German heritage lives on in the wurstmarts of southern Illinois | Magazine of life and style

by NIKI DAVIS

The first Germans arrived in Illinois in the 18th century, but it was not until around 1830 that German emigration helped build settlements in southern Illinois.

They brought with them their way of life, their way of cooking and their way of celebrating. The trip was arduous, most crossing New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. From there, a stagecoach traveled three times a week to various locations in southern Illinois. Belleville, Lebanon and Maysville were among these judgments in 1831.

St. Clair County was an early settlement because of its proximity to St. Louis. Many of our German ancestors who settled there were farmers, so it was necessary to rely on a trading port like Saint-Louis. The land was fertile and the opportunities plentiful – many were interested in growing grapes for winemaking. By the 1830s, German colonies were being built throughout southwestern Illinois.

The German tradition of the wurstmarkt

In rural German communities, people gathered at the local wurstmarkt to share their homemade sausages. These wurstmarkts were traditionally similar to our fairs and included folk music and dances. One of these wurstmarkts has become the biggest wine festival in the world.

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The Durkheimer Wurstmarkt has been celebrated for almost 600 years. It started as a way for farmers and winegrowers to sell their harvest to pilgrims on their way to St. Michael’s Chapel on Michaelsberg Mountain near Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It got its name “Wurstmarkt” in 1832 due to the massive amount of sausages sold and consumed during the then three-day festival. Today, the festival takes place over two weekends at the end of September.

Wurstmarts in southern Illinois

The tradition of the wurstmarkt was introduced to this country by our early settlers and continues today in many of our own rural German-American communities, often as fundraisers for the community or churches and organizations that s ‘find there. Somewhere along the way we ditched the ‘k’ and the ‘wurstmart’ became an annual event across the region.

Homemade pork sausage is at the center of the local wurstmart dinner. Sauerkraut, green beans, mashed potatoes and applesauce complete the meal as well as the dessert. In some cases, homemade pork sausages and leberwurst (liver sausage) or blutwurst (blood sausage) are sold for people to take home. Music and dancing, crafts and children’s activities are often part of the celebration.

Breese, Illinois, a community built by early German immigrants, is home to one of the area’s first wurstmarts. He began in 1912 in the parish of St. Augustine. Over the next century, many churches and organizations in our rural communities held wurstmarts in the fall and winter. Even during World Wars I and II, communities came together to eat their beloved homemade sausages and sauerkraut despite anti-German sentiment that spread across the country.

Officially celebrating its 61st birthday in 2019, Jacob’s Christ Lutheran Church and School is home to one of the region’s oldest wurstmarts. The Jacob Wurstmart actually started decades ago as a way to celebrate German heritage and later raise money for community improvements. Festival goers spend an afternoon eating pork sausage made from a recipe handed down for generations with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and applesauce. The meal and the recipes have remained the same for over six decades. Craft vendors, a silent auction and live music add to the festivities.

The year 2020 may bring changes

With the wurstmart tradition stretching back over a century in southern Illinois, 2020 may see us taking a break from hosting these events this fall. These are somewhat unprecedented times, certainly for modern America, and events across the region are being postponed or reshaped to keep the residents of our communities safe.

Attending a wurstmart festival is definitely a fun day, and eating traditional German food makes the day even better. However, if we can’t join in this fall, take comfort in knowing that you can create your own wurstmart meal at home. You could even try your hand at making homemade pork sausage or sauerkraut!

To mimic wurstmart food, a good German bratwurst with mashed potatoes, Bavarian sauerkraut and homemade applesauce is enough. If you are more adventurous, you can try making the German Bavarian Potato Salad. We have several local meat markets where you can buy wursts of all kinds including the iconic bratwurst as well as leberwurst or blutwurst. Applewurst is a local favorite offered by several meat suppliers, often made from local apples.

A small batch of sauerkraut can be made using mason jars – and the small batch won’t smell like your basement as much as the big batches our German grandmothers used to do! If you want to try something simpler, gedämpftes kraut (steamed cabbage) is a good substitute. However, you can find quality sauerkraut in a jar or bag at most local grocery stores.

If you get the chance to attend an area wurstmart this fall, don’t hesitate. You will not regret it. If we have to wait a little longer, take the time to sharpen your culinary skills and treat yourself and your family or friends to a good old-fashioned German dinner at home.

Niki Davis is the creator of the food heritage blog Rooted in Foods and a regular contributor to the weekly Taste section of Southern Illinoisan. You can find it at www.rootedinfoods.com.