UNTIL I BECAME acquainted with the Wisconsin view of forcemeats, bratwurst seemed to me to be just another sausage, a mixture of seasoned meats and spices, more mild-mannered than Italian and Polish sausage, and faintly sweet.
This, I have learned, is not an attitude that plays well with the residents of Sheboygan, Wis., and its environs.
For them, the brat is the sausage of the gods, Wisconsin soul food. That is among the lilting tributes paid to it on a Web site slathered with passion and mentions of mustard (www.bratwurstpages.com).
For the brat lover, attachment to a particular sausage maker is strong and tribal. For the brat lover, opinions on the correct cooking method run deep, even if the difference in techniques revolves mainly around when the brat gets a bath in beer -- either before or after its time on the grill.
Finally, for the brat lover, crimes committed against brats, such as breaking the casings, serving brats in ordinary hot dog buns, not in the revered Sheboygan hard rolls, or serving them with wimpy yellow mustard, instead of the stouter German or Dijon, require swift punishment. Two brat mistakes and you're out, banished to Chicago or some other sausage-deprived outpost.
My introduction to the heightened state of bratwurst awareness came from John and Connie Lisch. They live in Baltimore but buy their brats in bulk from Wisconsin.
On any New Year's Eve, chances are good the Lisches are in Sheboygan, visiting John's relatives, firing up charcoal grills and getting ready for the first "brat fry" of the new year. "Brat fry" and "brat boil" are just a Wisconsin way, I learned, of saying cooking them on the grill.
Connie Lisch, a native of Baltimore, described the way the brat-eaters bring in the new year in Sheboygan.
"As it goes in Wisconsin, you have to be the first one to have a 'fryout' for the new year," she wrote in an e-mail to me. "This involves having the Weber [kettle grill] set up with charcoal and a chimney starter around 11:30 p.m. so by midnight the coals are ready. At 12:01, you put the Miesfeld brats on the grill. ... Nothing speaks good luck like the first brat fry. Forget herring and champagne; bratwurst seems to be the way to go in Wisconsin. Of course, beer is required, but that's a different subject altogether."
The Miesfeld brats she referred to are made by a third-generation family of Sheboygan sausage makers who use a basic German recipe for the pure version and have added new flavors such apricot and Cajun for the spicier versions. The brats made by Johnsonville, another Sheboygan sausage maker, are probably the better-known brat, John Lisch said, but he prefers the Miesfeld.
Lisch became enamored of Miesfeld brats about three years ago when one of his brothers organized an informal brat tasting while Lisch was visiting Sheboygan. The Miesfeld brats did not shrink much, he said, and their flavor appealed to him. In Sheboygan, he said, your favorite bratwurst is a personal matter. "It is almost like crab seasonings in Baltimore. ... Everybody has his own favorite."
Since these preferred brand of brats are not sold in Baltimore-area stores, the Lisches stock up during visits to Sheboygan, sometimes hauling back as much as 60 pounds of frozen, vacuum-packed Miesfeld brats in their luggage and storing them in a freezer in their Bolton Hill home.
Moreover, Connie Lisch said, the family understanding is that any relative traveling from Wisconsin is welcome to stay in their Baltimore home, provided the visitors bring brats.
As for cooking methods, John Lisch said he cooks the brats on a charcoal grill until the skin is brown, not black. If he needs to hold them a while before serving, he tosses them in a pot of beer, water, onions and butter. If he's feeling ambitious, he sautes onions and puts them on the brats, he said. If not, he said, he just fishes an onion out of the beer bath and drops it on the brat.
As for parboiling, cooking the brats in a beery liquid and then finishing them on the grill, Lisch is against it. "They don't do that in Sheboygan," he said.
As for what a brat is served on, the Sheboygan answer is a hard roll. It has a hard crust, soft inner chambers and holds "a double," or two brats.
Sheboygan hard rolls are hard to find outside Wisconsin, so I pulled a recipe for them from the brat Web site.
The recipe called for a teaspoon of malt extract. I searched for days before finding a large can of malt extract at Annapolis Home Brew, a store in Severna Park that sells beer-making supplies.
My hard rolls turned out much harder than they should. I used whole-wheat flour instead of a softer bread-making flour, and some of the resulting rolls could serve as patches for plaster walls.
So while my grilled Miesfeld brats were a big hit at dinner the other night, my hard rolls were not. I can keep trying the recipe until I get the hard rolls right. Judging by the supply of malt extract I have got sitting around, I could be making rolls, and cooking brats, all summer.