Bratfest(s): A Breakdown
Post by Jen Ahlstrom on 6/8/2012 4:19pm
Growing up in Wisconsin bratwursts were serious business. Each local grocery made its own in-house brats and, depending on your preference, you would readily drive across town (or to another town) to get the perfect sausage to grill.
My neighbors moved to Wisconsin and into the house next door after retiring based on the in-house brats produced by the local grocery two blocks away. My father earned more respect at work for being the company picnic grill master than he did as an engineer. Brats were not something to be messed around with.
Growing up, brats were my introduction into a foodie-fetish level of love of food which is why, as a veteran of the World’s Largest Bratfest and last year’s gourmet Alt Bratfest, I set out to try to hit the other two competing bratfests in town Memorial Day weekend.
A brief history lesson on the competing fests
The original Madison Bratfest, now the World’s Largest Bratfest, was born of humble beginnings at Metcalfe’s grocery store parking lot in 1983. As the bratfest grew the need for help grew, and proceeds were donated to charities who provided volunteers. Eventually outgrowing the parking lot the sausage orgy moved to Willow Island and now includes live music, exhibits and a full carnival.
Last year everything changed. As divisive politics embroiled the state in protests, marches, boycotts and “buycotts” it was revealed that the major sponsor for the World’s Largest Bratfest, Johnsonville, had executives who donated to Gov. Scott Walker. Groups called for a boycott of the event.
That year three alternative brat fests were born so that those who opposed Walker and Johnsonville could still enjoy a brat and support local charities. The People’s Bratfest and the Wurst of Times continued this weekend, while the Alt Bratfest was canceled due to a scheduling conflict but looks likely to return next year (and organizers hinted at a fest later this summer).
Now for the brats
First up, the People’s Bratfest, at Library Mall, whose “Brats for the people, not for profit!” festival was a meandering encampment of tents for everything from the IWW (the ‘anarchists’ union) to brats, kids activities and music, and had a very left-leaning political slant. Politics seemed to be the reason for this fest; bratwurst an afterthought.
The sausages available, procured from the farmer’s market and local co-ops, were traditional, cajun-seasoned, and vegan. When I arrived around 1 p.m. the lines were short, three of the four grills were still operating, and they were down to cajun and vegan brats. Though I prefer a little bit more char on my bratwurst, the brats at the People’s Bratfest were fresh and juicy. Sides included cheese curds, cotton candy and baklava. Kids activities included an inflatable bounce house and paint your own pottery. Music, like everything else, slanted left with appearances by the Raging Grannies and the Solidarity Singers. This fest was by far the most affordable and family-friendly.
If the People’s Bratfest was all about the politics, the Wurst of Times--while still political--was all about the music. If brats were a second thought at the People’s Bratfest they were an afterthought at the Wurst of Times. When I arrived at 1 p.m. the grills were off and all the brats were wrapped and stacked underneath heat lamps. Not surprisingly, the brats were dry. Dreadfully so. After checking out a sampling of bands, which ranged from ironic-heavy-metal to traditional string quartets, I felt I got my full Wurst experience.
On Memorial day, the last day of my brat weekend upon me, I found myself disappointed in the quality of fest brats so I put aside plans to visit the World’s Largest Bratfest this year and accepted an invitation to a pot luck cookout where a majority of the guests were in the food industry. My friend and grill-master Brian claimed he had just discovered the way to make the world’s best brats--by soaking them in beer, kraut and onions overnight prior to grilling. His discovery made me smile - it was just the way my father had always grilled them. I still don’t know about the World’s best, but his did win the title of the weekend’s best.