By Dobie Maxwell – http://www.schlitzhappened.com
Milwaukee is a collection of things and can be described in a variety of ways, but if it had to be boiled down to a single word it would have to be “German”. Many outsiders would likely guess “beer”, “polka” or “bowling”, but that’s not the whole picture. Germans took over in Milwaukee and Wisconsin as Norwegians did in Minnesota – and everyone else either plays along or leaves.
That strong and lasting influence is far from hidden when suburbs are less than subtly given the names “Germantown” and “New Berlin”, and the whole city’s reputation is built around brewing beer. It’s also consumed heavily, and that’s often what leads to dancing polkas and/or bowling.
Sausage in all forms is a familiar staple in every Milwaukeean’s diet, and the word ‘vegetarian’ is used exclusively to describe someone who puts onions on a bratwurst. Gravy has been used as both a beverage and household lubricant, and sauerkraut recipes have been stored in bank vaults.
Other ethnic groups have had an important contributing hand in shaping Milwaukee’s rich and storied culture, but the big dog on the porch is unquestionably a German shepherd. Although my official pedigree is ‘mutt’, I do have a significant amount of German blood pumping in my veins.
That comes courtesy of my paternal grandmother. She raised me along with my grandfather of Russian/Jewish heritage, and that was an interesting mix to say the least. We’ve all seen how the Germans and Jews have hit it off throughout history, and I lived through my own personal battle station during my childhood years watching Grandma and Gramps go at it like enemy soldiers.
I personally experienced German culture firsthand both inside and outside the home, and there are specific characteristics that were consistent with both. First, Germans are a very clean people. Their houses are immaculate – inside and out. Their lawns are manicured to obsessive perfection. Their cars, lawn mowers and anything else of a mechanical nature gets maintained religiously.
I always thought it was funny that a nation with the word ‘germ’ as part of its title has a people so excessively clean that nobody could locate one within a seven mile radius of a German home. My grandmother would wash walls, scrub floors, clean windows and do laundry. She had hands of a surgeon in that she could iron a shirt – while you were wearing it – and not leave a wrinkle.
German people also tend to be a bit icy when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I received my first hug from my grandmother when I was around 37, and it lasted about as long as virginity in the back seat of a Chevy Impala on prom night. She had a look on her face when she did it like the one someone gets when accidentally stepping in a cat litter box barefoot with the lights off.
Suffice to say this is the base on which Milwaukee culture as a whole is built, and we’ve grown accustomed to it over generations. This long built tradition has created a distinct local flavor few other places have outside of The Motherland itself. Adolf Hitler allegedly stated frighteningly he would set up his base of operations in Milwaukee if he won World War II because of the German flavor already there. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if my baseball went on his lawn.