bratwurst in the past, but as I noted above, it just sits in the stomach after you’ve consumed it. I don’t know if it’s the hard casing, the overstuffing of the meat inside it, or both, but brats and I don’t seem to go well with each other.
So, while the rest of Madison heads down to Brat Fest (don’t let me stop you if you want to go) to consume much more than their weight in bratwurst so that the “total brats sold” counter on the Brat Fest website can advance astronomically (organizers and the media that
don cheerleader outfits and covers the event want a record number every year), I’ll just spend some time in the comparative tranquility of my back stoop. And chow down on a hot dog. Or more than likely a tuna sandwich.