Sunday, May 27, 2007


See this? Bratfest, it says. Memorial Day, it says. Actually, it started yesterday (Friday) and goes through Monday, Memorial Day. "So tell me, Dale-Harriet, how do you mark this holiday and honor our country's veterans?

Two ways. This is one. Bratfest is a local Happening that's been going on for many years. Until a couple of years ago it was held in the parking lot of a very nice grocery store, rain or shine. Each year it was bigger; each year they try to surpass the number of brats sold the year before. Now it's held on the lawn at the municipal coliseum because now it's HUGE! So tell us, Uncle Dale-Harriet, what IS this "bratfest"? Why of course, dear, I'd be pleased to.

They get a ginormous, giganto, humungous and otherwise massive grill, which is on a very long and big flatbed truck. They fire up the grill, and they grill brats (and hotdogs for those who don't want brats....yes, there are some folks who don't). Now, may I point out that they also make some vegetarian dogs too, as I recall. For a dollar you get a grilled Johnsonville bratwurst on a bun and a small soda. (In case it's not evident, this is a major deal.)

The original idea was to raise money for some local charities. Actually, that's still the idea, but now they raise money for a whole BUNCHA local charities and it's become quite swank. Every day they have "celebrity purveyors" (there's some other term but I can't remember it) so here's your opportunity to be handed your brats from local politicians, sports figures, police-chief guys, TV personalities, radio personalities (well, they say they are; how could you know what a radio personality looks like?) You get the picture.

Continuing with the whole swank thing, they have several Condiment Stations where, this being Wisconsin, you have your choice of several different mustards including one devised for the event (I'm a honey dijon-er, myself). They also have ketchup for them what goes that way, and relish and chopped onions and that Absolute Basic Necessity on a Wisconsin brat: sauerkraut.

So you take your brat....well, or your bag of brats....over to the condiment station, tear yourself off a dozen or so napkins and load up. There are, by the way, thousands of people there from opening to close -- but this IS Madison and everyone chats and jokes and comments while loading up, and there's "no pushing or shoving on aisle six". (Actually they have about 12 lines to GET the brats, so there's "no waiting on aisle six" either; it's absolutely beautiful choreography how it all works.)

When you're loaded up you weave your way back to where the Designated Sitter has reserved a spot at a table. There are LOTS of tables, and people move along when finished, so it's never too hard to find a spot. Also, this IS Madison and everyone's very happy to join a table full of folks you don't know. Then everyone sits around wolfing these brats all oozing and dripping with whatever combination of stuff you have under your sauerkraut (really gotta have the 'kraut) and talks about how great it all is, how many times you've been there already this year, how many brats you've had --- then everyone burps politely and wanders off.

Its' a Municipal Obligation to go, to do Our Part in raising the numbers sold. Besides that, it's just a huge merry, festive, gluttonous orgy of lovely greasy grilled sausages. Oh and I'll say it here: there are many culinary delights to be had in this whole world. But in my estimation, few could equal a good fat brat, incinerated, on a nice soft bun with honey-dijon mustard and an enormous pile of sauerkraut on. This isn't a plug for Johnsonville brats - but accept no substitutes. You can grill 'em at home too, or seethe them in beer and then grill them (or broil them if you don't have a grill). It's a summer thing. A Wisconsin thing. And Bratfest? It's a Madison thing.

Note: every year I go, sometimes twice. I always eat two, and have been known to take some home. I really pile on that 'kraut....which gives me the most TURRIBLE case of the winds. Add to that my hypersensitivity to the carbonation in soft drinks, and you have my own personal guarantee for a night spent in the Necessary, groaning, reading and knitting. "Why, Dale-Harriet, do you put yourself through that? And every year??" Ah, grasshoppah, it's worth it. Every delicious greasy 'krauty mustardy bite is like manna. If you're really good all your life, when you die you go to the Perpetual Bratfest - and there is no wind.

Besides, discomfort aside, it's nice spending a night reading and knitting.

Ah, but I said I do TWO things on Memorial Day, and indeed I do. This other is my real Memorial Day event. I get up early and go to a ceremony at our beautiful municipal cemetery at 8:00 a.m. This cemetery, Forest Hill, has some of the earliest residents of the area and most of the notable ones. One one side of the mausoleum is "Soldiers' Rest", in which are 100 graves of Union dead from the Civil War, each marked with a small white stone. On the other side is found "Confederate Rest", in which there are 100 graves, similarly marked, of Southern men who died at Camp Randall, the military prison here in town. There is a small American flag at each Union grave -- and a small stars-and-bars at each of the Confederate graves.

There is a Color Guard composed of Veterans who parade the Colors; there are often remarks by our popular Representative, Tammy Baldwin, and further comments and a prayer by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Then there is a volley fired by Veterans - and another fired by a group of reenactors portraying the Iron Brigade, the soldiers who made a great name for themselves at Gettysburg.

Then the whole group marches down to Confederate Rest where there are other speeches, another prayer, and another volley. The participants shake hands, greet each other and wander off.....except me (and, when he comes along, the Husband).

We proceed up the hill to the family plot of one Lucius Fairchild, Brigadier-General of the Iron Brigade, who lost his left arm at Gettysburg and returned home to serve, in time, three terms as Governor of Wisconsin. (I fell in love with him while reading and transcribing the Fairchild family correspondence and papers at the Historical Society Archives, and have spent every Memorial Day with him since 1996 when I helped a descendent plan a very nice Centennial of his death on Memorial Day that year; Lucius had the grace to die on May 23, 1896, conveniently near to what would become Memorial Day.) The Iron Brigade reenactors march up to the Fairchild plot as well, and there, after a few comments from myself, fire a volley for Lucius Fairchild (and his brother Cassius, also buried there and also a Civil War veteran.)

The highlight for me is that we are also joined there by the completely charming great-granddaughter of Lucius who, at 80, is in better shape than I and who always sprints off afterward for a standing golf date.

So - for Lucius, and for all the soldiers lost in war, your memories are sustained. I surely do wish that there would be no fallen soldiers. I'm an unrepentant hippie who was active in the anti-war movement, but it ain't the soldiers I'm mad at. It's them what sets it all up.

Now, where did I put my napkins?


Jane said...

Oh, what a wonderful weekend. It strikes me as so distinctively American. A celebration of community, family, and history. Just lovely.

Joy said...

Now I'm salivating! It has been far far too many years since I had a good Wisconsin brat with Kraut (I'm a French's yellow mustard girl myself.) Oh does that sound good! Now there's one more thing to add to my list of stuff I want to locate while here in the U.S. - proper bratwurst. You don't find them in California or Oregon. And definitely not in the Himalayas. Thanks for letting me share it vicariously with you!

Ryan said...

I keep a running list of words and phrases I would like to use in my blog some day like "righteous," "knackered," and "all up in my bidness." "Swank" has just been added.

Wonderful entry. Loved every word! (And now you've discovered the Great Secret: Knitting blogs frequently have nothing to do with knitting. As if mine hadn't revealed that to you already.)