November 27th, 2009

Summer Sausage

Summer sausage season is rapidly approaching. Grandpa always butchered hogs in late October or early November when the weather was cool but before the constant rains had made the yard muddy. The first sausage came out of the smoke house when Christmas visiting started around my uncle’s birthday, December 18th.

My grandparents made three kinds of sausage: summer sausage, liver sausage, and blood sausage. The least controversial and most popular of the three was summer sausage, which is actually broad category of sausage that keeps without refrigeration, not a specific recipe.

The sausage stuffer

The sausage stuffer

Some form of summer sausage appears in most culinary traditions. It can be made in any season of the year, although its name comes from its resistance to spoilage  during the warm summer months. It is usually preserved by a combination of fermentation, nitrates, and drying, often accomplished by smoking. All of these preservation methods add to the flavor and texture of the sausage, although modern summer sausage makers often take short cuts by adding lactic and citric acid in place of fermentation, smoke flavoring instead of smoking, and keeping the product refrigerated so a hard cure is not necessary.

Sausage scientists often point out that modern methods are safer and more reliable than the old techniques, and their statistics and bacterial studies are no doubt correct, but visitors came from all over at Christmas time to sample and praise my grandparent’s summer sausage. Poking around in odd corners of the north county, I still occasionally run into old folks who claim to remember their summer sausage.

I  have only the slimmest and most tenuous memory of the old sausage. I mentioned in my last post that Grandpa slit his last pig’s throat in about 1956. The last batch of summer sausage was made by the old rule when I was only seven.

And I hated it. I remember sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table. Grandma sliced her homemade bread in the German style, without a cutting board,  holding the bread against her apron covered chest and rolling the loaf as she sawed away with her bread knife. But she put the summer sausage on a cutting board and sliced it on the table in thin even slices, a mere sixteenth of an inch thick. Summer sausage was consumed open-faced on bread spread with butter. There was absolutely no thought given to cholesterol in that kitchen. My grandmother was still swinging an ax and splitting her own stove wood when she turned 90. She might not have ever died if she had paid attention to her triglycerides and low density lipids.

With all the praise heaped on summer sausage, I always expected it to be good. But every time I tried to like it, I would bite into one of the whole peppercorns that laced every slice, setting my mouth on fire and forcing me to drink glass after glass of water.

There was no recipe for the old summer sausage. My grandmother had few recipes and my grandfather never wrote anything down. Grandma had a collection of cook books that she was proud of, but did not use. At the same time, my grandmother was an inspired cook. Her methods were all simple and called for a little of this and a pinch of that and most of her cooking was done on a combination wood electric range where temperatures varied according to the seasoning and species of the fire wood as much as the setting of a dial. Fortunately, my mother had a more analytic approach to cooking. She was not inspired like Grandma, but she had recipes and kept note of the changes she made. My mother recorded the recipes for liver and blood sausage. But not the recipe for summer sausage.

The old sausage was made with pork meat only, unlike many summer sausage recipes that call for beef or venison, even bear. There was lots of pepper. They used Morton’s meat curing salt, so it probably found its way into the summer sausage. I have a notion that they used thyme from the garden, but I can’t gage the reliability of a seven-year-olds vague memory.The sausage was stuffed into about inch and a quarter casings tied into rings. The rings were strung on poles and suspended over a low and smoky vine maple fire in the smoke house for about a month.

I am absolutely certain I would love my grandparent’s summer sausage if I had it today.

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