Braunschweiger: Food of the Dads

Pungent and porky, braunschweiger is not kid food. It wasn’t for this kid, at least. I remember my Dad crafting appalling concoctions atop slices of Pepperidge Farm rye bread: there’d be generous smears of braunshweiger as pink as a wolf’s tongue, fresh slices of homegrown tomato, and baby Swiss cheese from the Amish deli. He’d slide the whole works into the toaster oven to melt the cheese, and then he’d squirt overlapping curlicues of spicy brown mustard all over the top. This, to him, was not only a spectacular breakfast, but a breakfast best consumed sometime between six and seven in the morning, something to cap off with his first Winston on the day. The fumes of liver and caraway mingled with brewing coffee as I crept out of bed, adding another layer of difficulty to facing the upcoming school day.

Everything about braunschweiger it disgusted me. Colloquially in our home it was known as “liver pudding.” Actual liver pudding, it turns out, is more akin to scrapple; it’s a specialty of the Carolinas. Braunschweiger and liver pudding both belong to the working-class branch of the charcuterie family tree, a form of sausage-making that’s flourished in the Midwest, where matter-of-fact German, Hungarian, Italian, and Swedish immigrants settled and established decidedly unsexy food traditions.

Braunschweiger itself is more similar to pâté. Smooth and spreadable, it’s packed into large casings—hog bung casing, classically, which is between three and four inches in diameter, though nowadays, most braunschweiger is packed into plastic casing. It is a cousin to liverwurst, but not as pale. Pork liver is its main ingredient, though assertive spices and smoke match the intensity of the liver. It is not a light food.

It is also not a pretty food; most spreadable meats are not known for their beauty. Its rose-gray color resembles old-lady lipstick that languished at the bottom of a purse for a few years too many. Lipstick aside, it is not a feminine food. There was a time when the average Midwestern dad exceled in building off-putting braunschweiger snacks. These can be on Saltines, or squishy white bread, or slabs of dark and hearty pumpernickel. Mayonnaise, ketchup, yellow mustard, or pickles may or may not be involved. Same goes for slices of onion. There are those who prefer a sandwich format, though purists enjoy the more balanced braunschweiger-to-meat ratio afforded by an open-face construction.

While my love of sausage has been lifelong, my love of liver products began to assert itself only after the birth of my daughter, nearly five years ago. Becoming a parent triggered an unforeseen shifting of gears—almost like a reprogramming of my bodily makeup—and polarizing foods that were previously off-putting gained a naughty allure to me. When Fino sherry, pickled plums, pawpaws, or taleggio enter our kitchen, they find no takers but me.

Thus, while pushing my cart past the cheese-and-lunchmeat aisle at our local outlet of the German-owned discount grocery chain Aldi, I nestled the fat tube of braunschewiger into my cart without a second thought. “Whoa, I’ve never seen braunschweiger here before,” I thought. “I can share half of it with Dad.” This is an advantage of living in the same town as my folks.

But Mom had also been to Aldi that week, and she’d nabbed a tube all for Dad. It would be all up to me to handle the baunschweiger-eating in my own family’s house. Despite being a dad himself, my husband is not lover of old-world lunchmeat. We have a generally balanced relationship that isn’t confined by the traditional gender roles of parenthood, but something about my claim to the braunschweiger tube empowered me. Braunschweiger is the food of pants-wearers.

Here’s how to fix it up. First, toast a slim slice of rye bread, the firm and chewy kind that’s very dark brown and keeps for ages. Then spread on a thin but even layer of braunschweiger. It’s heavy-duty stuff; a little goes a long way. Top that with whole-grain mustard, thin slices of ripe red tomato, and a square of Swiss cheese. Since we don’t have a toaster oven, I pop it under the broiler to get the Swiss a little bubbly.

I’ve enjoyed it as a late afternoon snack, an early lunch, and—yes—a breakfast between six and seven in the morning. The portion itself is not humongous, but it sits expansively in the stomach. A dainty serving size on one slice of bread is ample to carry you through hours of honest productivity, something Dad-like such as working on an engine or cleaning out gutters. Since I don't do those things, I can vouch that it also fuels bourgeois working-mom activities, things like bike rides and power-folding of five loads of laundry.

A few days ago Mom and Dad were over to drop off our daughter, Frances, who had spent the night at their house. I was in the middle of making myself a braunschweiger lunch, so I put one together for him, too. (Frances: "Yuck.") In matters of international affairs and local politics, there is possibly not one opinion we share. Sometimes, I can’t even divine if the bizarre proclamations about communists and Muslims that pass his lips are sincere, or a stubborn bravado from another era, a remainder from his time as a pilot in Vietnam and his upbringing in a household with a WWII combat veteran (Grandpa Bir was also a lover of braunschweiger.) But I am glad we both understand the superiority of an open-face braunschweiger sandwich in the fall, when the last of the garden tomatoes overlap with weather that’s chilly enough to warrant putting 500 calories of saturated fat into your body.

I assume braunschweiger is not a unifying food of new fathers in America. What would be—bags of Flamin’ Hot Fritos? Quickly drained cans of Rockstar Blue Ice? The inner workings of my dad always mystified me, and they still do, but as a grownup now, I feel more equipped to consider why he is the way he is: a whip-smart civil engineer who watches Fox News, consistently votes against tax increases, and volunteers his time regularly to deliver food to pantries and hot meals through a food recovery nonprofit. In his mid-70s, he routinely puts in 60-hour work weeks, and he still smokes Winstons. He also would not turn down a bag of Flamin’ Hot Doritos, but it's good that Dad is around to hold down the fort for the Braunschweiger Generation. They don’t make them like that anymore.