“What do you think is in sausage?” I asked.
” I don’t know – I’ll go with the stuff that you don’t sell whole. Ears, lips, ankles? ”
“Not really, no.” I tell him.
“So it’s a nasty rumor? Like head cheese being made from heads?”
“Well actually, head cheese is made from heads. Basically it’s boiled pig head, from which they gather meat, chop it, form it, and cool it. I believe the French call it tete de cochon presse.”
“Me or the French?”
There was a pause.
“So are you going to tell me what’s in sausage?”
“Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of sausage you’re talking about”
“Well,” he said “I suppose you should call me back when you have a better answer.” And he hung up.
My friend may have thought I was trying to duck a straight answer, but it’s true: it depends on what sort of sausage you’re talking about. That said, I don’t know nearly enough about sausage beyond the fact that what my friend thought was kind of true at one point.
Back in the olden days, even before I Love Lucy, the meat gods decreed the best way to serve the less attractive parts of an animal would be to grind it up into an unidentifiable mush and jam it into a casing. For the butcher, it was the most efficient use of an animal. For customers, well let’s just say when you’re worried about stuff like the Black Death you aren’t going to really think too much about what’s in the meat dish you lucked into.
Since then, though, times have changed. Not only are women rarely burned at the stake for being witches anymore, sausage isn’t just made from pig cankles. Whether it’s the stuff at the super market that you’ll find freezer burned at your grandmother’s house (from a sale at Costco in 2003), or the fresh, handmade gourmet stuff that butchers make, sausage is less gross than most people think.
Some may also find it more gross too, so caveat lector (yes, it’s Latin, like caveat emptor, the phrase I learned from Mike Brady after Greg bought a crappy car on the Brady Bunch. I can say the girl is an island in Latin, too). If you don’t want to read the gnarly stuff, jump over the next paragraph, o.k. there cupcake?
The short answer about what sausage is goes like this: seasoned meat in a casing. As non-threatening as that sounds, though, it’s that casing that would probably start my daughter hyperventilating. Most of you know this, even if you’ve shoved it way deep down into your memory next to that time you had too much crappy vodka at your friend’s house before showing everyone your awesome imitation of the killer in Silence of the Lambs doing the “tuck it away” trick, but those casings are traditionally made with sheep, hog, and cattle intestines. What you probably didn’t know, and what you might not want to think about the next time you’re eating an Italian sausage with peppers and onions (mmmmm), is that the process of cleaning the intestines is called sliming. And the end of a pig intestine is called a bung (well, you mighta known that). There’s more, too, but I’ll keep it to myself. Except for the bit about submucosa. That I had to mention. And blood sausage, but that’s it. Pig bladders.
With that out of the way, the rest of the process is far less likely to create more vegans (like we need more Volvos with irritating “Beef – Too Cute To Eat” stickers) because the sausage most of us eat, gourmet or otherwise really is as simple as ground, spiced meat being pushed into a casing through an extruder. The sausagista (my word) simply twists off each link once it’s reached the desired length. What’s better than a Play-Doh Fun Factory for meats?
As for the meat blend itself, it can be as complex and amazing as any gourmet meal and it’s conveniently packaged for portability and easy cooking. Common fillings are made with pork and beef of course, but poultry variants have arrived in the name of health (oh, please), and they’ve brought fruits and cheeses along with them. I’ve even heard tell of sausages made with fresh vegetables, though I won’t allow them in my home. One sausage maker I know grinds a custom South African blend for some local families.
Which pretty much sums up how great sausage is, doesn’t it? Regardless of its complexity or ingredients (excepting the really foul stuff I’d rather not hear more about – although I’m open to trying a good blood sausage, even if the thought of it makes various me a bit squirrelly) the most important thing will always be the skill of the sausage artist. Which is exactly how it should be.
You can go on all you want about De Kooning, or Picasso, or Dali, but as far as I’m concerned you don’t need to understand the interplay of dark and light to be a real artist. You just need to know how to make a great combination of meats and spices and shove it into some pig intestines.