Hot Ham and a ½ Dozen Free Rolls- A Milwaukee Thing, Ayeee!
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
For decades, generations of Laverne’s, Shirley’s and Ralph Malph’s have been eating hot sliced ham on hard rolls every Sunday after church. While I get that this might sound more like making a sandwich than a bona fide tradition, I assure you that this Cream City ritual is as authentically Milwaukee as eating brats while watching a Packers game or putting brandy and Sprite in your Old Fashioned. (Yup, that’s a thing!)
After the final blessing, scores of church parishioners beeline to their favorite bakery for donuts, danish and ham. Known as a Sunday Special, you get a pound of ham and six fresh-out-the-oven rolls, the kind that are hard and crusty on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside. The second you open the door to any of these bakeries you get hit with the dueling scents of sweet and savory. The ham, sliced to your preferred thickness, is typically served wrapped in foil to preserve the warm temperature. The condensation of juice and steam keeps the meat moist for the ride home.
Or if you are like me and my crew, you can just as well rip open the bread with your hands and make impromptu sandwiches in the back of your rented Ford Edge. Just say’n!
Like the Friday Fish Fry, another popular Midwestern food tradition, the practice of eating hot ham on Sunday mornings is the direct result of religious influence. Nowadays, abstaining from meat is relegated to a few specific holy days, Good Friday, Ash Wednesday and the Fridays during Lent, but prior to 1955, in order to receive Holy Communion, one needed to fast from midnight Saturday until the end of mass. This resulted in pews full of hungry worshippers looking to break the fast the moment service ended. Whether or not the now defunct Milwaukee chain Dutchland Dairy actually invented this combo or were just the ones to first mass market it, they were able to capitalize on the hunger pangs by advertising the “Weekend Special”, 1 pound of sliced ham with a free half dozen rolls. Other local bakeries and delicatessens followed suit and offered this original “value meal”. The custom spread like wildfire throughout the Catholic populated neighborhoods. Even though Milwaukee is now much more diverse than ever and overall religious beliefs are waning, many city bakeries continue to promote this Sunday morning tradition.
Wisconsin is not just the land of cheese. It also has meat, lots of meat. Badger Ham is a family run business now in its third generation of ownership and specializes in just one product. Their hand-cured, double smoked process is a city favorite as is Patrick Cudahy, another turn of the century company. Or take a drive into Polonia, Milwaukee’s historical Polish neighborhood, and stop into a deli for their homemade delicacy served up with pineapples and stained red with cherries. Cut thick or thin you can't go wrong with this treat.
Let’s say hypothetically, you and a friend drank one too many Pabst’s at The Bubbler the night before your first trip to Lambeau Field, this ham sandwich and an orange Gatorade would make a perfect hangover cure. Trust me. Hypothetically.
Pro Tip- Stop along the way from Milwaukee to Green Bay and try as many cheese curds as you can, even if it's from a gas station quick mart.