Thursday, June 11, 2009

Not Quite Up to Common

In 1949, my parents purchased a plot of land in the midst of Ottawa National Forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In subsequent years a ten by fourteen foot, one room plywood "cabin" was built and enlarged, a well was drilled, and a pit toilet was dug. Each summer was built around our family's 612 mile journey to the "Northwoods".

There were a number of activities associated with our annual Northwoods trip that took on the nature of ritual. There was the ceremonial packing of the trailer, my dad's ceremonial huffing and puffing about our being late, and my mom's ceremonial work to get us away on time. Even the hour of departure became ritual: we had to leave around 4 a.m. in order to arrive in Iron River, Michigan before the stores closed. In Iron River we bought ice blocks cut from a lake for our ice boxes, and ordered LP gas in later years after we modernized with a gas refrigerator. We shopped for perishables at Angeli's Market, and purchased boat gas and fishing licenses at Remondini's Standard. On the way out of town we got an ice cream cone at the White Way Dairy.

One especially treasured feature of our Michigan migration was a detour off of highway 41 to Schoneman's Log Cabin Inn in Howards Grove, Wisconsin, for steak sandwiches and bratwursts. Dad had gone to college and seminary at nearby Mission House (now Lakeland College) and knew the place well. The brats were smashed flat, grilled over an open flame, and served on a semi hard roll dripping with butter. The only condiment we ever ordered was pickles. I can still almost taste them.

It was nearly a 7-hour drive from central Indiana to Howards Grove in those days before interstate highways. Rebuffing Mom's repeated offer of egg salad on Wonder Bread, we would talk at length about which kind and how many sandwiches we would order: single brats, double brats, and steaks, our mouths watering the entire time.

The Schoneman's always greeted us warmly and served up their special fare. After (over)eating, we often ordered just one more sandwich to carry with us to the Oldsmobile. It was generally at this point that Dad would offer the ritual malediction: "Well, it wasn't quite up to common." These words, spoken after his consumption of at least two massive double brat sandwiches (and perhaps one steak as well), cued our earnest protestations that our brats were just as good as ever, and maybe better, and that he shouldn't even THINK about not bringing us back for more on the trip back to Indiana.

Associated as it was with all the other wonders of our annual trek to the Northwoods, eating brats in Howards Grove played such a formative role in my life that I could hardly wait to share the experience with Sally. Indeed, our honeymoon trip through Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota was specifically planned around sandwiches at the Log Cabin.

Now, we were married on March 2, 1977. It takes neither first hand experience nor much imagination to envision Wisconsin weather in March. In my defense, we originally planned to be married on Memorial Day, but Sally was simply so eager to enter into matrimonial bliss that we decided to move the date up. Either that or her job in Wyoming became so intolerable that marrying me became the lesser of evils, and even the prospect of a late winter honeymoon in Wisconsin didn't dissuade her.

After our nuptials in Indianapolis, Sally and I turned our wheels North, as my family had done so many times through the years. Since we departed way later than 4 a.m., we stopped for the night at a Red Roof Inn south of Chicago. It was there that Sally's bronchitis worsened (she might say that marriage made her sick) and she developed the worst cough I had ever heard. In the course of that long night the prospect of lighthearted fun in an uninsulated cabin 21 miles from the nearest electrical outlet became dimmer than a smoky kerosene lantern. However, I was not about to give up on my dream of sharing brats and steaks with my beloved, despite her declining condition, so we continued the trip to Howards Grove.

We ate sandwiches, and then drove back home to Illinois to get Sally to a doctor. As I remember it, the sandwiches were fantastic. Our marriage has survived and thrived. The honeymoon, however, was not quite up to common.


  1. And this is still the only way to eat brats. Anyone who cooks them without smushing them and grilling them does not truly understand the glory that is the bratwurst. And thus it is the way it shall always be.

  2. Yeah, I had this one friend in seminary, Blithering Idiot (not his real name) who told me that no one smashed brats, and that they must have been using brat patties, even though we watched them do it at the sainted restaurant. I never was into the whole, "bite into the casing and send streams of hot grease shooting into the stratosphere" style of bratwurst cuisine.