Food Meets Beer, meets sausage. In the Cities. Nuff said.
Photos by Daniel Murphy
Put down those indifferent factory brats—we’re in the midst of a tubed-meat renaissance. We talk with two operations leading the way.
The poet John Godfrey Saxe was quoted in The Daily Cleveland Herald on March 29th, 1869, saying “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” A similar remark is often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, who may have added the warning that “it is better not to see them being made.”
For quite a while, we took Chancellor von Bismarck’s advice. The decades of the mid-twentieth century saw food production increasingly sheltered out of sight. We considered it a convenience and a bold step forward for modern America that we didn’t have to worry about how our food was getting on our plates.
But that ideology has been left in Levittown. Now, producers and consumers alike are quick to exalt the origin of ingredients. The food world is aching to reverse the old idiom, and now we want to see how the sausage is made.
Consider the case of Gerhardt Riautschnig, Wurstmacher extraordinaire, who is on a quest to reproduce the brats he grew up with in Austria. “The whole family would come together every fall and slaughter seven or eight pigs,” he recalls. “By the afternoon, the women would have cleaned the guts and intestines and we’d have fresh brats. I got so used to the taste, and I forgot how easy they were to make. So now I’m making Grandma’s brats and there’s no way back.”
Gerhard’s Brats are available in 23 retail locations as of this July—that’s triple their shelf presence since February. Caterers and restaurants are featuring his brats. And though you might not equate brats with balanced nutrition, healthy meal services like Origin Meals are recognizing their quality.
Gerhard’s business partner, Rob Lee, sees the demand for their brats as a natural progression of the Twin Cities food scene. “I remember this town before people knew what good bread was, or good pizza,” he says. “Standards are higher. There’s a lot of room for that same thing in quality meats. People here eat a lot of brats, but it’s large factory-produced stuff. It’s okay, but it’s salty, not too healthy. So, if we can do the same thing, but use quality meats in small batches, it’s like people are tasting it for the first time.”
Lee’s wife Song, a former cheesemonger at France 44, notices the same thing, saying it’s simplicity that sets them apart. “Once people taste them, it’s clear,” she says. “I’d put our ingredient list against anyone’s out there. We don’t add sugar, eggs, anything. It’s just pork, salt, pepper and garlic.”
It’s a back-to-basics approach that’s at the heart of this new artisan meat heyday. It started with charcuterie, led by luminaries like Lenny Russo, Mike Phillips, and Geoff Hausmann. House-cured meats began signaling diners that extra levels of expertise were taking place in the kitchen. Now, that same care lavished on Mangalitsa hams is now giving love to the lowly sausage.
That’s the trend that Craig Johnson and Tobie Nidetz are hoping to tap into with Prairie Dogs. They’ve become well known for their pop-up stints at places like First Course Bistro, Sawatdee in Eden Prairie, and Zumbro Café, and they have seen first hand the kind of excitement that a well-crafted sausage is creating in the sit-down restaurant world.
“I was shocked to see how much interest there is,” says Nidetz. “It’s beyond bacon, almost. Sausages are where bacon was about four or five years ago. People are understanding the value—it’s a great value meal—it’s a great way to get exciting flavors on a plate that you wouldn’t usually get at that price, and it allows chefs the chance to stretch themselves.”
The genesis of Prairie Dogs came from Nidetz’s fascination with Hot Doug’s, a popular Chicago joint that married the traditional hot dog stand with a creative sausage shop. Johnson, a journeyman chef, draws inspiration from Laurelhurst Market in Portland. “They make all their hams and dry cured meats. It’s a butcher shop by day and restaurant at night,” he says. “When Tobie and I got together, we wanted to tie in both creative hot dogs and the market aspect, where we can sell our sausages too.”
They’ve perfected merguez and bratwursts, but have also branched out into andouille, chorizo, chicken Bockwurst, bison hot dogs, even fish sausages from walleye and smoked trout. Johnson has begun helming the brunch service at First Course, where he’s put two hot dogs on the menu and incorporated three of Prairie Dogs’ sausages into other dishes.
Their goal is a permanent Prairie Dogs storefront, hopefully on Lake Street in Uptown because the younger crowds are driving their popularity. “Part of that is the pop-up aspect, that we’re doing it un-traditionally”, says Nidetz. “But it’s also a food they haven’t seen a lot of. Now it’s becoming more prevalent. A couple years ago it was Bulldog and Frankie’s, and that was about it. Now you can go to a sushi joint [Kyatchi] and get a hog dog.”
No Nitrates/Nitrites Added?
Cured meats require the presence of a nitrate to prevent the formation of botulism-causing bacteria. Often, when people hear “sodium nitrate,” they are spooked by the image of cancer-inducing pink salt. But the vast majority of the nitrites we’re exposed to are produced in our own saliva. And it’s vegetables—especially arugula, lettuce, and celery—that are the most common sources of nitrates in our diet. It’s why you may see celery powder or celery juice, packed with natural nitrates, on a bratwurst’s list of ingredients. Though there remains some debate, nitrates may be just like MSG and butter, high up the list of most over-blown food fears.
3 ways to improve your regular old hot dog
1. Go Latin
Bury the everyday dog inside a large bolero-style roll, and then cover with mounds of condiments in the South American style. Make a Chilean completo with a liberal swipe of mayo, mashed avocado, chopped tomato, and sauerkraut. Or make it a Colombian perro caliente by adding crumbled bacon, mayo, mustard, Thousand Island dressing, and, most importantly, a heap of crushed potato chips. Which brings us to…
2. Add texture
If the Cajun “chow-chow” on Butcher & the Boar’s foot-long teaches us anything, it’s that fried starch is crazy good on a dog. Top them with shoestring potatoes, French-fried onions, or toast some panko breadcrumbs in a sauté pan with butter and a spicy seasoning blend.
3. Pickle some veggies
Slaws and giardinieras work the way same as sauerkraut: by lending an acidic snap that’s the perfect foil to smoky, savory meat. For an easy quick pickle, boil some sugar into cider vinegar with some toasted and crushed mustard seed and celery seed. Pour that over a thinly-sliced slaw of red onions, red cabbage, Fresno chili, and a little granny smith apple. Refrigerate for a couple hours and mound on a hot dog with avocado.
Gerhard Riautschnig on the perfect brat meal: “You could just warm them up in a little simmering water. I like to use a cast iron skillet with a little butter. Especially with the cheese ones, the cheese starts to seep out and it gets a nice crust. Put it on a plate with some kraut and coarse mustard. I like to cook kraut with bacon and onions until it’s soft. And don’t forget a piece of crusty bread. That’s a meal.”