Sunday, March 29, 2009


Today we attended the Thirtieth Annual Hermann Wurstfest to sample sausages. Talk about yer slow foods and localvorism. Talk about your local color! And things that are sincere, and good, and true.

If you’re not already familiar with it, let me explain a little. Hermann is only one of many Missouri towns boasting a strong and continuing German cultural heritage, but it’s the one that’s made the most of it in terms of tourism and “branding” (as marketing folks call it). It’s a picturesque town with hills and lots of historic buildings. It’s on the south side of the Missouri River, between Jefferson City and St. Louis. (Now you can find it on Google Maps.)

Most people think of the town’s wineries and Oktoberfest first among the “things to do” in the Hermann area, but there are lots of other attractions and festivals. Perhaps it’s best to go in midweek, hole up in one of their charming bed and breakfasts, and simply . . . slow down.

But one of our favorite times to visit Hermann is during the Wurstfest. The sausage tasting, competition, and judging is just part of this springtime festival. There are wiener dog races (and costume and talent contests—all very popular with children), a display of antique sausage-making equipment (ooh, shudder-shudder: renewed respect for the whole butcher “thing”), and a whole-hog sausage breakfast at the fire department.

Of course, all the local wineries have special tastings, tours, sausage samplings, and so on. If you haven’t taken a tour of the Stone Hill cellars, you should. You not only learn how wines are made (in case you didn’t know), but also see their historic cellars and learn about the state’s winemaking history.

There’s a great view of the town from the hilltop at Stone Hill, which naturally is enhanced when you and your sweetie are relaxing with glasses of their Norton. Hermannhof Winery, downtown on Highway 100 along Frene Creek, has a wonderful wine garden where you can sit comfortably with your companions and enjoy a bottle of Spring Blush. Five more local wineries and the town’s brewpub were open this weekend for tastings and tours.

Also, the Deutschheim State Historic Site is a must-see for anyone visiting Hermann, and then if you’re going there, you’d better visit the German School Museum as well. This year, they were offering free admission to the museum to anyone who’d purchased admission to the Wurstfest.

Admission? Yes, six bucks for adults, but it’s worth it. Get your hand stamped, and you can go in and out of two sausage-tasting venues: The Stone Hill Winery Pavilion (where we went again this year) and the Hermannhof Festhalle downtown (where we’ve been in previous years).

One of the big draws for me each year is the music and dancing. Today accordionist Marilyn Loehnig of the Loehnig Family Band played at the Stone Hill Pavilion from noon to four. We always enjoy hearing her play those happy German polkas and other melodic favorites. (Remember when music had a melody?) She even the temerity to play that notoriously catchy Disney song—you know the one, about the “planet” being “of a little, little size”?—surprisingly it didn’t get stuck in my head. (Another polka tune did instead.)

Yes, the German music, of course, and then there’s the Wurstjaegers. A word about them: If I was at all interested in dancing, that’s the first group I would join. They look like they have such a great time, doing all these traditional German folk dances. Every time I see them I wish for more hours in my week, in my life! The group formed in 1948, and two charter members were dancing with them today. One of them is looking forward to her ninety-second birthday!

The group’s signature dance is a Wurstjaeger dance, wherein they act out the sausage-hunting (wurst-jaegering!) that traditionally took place the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday: The menfolks go door-to-door with a carrying stick on which they collect, in dangling abundance, the whole town’s store of sausages; then they bring it all to the local festival hall for the Fat Tuesday “eat up all the sausage” feast. It’s a Fastnacht tradition—the German version of Mardi Gras.

On to the sausage. Hermann basically becomes a top-flight sausage market at Wurstfest. Bring money. Bring an ice chest. Be prepared to stock up. Your freezer at home will be honored to hold such special items for you.

Despite what I’ve written recently about pâté de foie gras, Sue and I are not exactly true devotees of the butcher’s art. We tend toward vegetarianism. We don’t eat a lot of meat; the food on our dinner plates doesn’t “orbit” the meat as a gravitational center. Meat, for us, is for stir-fries, for example. It’s an “ingredient.” That is, unless there’s something special about it . . . like when I marinate a sauerbraten for days, turning and massaging it, and cook it for hours before a big family gathering. Or, well . . . if we’ve got some gourmet sausage or something . . .

The judging and awards ceremony took place yesterday, so the vendors had their plaques positioned prominently near their winning sausages. Helping you to decide, of course.

There were five sausage vendors at the Stone Hill Pavilion: Heintz Processing (from Cuba) (Mo., of course!), Stonie’s Sausage Shop (Perryville, Mo.), Williams Brothers Meat Market (Washington, Mo.), Kurzweil’s Country Meats (Garden City, Mo.), and Schubert’s Packing Co. (Millstadt, Ill.). The biggest line was for Schubert's—they bring a huge variety of sausages to sample. It’s almost overwhelming.

But I can narrow my selections down immediately by category: I’m not into the “snack sticks” and jerky, and there’s only so much of the “pizza brats,” “bacon cheeseburger brats,” and “pepper jack Polish sausage” that I can even think about. And I really don’t see the point of “sauerkrautwurst,” because to me sauerkraut is supposed to be cooked and served with the bratwurst, not in it—it’s far better to enjoy the simple brat with the kraut in its traditional position, hugging and cradling the brat—on the outside, the way nature intended.

I didn’t buy any maple sausage this year, even though I always enjoy tasting it. It tastes just like breakfast. But for some reason, I’d rather dip regular sausage into my syrup when I’m having pancakes.

Many of the vendors, being full-time meat companies, also had other meats besides sausages—cured hams, bacons, kabobs, BBQ pork, turkeys, and so on. But I wasn’t shopping for that stuff today.

There were definitely some very special wursts available. Potato sausage? (Hmmm! Very smooth and mild!) Ukrainian bratwurst? (What’s that like?) Some really yummy andouilles. Chorizo. Several types of Italian-style sausages.

And there were all these traditional kinds of wursts and more: Nuernberger, Krakow, Thuringer, mettwurst, Hungarian kolbasz, bockwurst, braunschweiger, head cheese, blutwurst, leberwurst, scrapple, and more. A wonderment of sausages.

Unusual critters can become sausage, too: Duck salami, summer sausage made with elk or buffalo, and even chicken. We picked up some Italian chicken sausage with sun-dried tomatoes and Asiago cheese. It was light, but incredibly delicious—the flavors bloomed in my mouth as I chewed. This is food to savor.

The Wurstfest is the place to find great, fresh sausage and buy it directly from the butchers who made it. Schubert’s Packing makes a kielbasa that makes the shrink-wrapped stuff at the grocery taste like nothing more than a big pink crayon—well, that, or something made out of silicone—flavored primarily with MSG. The Schubert’s kielbasa is meaty and much leaner than the supermarket kind. The flavor was nuanced. I had to get some more of that.

The sausages that always draw the most oohs and ahhs are the flavored brats, the sausages with unusual ingredients. Last year my grand discovery was a bratwurst flavored with portobello mushrooms that had been sautéed in Stone Hill Norton (which is a full-bodied red wine, aged in oak). The people at Kurzweil’s Country Meats had it on their table . . . Whoa, Nelly! That one put me in sausage heaven. Last year, I couldn’t wait to get up to the cashier lady to place my order. I hope they won a prize for it. Whoo, doggies! Words fail me. . . . It was awesome, served with simple mashed potatoes and a lightly dressed salad of fresh greens—it didn’t need anything else.

So this year, I had my money out and everything, and the Kurzweil’s people had sold out of it! But there was plenty else to occupy my interest. They had a good applewurst that had big chunks of apple in it, and we had to pick up some of their roasted red pepper and asparagus sausage, as well as something they had named in honor of “Zorba the Greek,” which was basically a straight-ahead sausage with a good blend of herbs (thyme and so forth). I’m thinking it would be good on a pizza, or on pita.

Schubert’s, as usual, had scads of sausages to try, and it was hard to decide, but their bratwurst with horseradish was unique and good enough we knew we needed to pick up a package of that. Williams Brothers has a pork sausage with apples and cinnamon that was another automatic “keeper.” Williams also had won an award for their traditional-style summer sausage, and it was another automatic standout, something to host a party over.

I suppose I could have written this and complained about the weather (it was pretty cold, and there was still snow on the ground from yesterday), and I could have complained about the lines (though they were much better than last year), but instead I wanted to just rave about the sausage and the care and creativity that these small meat companies put into their work.

It’s just fun to see big grown men standing around and wearing hot-dog hats (like Larry Schubert wore as he sold sausage and laughed, his eyes wrinkling in merriment). Other men wore huge grins on their faces while sporting tee-shirts that promised: “Thick, hot, and juicy!” And the Kurzweil’s people had a new slogan this year: Eat Our Meat.

There’s something ancient, even primitive about the making of sausage—turning the less-than-choice bits of the beast into something irresistibly delicious—and about the celebration that accompanies it. When the Rhineland Wurstjaegers dance about the bounty and abundance of sausage, they are performing, in a specific, sophisticated, ritualized way, an act of thanksgiving that every single human can understand.

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