My name is Tracy and I can’t find the right sausage. When I go into stores, I see lots of bratwurst and hot dogs. I can get locally sourced, cruelty free, sustainable, handmade, creatively-combined tube meats that can be really tasty. But they don’t do the trick. I want Polish sausage—preferably beefy. But I’m in Wisconsin where the ingredient I want doesn’t show up readily. They have their own thing.
Wisconsin food traditions took me by surprise. Although I am from Cleveland, I lived nearly as long in Los Angeles before moving to Wisconsin. When I got here, I saw foods I had never seen before. Cheese curds, poutine (which I know is not from Wisconsin), and Bloody Marys with meat garnishes all took me by surprise. To be honest, so did bratwurst. I don’t think I had ever eaten it; it’s not that I was avoiding it for any particular reason. But it wasn’t served in any of the little neighborhood restaurants I had visited.
When I did have non-breakfast sausage while growing up, it was almost always Polish. With hindsight, I see the cultural logic of at work here. Cleveland was a city of tightly knit neighborhoods, in part due to entrenched segregation that remains today. One thing that’s different between when I was growing up and now is that ethnic lines existed along with racial ones. By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew that there were Polish neighborhoods because I could recognize which street and church names that accompanied various groups. I had internalized the city’s segmentation so thoroughly that it never occurred to me that people in other places might live differently. It also never occurred to me that even though I had few substantive interactions with many of those groups, their foods had influenced my eating habits.
Once I left Cleveland I realized that somehow I absorbed enough from eastern Europeans to think of paprika as a kitchen staple. Then there’s the Polish sausage. It was in our local grocery stores. But my most significant consumption is in the form of the Polish boy. It’s a Polish sausage on a bun with fries, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce. It’s as messy as it sounds. I can’t hold a complicated sandwich to save my life and the plastic utensils don’t stand much of a chance against a good one. Fortunately, this is almost always a carryout food. I can be alone with my food and grab a real knife and fork.
My favorites have beef sausage that’s a bit gristly and a bit spicy, medium sized, crisp browned fries, a basic creamy slaw that’s more cabbage than mayonnaise, and slightly sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. The bread is an afterthought for me. As long as it doesn’t interrupt the experience, I’m fine with it. That means no fancy or chewy rolls allowed. It should come with two wrappings—an inner paper one and an outer foil one. It drips anyway. As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed much broader appetites and I’ve come to think about how the food I eat influences my health. But I still crave Polish boys. They’re good. They’re so very good.
I can’t buy one in Madison. At first I thought it was because of the lack of black-owned barbecue places (There is one now that we hope to feature soon). There’s an entire saga waiting to be told about the lack of black-owned restaurants and bars here. That may be forthcoming too.
What I didn’t know is that I can’t buy the sandwich here because it’s a Cleveland thing. I only discovered that a few months ago when I went online to try to figure out the closest place to get one or at least a good sausage to make one myself. Although the rest of the country has no idea what it’s missing, they’re only served in Cleveland. Even with that, the dish is kind of Internet famous. If you Google “Polish boy” images, you’ll get more than 30 sandwich pictures before you get to a few snapshots of smiling Polish kids.
I know I’m biased toward this taste of my childhood; but my memories of Polish boys from several local barbecue joints is such a warm one and such a common that I couldn’t imagine how relatively rare my experience was. And my neighborhood restaurant visits were so consistently segregated that if I ever thought about what might be at non-black barbecue spot. Places like Hot Sauce Williams, Open Pitt, B & M, and many now-defunct businesses were our preferred destinations rather than consolations. could only imagine a larger physical space, but never thought it would have something we didn’t. In fact, I imagined fewer menu items, less spicy food, no vegetable sides, and no cake. I imagined they would charge more. I didn’t think they’d have Polish boys. Years later when I ventured out to those places, I realized my assumptions were correct. I assumed it was all a matter of taste.
Yet I went through a lot of my adult life thinking that at least around the industrial north, black barbecue places would have Polish boys. They don’t. I never thought they would have much traction in white owned places. They didn’t. But another thing that happened when I searched the Internet for Polish boys is that rather than any of the places mention above or those that have gone by the wayside, I kept getting recipes from Food Network regular Michael Symon and a lot of articles praising place called Seti’s. I had never heard of them. So I looked them up and discovered that they had become Food Network famous and raised the price of their Polish boy to $7. That’s not proper Polish boy pricing. And they offer cheese, which feels very wrong and as the kids say, disrespectful.
It was strange to see this place featured so prominently as a long-standing Cleveland purveyor of the Polish boy. I feel too young to think that any business that started after I had finished college can have legacy status. And what about the people who have been putting their own special twists on the sauce, or ordering their own special sausages for decades longer? Is it habit, or politics, or aesthetics, or the corralling of financial rewards that keeps them from widespread recognition?
This last concern is one of the reasons that Dark Meat exists. There are a lot of people making great food who are are exiled from the admiration heaped on the stars. What would be the stakes in changing the landscape of the culinary adoration world? Is it possible to have a superstar restaurant with a primarily black clientele? Would the recognition be worth all the complications that accompany it?