August 20, 2019

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Hot-diggity!

Winnipeggers don't have to look far to find winning wieners for summer feasts

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Old Country Sausage owner Ken Werner stands among some of the 24,000 “world-famous wieners” the company produces daily.</p>

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Old Country Sausage owner Ken Werner stands among some of the 24,000 “world-famous wieners” the company produces daily.

Need some next-level links? You don’t have to look far.

We’re in the heart of summer around these parts, which means we’re in the heart of barbecue season. It’s the time of year Winnipeggers spend fantastic but fugacious summer evenings in their backyards and on their decks, charring up and chowing down on all types of meats.

Many who want to feed a crowd or simply want to cook up something cheap and cheerful turn to the humble hot dog. Americans alone consume 20 billion a year, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says.

If our tastes are anything similar to our southern neighbours, that means many in our city treat tube steaks as their grilling go-to.

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Need some next-level links? You don’t have to look far.

We’re in the heart of summer around these parts, which means we’re in the heart of barbecue season. It’s the time of year Winnipeggers spend fantastic but fugacious summer evenings in their backyards and on their decks, charring up and chowing down on all types of meats.

Many who want to feed a crowd or simply want to cook up something cheap and cheerful turn to the humble hot dog. Americans alone consume 20 billion a year, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says.

If our tastes are anything similar to our southern neighbours, that means many in our city treat tube steaks as their grilling go-to.

However, you can… frankly… do much better than the vacuum-packed dogs in the grocery store cooler. This statement is not meant to disparage the tube steaks most of us eat and enjoy.

However, if you desire a more artisanal experience, there are local butchers all around producing winning wieners that are decidedly higher in quality and… lower in ingredients.

Boiled or grilled, mustard on a dog is king

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Whether it’s barbecued or boiled, condiments play a large role in making a dog. </p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Whether it’s barbecued or boiled, condiments play a large role in making a dog.

Having a good wiener is essential, but the cooking method and condiments are also essential to making any dog top-notch.

Having a good wiener is essential, but the cooking method and condiments are also essential to making any dog top-notch.

Grilling is the most popular way to cook dogs in the U.S., with 63 per cent favouring that method, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Regarding toppings, mustard is king — 71 per cent of hot dogs get slathered with the yellow stuff, the Council says.

But how do our meat masters prefer to cook and top theirs?

Winnipeg Old Country Sausage owner Ken Werner’s preferred method eschews the ‘cue.

“When I take the wieners home — of course it’s the eight-inch natural casing wieners — I boil them,” he said. “Just like the Half Moon. They boil ‘em. Skinners: boil ‘em. That’s where you get that snap.”

Shawn Miller of Miller’s Super Valu Meats favours the grill. When asked which he would choose if he could only pick one sausage in the store, he had trouble deciding but eventually settled on the hot Hungarian.

As for toppings?

“I’m simple. Just ketchup, mustard, and onions,” Miller said, before asking if he could change his answer to “Truff” Hot Sauce, a black truffle oil-infused chili sauce Miller’s imports from Los Angeles.

Werner was unyielding in his answer — he loves mustard, relish, and sauerkraut.

Perhaps the place par excellence for next-level links is Winnipeg Old Country Sausage, which produces 3,000 pounds of "original world famous wieners" — the ones with the distinctive snap when you bite into them due to their natural casing — every day.

"You get eight wieners to the pound so you figure out how many pounds that is!" enthusiastic third-generation owner Ken Werner said to the reporter from his wood-panelled office inside Winnipeg Old Country’s Dufferin Avenue facility.

The reporter did the math. It’s 24,000.

In addition to that, Winnipeg Old Country has an ever-expanding line of big, fat smokies, including cheese, hot Italian, jalapeno, and farmer sausage varieties that has really taken off over the past two years.

Winnipeg Old Country has been in operation since 1912, a family business for the majority of its 107 years (a little more on that later.) One reason for their sustained success is they continue to respect tradition and the tried-and-true way of doing things, right down to the sawdust in their smokers.

The pure pork-and-beef (or all-beef) wieners are available by the pack or in bulk directly from Winnipeg Old Country. They’re also are widely available at grocery chains around the province, including Safeway, Sobeys, Red River Co-op food stores, Food Fare, and at many restaurants, too.

"We sell to 90 per cent of the hot dog — not carts, but joints — in Manitoba," Werner says, rattling off a list that includes New York Burgers, Skinner’s, the Half Moon Drive In, and VJ’s Drive-In.

While Old Country cannot sell its wieners outside Manitoba, they often make it to tables and backyards in other provinces anyway thanks to ex-’Peggers who just haven’t found a suitable substitute.

"We get a lot of people coming in, especially from Calgary, Vancouver. They come in here, old Winnipeggers, you know. They come here and take the wieners back."

One couple doing just that on a Friday afternoon was Dave and Nancy Alderdice, — they were buying 15 pounds of foot-longs to take home to Cambridge, Ont.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Hams hang from a rack at Winnipeg Old Country Sausage.</p>

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hams hang from a rack at Winnipeg Old Country Sausage.

"We know it’s real meat, it’s fresh, they’re amazing over a campfire, they’re amazing right out of the package," Nancy said. "They have the great flavour that has always been. They haven’t changed it."

"We moved out east (from Winnipeg) sixteen years ago, but whenever we come back, we always come here," she explained.

Nancy’s friends are always quick to ask if she’ll be bringing wieners back with her. No, she hasn’t thought of charging them a finder’s or courier’s fee, "but that’s an idea," she laughed.

That’s a sign to Werner they’re doing things right, as is the number of current customers who regale Werner (he works the front desk every Saturday) with tales of when their parents or grandparents brought them decades ago. Nancy fits into that category as well.

Another common scene, from the bygone era when customers were allowed to go right into the coolers to get their orders themselves, is that folks would rip open their packs and start eating before they could even get up to the till to pay, Werner said.

Nancy’s claim "they haven’t changed it" is nearly true… but not quite.

Winnipeg Old Country began as Manitoba Sausage. When the second generation bought out the first generation in the 1970s, they changed the formulation and spice blend Werner’s father Louis — in charge of production — had perfected over the years.

Yes, the interviewer tried to pry out of Werner what some of those spices are. Of course, he wouldn’t divulge a thing.

"When they tried changing the formula, people were complaining, stuff was coming back, it was unreal," said Werner, who worked at Manitoba Sausage beginning in 1970. His first job, believe it or not, was removing the brains from pigs’ heads after they’d been split open.

Those changes rankled Louis. When he pushed back, he got sacked.

When Louis was fired, there was a mass exodus. He and 17 employees opened "Winnipeg Old Country" on nearby Jarvis Avenue, and continued to make wieners the old way.

The customers sided with Louis.

"When my Dad took off, people started eating (his sausages) and saying ‘Oh! That’s the way it used to be,’" Werner says.

Within five years, the new generation had sold Manitoba Sausage to an outside interest and it went into receivership. Louis marched over and bought back the company that fired him.

Winnipeg Old Country has been a family business since and Ken has owned it since 1999. He hasn’t messed with his dad’s recipe.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Shawn Miller displays some of the specialty links available at Miller’s Headmaster Row shop.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shawn Miller displays some of the specialty links available at Miller’s Headmaster Row shop.

Another long-standing family business making from-scratch sausage and helping boost Winnipeggers’ grilling game is Miller’s Super Valu Meats.

Mass-produced hot dogs contain a lot of water, which bulks them up and makes them cheap to produce, Shawn Miller said from his Headmaster Row location.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Buffalo chicken sausage is one of the specials at Miller’s.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Buffalo chicken sausage is one of the specials at Miller’s.

Miller is one of the third-generation partners in the four-location business that’s operated since 1971.

At noon on a superbly sunny Friday, Miller was working the register as customers lined up a dozen deep, clutching tickets and waiting to quash their carnivorous cravings.

Miller, 34, has been making sausage since he was 18 and claims to be "changing the sausage game" with an idea he hatched a few months ago.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Hungarian chorizo (top two racks) and I Dare Ya’s (bottom rack) tempt customers at Miller’s.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hungarian chorizo (top two racks) and I Dare Ya’s (bottom rack) tempt customers at Miller’s.

"There was a period of time where I was just so unimpressed with the sausage that was being made," Miller explained. "So we started doing a weekly special of a fresh sausage that we change every week. Every single week we do something innovative, something different. My main rule is that I only use fresh, vibrant ingredients."

Miller pointed to his latest creation, a green chorizo amped up with fresh cilantro, poblano, serrano, chipotle pepper and garlic.

"We want to do stuff that no one else is doing that you won’t find anywhere else in really any type of butcher shop in Winnipeg," he said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The tools of the trade are on display at Miller’s Super Valu Meats.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The tools of the trade are on display at Miller’s Super Valu Meats.

All the sausages are ground every Thursday at the Headmaster location and distributed to the other three Miller’s on Grant Avenue, Pembina Highway and St. Mary’s Road.

Other limited-time sausages have been bacon cheeseburger, buffalo chicken, and pizza varieties. They’ve also made kimchi-infused selection dubbed ‘The Lil’ Kim-chi’ in homage to the rapper and a Tuscan turkey with a red-pepper purée.

"A lot of people are wanting that poultry item. It’s a bit leaner and some people want to get away from pork and beef, so we try and provide that option as well," Miller said.

All those sausages grill up great, as do their smokies, bratwurst, European wieners and Hungarian sausage, which is dry-cured and cooked in a room-temperature smokehouse.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A chalkboard advertises some of the offerings at Miller’s.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A chalkboard advertises some of the offerings at Miller’s.

"We know what’s in it," Miller said of the latter — just pure pork or beef. "There’s that misconception that they use all the entrails and the snouts and the lips and whatever."

Miller has plans to keep dreaming up sausages for the weekly special. In the winter — although he was loath to even mention the season where grills are buried under six feet of snow — he plans on developing sausages suitable for indoor cooking.

"We try to keep it fresh and try and keep it so that we’re constantly getting people questioning what’s going to come next," Miller said. "That keeps it interesting and fun."

Fun, perhaps, akin to the fun you’ll have this summer creating memories around fabulous franks from Miller’s and Winnipeg Old Country.

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