11 November 2009

Sausage trio

I feel like I’m learning a language that once was widely spoken but now is remembered by only a few old people and a small, growing number of non-native speakers. I served a trio of homemade sausages at our decade-old dinner club on Saturday. The centerpiece was a grilled rabbit sausage seasoned with juniper berry and tarragon; it was featured because my kids and I raised and butchered the rabbits we used for the sausage. Also on the plate was a grilled garlic and marjoram sausage; a simple garlic sausage poached in a reduced white wine and rabbit stock glaze; braised, home-cured sauerkraut, and duckfat-roasted potatoes.

A good sausage opens a door to a nearly extinct way of life in this country. After I cut up the rabbit meat, mixed herbs and fat and salt together, pushed the meat into a hog casing and finally tasted the juicy melding of texture and flavor, all contained in a perfect cooking medium (the casing,) I felt like John Keats in On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – I was seeing and feeling and tasting sausage for the first time. Sausage, like Homer, has been around for a long time, and the craft of making sausage from scratch makes it clear what a perfect food the sausage is; like a sonnet it has a somewhat regulated form, with plenty of traditional variations – and a long history of improvisation on the inside.

While our culinary landscape was nearly razed by decades of indifferent food habits, small pockets of traditional food-craft continued and are now enjoying a buzz of attention. I hope we see a trend that materializes into an industry as rooted as the small craft-brewery tradition. Many cities in the US, including my hometown of Buffalo, New York, supported numerous breweries through the end of WWII, and then the gradual decline began, until too many people were drinking bad beer. By the late 1960s, local breweries were facing extinction. A decade ago the revival of beer-making skills was a solid trend, and today, the outlook for craft beer is remarkable. The selection and quality of beer today exceeds anything available twenty-five years ago; the craft didn’t die, and today’s brewmasters have reached new heights of creativity and good tasting beer. Will the same thing happen to other food traditions?

Earlier this evening I was reading a Trixie Belden novel (published in 1948) with my daughter. A chapter opens with Trixie feeding the family’s chickens and talking with her dad about having the cockerels for dinner that weekend. Somehow, between the end of WWII and now, most Americans gave up the backyard flock of chickens that were commonplace enough at the end of WWII to include in a popular series of books for girls. And now there’s this resurgence, a remembering of our parents and grandparents and elderly neighbors who immigrated here and brought with them the local traditions of their hometowns and cultures. They canned and made sauerkraut, raised chickens and butchered pigs, hunted and made sausage, and prepared endless meals the old-fashioned way – from scratch. Maybe enough of us will start making sausage and keeping a few chickens and pursuing other food crafts that larger enterprises will emerge to feed the hunger for better food.

Raising and butchering animals yourself lets you see all the possibilities for rekindling our traditional food arts. The simple act of having a few chickens lets you eat good eggs every day. And when you go beyond eggs the culinary horizons are endless. It’s easy to delve into a culinary tradition if you’ve got animals nearby; with fresh liver at hand, a pate is as inexpensive to make as a batch of tomato sauce, and readily available ingredients are available to make rich soup stock, extraordinary pie crusts, and things that will have your aging father or friend or grandma saying, “I haven’t had this since I was a child.” And you’ll be the lucky one, because you’ll get to hear their remembory.

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