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Sausage Making Memories

Pfau, Joanne. "Sausage Making Memories." GROW Quarterly Newsletter 10, no. 3: April-May-June 2011, 5-6.


Joanne Pfau

While growing up in North Dakota, sausage making day was a social event at our house.  We lived at the ‘home place’ so most of the butchering and meat processing was done at our house.  Often uncles, aunts or cousins would butcher along with us.  We would share the work and share the rewards.

I don’t remember the beginning of the process as my Dad did not want us kids around until after the meat was hung.  He usually did that on a Friday while we were at school.  When we got home the sections of the hog would be hanging in the shed to cool.  We would spend Friday evening getting the equipment out, washing everything, setting out the tables, washing everything, sharpening knives, washing everything, preparing food for the next day, washing everything, and we would have to clean house because we were getting company!

On Saturday morning people would arrive.  We would have coffee, and breakfast for anyone who was hungry.  Mom liked to fry the brains for breakfast.  That delicacy is an acquired taste.  Then the meat cutting would begin.

The liver would be cooked for liver sausage.  The tongue would be cooked and the disagreement would start as what it would be used for.  Sometimes it went into head cheese.  Other times Mom would keep it to slice for sandwiches.  I usually monitored the cooking of these while I was preparing lunch and doing dishes (again).  When the tongue was done I would sample it, several times.

The meat was cut, wrapped in freezer paper, labeled and frozen.  Keeping the meat cool was not a problem in North Dakota.  We kept it in covered containers outside and hoped it wouldn’t freeze before we were ready for it.

The ham portions were kept in a tub of water until the brine was prepared.  We would thread about three feet of store string through the upper shank of each piece.  After securing the string we would attach a piece of paper with a description of that piece of meat to the other end of the string.  Brine was prepared in a barrel or crock.  The meat was placed in the brine with the description end of the string hanging over the edge of the crock.  This was covered and kept cold in a shed.  The top inch or two of the brine would stay frozen throughout the winter.  When we wanted something out of it, we would break the ice and use the descriptions on the paper tags to find the string attached to the piece of meat we wanted.  Then you would follow the string to the right piece and pull it out.  If you ever plunged your arm into freezing brine water only to grab the wrong ham and then have to plunge in again, you can appreciate this method.

After lunch the sausage making would begin.  Dad had hooked an electric motor to the meat grinder.  This worked really well.  He handled the grinding of the meat.  Again, no kids were allowed close to the grinder.  Some people used kidneys, lungs or glands for sausage.  But Dad never did.  He said, “Good sausage starts with good meat.”

Dad mainly seasoned the ground meat with salt, pepper, brown sugar, a cure like TenderQuik or Freeze-Em Pickle, and garlic.  The fresh garlic was cleaned and thinly sliced.  It was steeped in warm water for about 20 minutes and then poured through a strainer.  The garlic was discarded and the water was used in the sausage.   He would vary using other spices.  The measurements were always in ‘handfuls’ and were never written down.  My father-in-law would count the flecks of pepper on the back of his hand after mixing the meat to determine if there was enough pepper in the meat.  No one remembers how many flakes it took to be just right.  So much knowledge has been lost.

While mixing the meat, they would squeeze the mixture in their hands to see if it was “schmootze” enough to slide through the stuffer.  I don’t know where that word came from or how you would translate it to English.

About this time Dad and his brothers would tell us the story their father told them.  Grandpa John served in the Czar’s infantry and told of a sausage that did not need refrigeration.  He said only the Russian government made it.  They always speculated about how that sausage was made.

After the meat was mixed, we would fry some samples to taste.  There would be disagreements about too much garlic or not enough pepper.  Adjustments were made and more samples tasted.  Finally the stuffing would begin.

We used hog casings for the regular sausage and sheep casings for the sausage links.  One of my jobs was sorting and un-tangling the casings.  Oh, how those casings could get knotted!  Dad would blow into one end of the casing so it would be easier to slip onto the nozzle of the stuffer.  We would take turns turning the crank.  We had to keep a steady pressure and pace so the casings would fill evenly and not rupture.  Dad would make each section about 18 inches long, and then twist it in the middle so it would hang for smoking.

The amount of sausage we made varied with how many people were involved and how much meat they had. In an average year about 100 pounds was made.  Most years we also made blood sausage, liver sausage and head cheese.

Now, remember that all this while there were dishes to be done. Every time one phase ended, all of those tubs, bowls, knives, pans, etc. had to be washed and dried.  And we had to have all of the equipment clean and ready for the next phase.

The sausages that were being smoked were hung on poles and kept cold overnight.  This gave the seasonings time to mingle.  The smoking process started the next morning.

My favorite part of the day came around 8 at night.  One of my aunts or cousins made soup and another made bread that day.  (Usually they cooked in their own kitchens.)  They brought these to our house and we cooked sausage.  People who had been working all day sat down to this feast for supper.

We had been talking, laughing and joking all day, but now the story-telling started.  They told stories of family, their childhoods, adventures and dreams.  This is where I learned the history of my family.  It was a time filled with love, acceptance, belonging and satisfaction in a job well done.

Yes, sausage making was a social event for us.  How could such hard work have been so much fun?

Printed with the permission of Joanne Pfau.

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