Sometimes we come across questions that confound us. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we truly have free will? And this week’s profound Bubbler Talk question: What’s up with ham and rolls in Milwaukee?
“I think it’s more of a Milwaukee southside tradition," Carl Canfora says.
He and his wife Rosalba own Canfora Bakery in Bay View.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday and the line for hot ham and rolls snakes through the tiny store. Rosalba says Canfora does about 20 percent of its business between the hours of 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sundays.
As expected, the Carl and Rosalba won’t spill the beans on what makes their product so good. “It’s a secret,” Rosalba says.
But why the high demand for ham and rolls on Sunday mornings?
“It’s like a fish fry on a Friday evening," Brian Schwellinger says.
He’s operations manager at Badger Boiled Ham. Some call it the "Cadillac of ham."
The smell rushes at you, as you walk into the kitchen.
“We cook to hams in hot water and we use steam," he explains.
Just like with fish fries, Brian points to Catholicism as the reason the ham and rolls combo is a big deal here. He says the city’s many Catholics were not supposed to eat before Mass on Sundays, so by the time church let out, people wanted something fast and filling.
He says the tradition started just after World War II. “Small grocery stores and bakeries were really trying to distinguish themselves and this was really the first of convenience food. Quick in and out, easy meal, desert was there and there was competition. And Dutchland Dairy started that in the 1940s."
But according to Brian, the marketing push was the brainchild of a guy named Bob Meurer.
Now, if you’ve been around Milwaukee for a while, you may have heard of Meurer Brothers Bakery. After consulting Google, I found out that the company is now located in Fond Du Lac.
I ended up on the phone with Andrea Meurer, but she told me… “The guy you really need to talk to is Bob. I don’t have his phone number but I can get it for you."
Within minutes, I had Bob on the line. He didn’t take all the credit for brilliantly marketing a simple ham sandwich. “A good friend of mine in the bakery business, he had his own bakery business. It was called Bomberg’s Bakery on the south side. All of a sudden, they went out of business. I asked him how’s that six free rolls is going and he says fine. So I said well maybe I can pick up on that. He said go ahead, you’re free to do that,” he explains.
Bob says the secret may have always been - giving away a half-dozen rolls with each pound of ham.
“People like the word free,” he says.
At nearly 80 years old, Bob still eats hot ham and rolls every Sunday, but he doesn’t buy it from a bakery.
“I buy mine, which is the Badger Boiled Ham product, at a Sentry store in Delafield,” he explains.
Yup, grocery stores now play a huge part in continuing the hot ham and hard roll tradition.
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