Brewers Fans Anticipate the Wurst
To many in Milwaukee, it's not a ball game without a bratwurst slathered with secret sauce
MILWAUKEE — TO Katie Casey, the fan in the 1908 song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," peanuts and Cracker Jack are the snacks of choice at a baseball game. The hot dog, while not on Katie's list, has graced ballparks for almost a century. But the menu of 88 items at Milwaukee County Stadium, home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, indicates that today a few extra verses are needed in the familiar baseball perennial.
"Not everybody who comes to the ballpark wants to eat hot dogs," says George Van Valkenburgh, general manager for County Stadium's concessionaire, Sportservice Inc.
Sitting in his office before a recent Brewers game, Mr. Van Valkenburgh explained how the stadium has adapted to the changing appetites of fans.
"County Stadium now has a bakery where you can get fresh-baked muffins and cookies. We have a delicatessen where they serve all kinds of sandwiches.... You can get a chef's salad if you want," says Van Valkenburgh. Other nontraditional fare includes pizza by the slice, tacos, and soft-serve yogurt.
"It used to be hot dogs, popcorn, beer, and soda, and that was basically it. And about 10 years ago, maybe 12 years ago, [consumers] started wanting more things at the ballpark," explains Van Valkenburgh.
At County Stadium, the popularity of the food is apparent.
"Everyone seems to be eating here," observes Daniel Rundqvist, a visitor from Sweden attending his first baseball game.
Game-goers can buy ballpark delicacies at their seats from vendors, or on the decks at concession stands. And if searching for a particular savory treat, customers need only locate one of the 14 wall-mounted "Hungry Fan Maps" that answer the question "Where can I find...?"
But even with its diversity of foods, County Stadium is best known for one thing: bratwurst.
"I have sampled the ballpark food in all parks in the major leagues, and most are only so-so. Some are quite commendable. But far and away the champion, the single best item available in any ballpark ... would be the bratwurst with special sauce, a little brown mustard, and perhaps some sauerkraut, at County Stadium in Milwaukee," said NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas in a phone interview.
A bratwurst, as explained by Van Valkenburgh, is a cross between a hot dog and a polish sausage, with a pork base and spices. (County Stadium's brats are supplied by Klement's of Milwaukee.) Sausages are king
"A 'brat' is strictly a Midwestern deal," says Mr. Costas, long-time announcer for the former NBC "Game of the Week" baseball program. "They have them at Comiskey Park [Chicago], they have them at Wrigley Field [Chicago], they have them at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, but none of them are as good as the one at County Stadium."
Brewer fans are also loyal to the stadium's bratwurst.
"We can't come to a ballgame without getting a bratwurst, and that's not necessarily true at any other ballpark that we go to," says Lynda South, who is attending the game with her husband, daughter, and grandson.
The Souths, residents of Franklin, Wis., say food is an important part of their ballpark experience.
But brats are only one of six sausages available here. The others: Bavarian, kosher, Italian, Polish, and, of course, hot dogs.
"In Milwaukee, a city with a strong German heritage, sausages are king," wrote Bob Wood in his 1988 book, "Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks: The Ultimate Guide to America's Top Baseball Parks."
Mr. Wood, a ninth-grade history teacher, traveled to all the major league ballparks and rated them in various categories, including food.
Of the 26 parks (not including Baltimore's new Camden Yards), County Stadium tied for first in the food category with three others: Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., and the old Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Wood continues: "Buried in a soft, fresh bun, smothered in kraut and doused with a splash of that secret stadium sauce, baseball doesn't feature a tastier wiener."
The distinctive and mysterious "secret stadium sauce," a barbecue sauce, is a County Stadium staple kept hot on the gas grills for patrons to have spread on sausages right before their eager eyes.
"I believe that the formula [for the secret sauce] is every bit as secret as the formula for Coca-Cola," remarks Costas. Spiced with ambience
The sauce, distributed by Milwaukee Sportservice, is for sale at County Stadium and in Wisconsin grocery stores. The ingredients are listed on the bottle, but a skeptical Costas says, "That's just to fake you out." Among the ingredients is an unspecified "spices," which appears to be wherein the secret lies.
Those who enjoy the brat and secret sauce say that something is missing when you try making it at home.
"You're lacking the ballpark ambience," Costas says.
If one secret condiment isn't enough to tempt sausage eaters, there is always the secret stadium mustard. A brown mustard of a heavier consistency, it too makes a sausage a lip-smacking experience. But this item is only available at the stadium and is not packaged for distribution.
For those who like to think of the hot dog as the traditional ballpark fare, rest assured that they do well here, too. In fact, hot dogs are No. 3 on the bestseller list at County Stadium, according to Van Valkenburgh. The No. 1 and No. 2 spots go to beer and soda, respectively, and No. 4 is the brat.
"If you're going to the ballpark, you've got to have a hot dog - it's just as important as going to the game," says author Wood in a phone interview.
Home to a team named the Brewers, it's not surprising that County Stadium's bestseller is beer. But those who serve customers here recognize the need to provide an appropriate environment for consumption.
According to Van Valkenburgh, all Sportservice personnel go through an alcohol training program twice a year on how to identify and handle individuals who are intoxicated.
In addition, three designated family sections, located around the stadium, offer an atmosphere free of alcohol and smoking.