Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Tavern Life

While wandering about through my old Dell Inspiron files, I found an article I did for my Wisconsin Folklore class at UW (2004). I remember writing this paper around 3:00 a.m. because it was due that morning. I think I'd just gotten off work. It's kind of funny and not very well-written, but here she is:

Tavern Life

by Suzanne S. Album

What Makes ME an Authority?

I am a writer, so I make a practice of observing and noting sociological and physical characteristics of places and things in order to construct realistic characters and settings. I have been a bartender in Wisconsin since 2000, for two locally owned taverns. One tavern is Rusty’s (est. 1963), located in Middleton, Wisconsin [since closed, now a Sonic] where I worked for four years, and the other is Irish Waters (est. 1979) [since closed, sits vacant] where I have worked for two years [left late 2006]. Previous to my bartending in Wisconsin, I bartended in locally owned bars for close to nine years in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and in Denver, Colorado. In my travels over the past fifteen years, I have also been to, and frequented, bars anywhere from California to Canada, Mexico to Florida, and unbeknownst to my folks, several hotel bars across Europe when I was sixteen. Comparing and contrasting my experiences and observations, I find that there are some sociological factors that stand out as being distinctly that of Wisconsin tavern life, some of which are: the prevalent usage of nicknames; Wisconsin’s various uses for brandy; bar sponsorship of local sports/recreational teams; the odd variety of reading materials; and discussions between people that I like to call “What’s for Dinner?”.


It doesn't seem to matter much where these nicknames came from. They might be from grade/high school, the military, sports/recreational teams, bar buddies, family, or friends. When these nicknames leave the social context in which they originated, and find an entry into the life of the Wisconsin tavern, they are carried on.

Let’s start with something that occurs with great frequency when addressing or referring to another person in a bar, the habit that people have of shortening a name, adding a “y”, an “ey”, or an “ie”, and then proceeding to call the person by said construction. When I worked at Rusty’s, I did not work for Daniel Adler and James Passini, I worked for “Danny” and “Jimmy,” two men in their fifties. If anyone called or stopped by asking for them by their full names, they were most like solicitors and I was directed to avoid them. When they introduced themselves to others, it was as “Dan” and “Jim,” respectively.

Sometimes, people do not even have to shorten a name to abuse it. My poor friend Paul gets called “Pauly” on a regular basis. The guy is about 6’4” and probably weighs close to 300 pounds. I would venture to say that close to a quarter of my customers and coworkers over the past six years, upon learning my name, call me “Suzie”, though I have never introduced myself as such, especially at age thirty-five. I've not decided whether I care for my nickname, but as with anyone who has this happen to them in Wisconsin, it definitely won’t matter whether I like it or not because people will continue to use it.

Then, there are some people who are called by their last names or some bastardized form: there’s Don Jensen, who is always “Jens” or “Jensen” (customer at Sweeney’s Oakcrest Tavern, Rusty’s, Sport Bowl, Village Green); Ben Peck is “Peck” (bartender at Irish Waters who can frequently be overheard yelling “Don’t call me Benny!”); and Larry Ostermayer (manager of Sweeney’s Oakcrest Tavern), who for the majority of his life in Madison has been called “Oscar” because his last name sounds like Oscar Mayer. Just recently, there are a few who have taken to calling me “Al” because of my last name. Again, I don’t know quite what to make of this, but I will say I prefer it to “Suzie."

Other nicknames are given for a variety reasons. Again, my friend, Paul, who I mentioned earlier is also referred to as “Too Tall Paul." My ex-boss, Jim Passini, is also called “Wiener” by many, many people (I have no earthly clue where this came from and, when asking about it, no one else could/would tell me either). My friend Spider, who I know from Rusty’s, Kollege Klub, University Bookstore, and the Oakcrest, got his nickname from the way he used to move across the football field in high school. He is now somewhere between sixty-eight and seventy-two years old. I still have no idea what his real name is.


Ah, Wisconsinites LOVE their brandy! The first day I bartended at Rusty’s in mid-October, a customer asked me for a Korbel and Coke. I, of course, replied something akin to “you want CHAMPAGNE in your COKE?” Needless to say, this was but the first of many lessons I would learn regarding Wisconsin’s favorite liquor. I believe that same day I learned how to make both an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. Not too long after this, I learned of the perceived curative powers of blackberry brandy. Here are some recipes I can do in my sleep:

Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet – Wisconsin Style

1 ½ -2 oz brandy (Korbel, Christian Brothers, E& J, etc.)

3 dashes bitters (Angostura)

½ oz simple syrup (sugar water or corn syrup)

Lemon – lime soda (7-up, Sierra Mist, etc.)


Garnish: orange or green olive

(whole maraschino cherry or grenadine optional)


In a large tub (9-10 oz glass), muddle brandy, simple syrup, and bitters (and 2-3 maraschino cherries, or grenadine if desired); add ice; add soda; garnish with an orange or an olive (ICK! An olive in this always makes me a little queasy.)

Brandy Manhattan – Wisconsin Style

2 ½ -3 oz brandy

½ oz sweet vermouth (or, if perfect, sweet and dry; or, if dry, sub dry)

Ice or up

Garnish: maraschino cherry or green olive (ICK!)


In a small tub (6-7 oz glass), add ice; add brandy; add vermouth; garnish with a cherry or an olive (again, ICK!)

Blackberry Brandy

1 – 4 oz.


May be served on the rocks (ice) or up (no ice) dependent upon preference. Also may be warmed when dealing with cold, flu, cough, chilled hunters, cold fishermen, broken-hearted people, people returning from outdoor sporting events, etc.

Reading Materials

In every bar I have ever worked in, conversations are littered with trivia and urban legend. The difference that I have found with Wisconsin bars is there are so many sources of trivial information just lying around, shoved in drawers and cubbies, and carried in by customers and coworkers. When I was at Rusty’s, you could go into any drawer or cupboard behind the bar and come out with things such as: road atlases, the owners’ high school yearbooks, ten-year-old football stat books, supply magazines, bar photo albums, last year’s football and NASCAR pools, almanacs, joke books, phone books, Trivial Pursuit cards, newspaper clippings, loose fifty-year-old photos of customers’ family reunions, Badger football posters, and all kinds of things to read that keep the trivia going strong and the boredom of a slow day/night from setting in. Customers would often bring in some of these types of materials, as well as catalogues containing items for sale that could be perused and commented on for value. These catalogues often lead to discussions on what local businesses offer and where to get the best deal, what local businesses should be patronized, and which should not.

Many of the reading materials in Wisconsin bars can simply be found on the walls and doors. Local liquor distributors work with the owners on putting up beer/liquor signs and specials signs. Many taverns have newspaper and magazine clippings up that critique their bars or give historical information. Local sports teams get their posters up and bar-sponsored recreational teams’ trophies often sit on shelving where the plaques may be read by the customers. Bar owners have up notices to their customers with information of bar related events and codes of conduct. Many taverns have a bulletin board in the main entry for the community’s use. All of these things contribute to the ambience and d├ęcor of the taverns.

Local Sports and Recreation & the Tavern

In my years at Rusty’s, no summer month (really, every other week) would go by without one of Middleton High School’s various clubs and teams doing a car wash in the parking lot. No summer Sunday would pass without the majority of the Middleton Home Talent baseball team coming in to celebrate a win or be console over a loss. Rusty’s sponsored a bowling team, a basketball team, a softball team, a volleyball team and numerous pool teams. Irish Waters has an annual golf outing and sponsors a basketball team. Rusty’s runs a bus to every Badger home game at $5 per person for the ride there and back. They give away a free drink, whatever the customer may be drinking, on every Packer touchdown. The Village of Shorewood adult soccer team makes its home in Irish Waters every Tuesday night during the summer, because we offer them deals and spoil them rotten. I’ve noticed with my visits to several of Wisconsin’s bars, statewide, that these taverns take extreme pride in the role that they play in contributing to their customers livelihood inside and outside of the bar. They display the trophies with pride.

“What’s For Dinner?”

The interest that bar patrons and workers show toward what is being eaten and how food is being prepared at home, at celebrations, at local restaurants, and during holidays, is absolutely astounding. Everyone seems to want to know what your having for dinner. Many a time have I sat at the Oakcrest discussing food with various employees and fellow customers. Vernie likes to talk with me about how her husband makes “Beercan Chicken” or “Deep-fried Turkey." Motts (or many call him Mottsie) makes it a regular habit of inviting me over to see the renovations he has done on his home, luring me with barbeque duck off his new Weber gas grill. At Rusty’s, Geno used to bring in tastes of his mother’s peanut brittle. He started bringing it so regularly that I had peanut brittle coming out my ears. I finally asked him for his mother’s recipe, so that I could tell him that I was making it at home. People in taverns trade recipes, giving each other advice on preparation and enjoy discussing food.

One of the funniest incidents that I ever heard about with food at its center involved a man named J___. It was New Year's Eve, 1999, at Rusty’s. J___’s mother, R___, was well known in the bars for her deviled eggs. For any special occasion involved with either Rusty’s, or the Oakcrest (two old family haunts for R___’s family), R___ would send J___ with a huge platter of deviled eggs. J___ has a little drinking problem and this was really late at night when he was sent on his errand that required so much pomp with presentation. J___ decided that he would come in the bar dressed (or undressed) as “Baby New Year." But, it was awfully cold that night, so he left his boots and flannel shirt on. Needless to say, he was escorted back to his van to retrieve his pants, undershirt, and underpants, but the eggs stayed in the ba. No one bothered to watch the comedy of him being redressed in the parking lot by a disgusted bartender. Everyone was afraid they’d miss the eggs. The deviled eggs had all been eaten before he got back inside.