Sausage day is coming up. It is a family tradition dating back to when my great-grandfather owned a lunch counter in Baltimore city. He would make sweet Italian and hot sausage at Christmas time and my grandfather and his siblings would have it for breakfast Christmas morning. We once tried to date the start of our Christmas tradition when my grandmother was in her nineties. She said that my grandfather made sausage before they were married. At the time we tried to date the tradition my grandparents would have been married more than seventy years. We figure there was another ten years before the marriage and since the interview it’s been another twenty years. So we guess that we are embarking on the century mark for this Christmas tradition.
The tradition is the same but how we make it has changed. Time marches ahead whether we chose to acknowledge it or not, family members pass but the tradition is of its own making. We still get together and make Italian sausage for those left in the family. My generation is the last generation eager to keep the tradition alive. There is something melancholy to that thought but I’m sure when my great-grandfather brought home his sausage for Christmas he never had a thought that one hundred years later we would still be using his recipe and making it basically the same way.
Automation changed the process that my grandfather (Poppy) and his brother would have to accomplish by hand. First, they would hand grind the meat; then have to hand stuff the casings. Now, instead of grinding the meat ourselves we have the local butcher do that. Around 1940 the old Esskay meat packing plant in Baltimore retooled and got rid of all there old grinders and stuffers. Poppy’s brother got one and automated the stuffing process. That machine was passed down from my grandfather to a great-uncle then back, to his son (my Uncle Nick). I was next in line of succession but that wouldn’t be until Uncle Nick gave it to me. We used that machine until 2001 when we had to move my grandmother into an assisted living facility.
Each year we start off with a traditional toast to all those who have come before us and have made this tradition possible and we remember all the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. We reminisce and bring up stories of sausage day pasts. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Helen are usually the first names to surface. Aunt Helen was a saint mainly because of Uncle Charlie. God love him, Uncle Charlie was a gruff, no nonsense Italian. He served his Country in WWII, his Church and his community hospital. He was a man with many talents but I remember him best for his dogs. He trained one dog to get tools, shoes, mail, the paper, clothes, rags you name it. He taught the dog the difference between a crescent wrench and a hex wrench, a hammer versus a screw driver, a flat head versus a Philips screwdriver. This dog was the brightest dog I have ever seen in my entire life.
One scene sticks out more than any other in all the years I’ve been involved and that was when Uncle Charlie passed the machine down to Uncle Nick. It was the last time I saw Uncle Charlie on sausage day. We had finished for the day, everything was packed up and clean and we were getting ready to leave.
It was a simple act but one I had never seen before. My Uncle Charlie, being frail at this point in his life, went up and hugged my Uncle Nick and said “Well Nick its all yours now”. My Uncle for his part played it off and said "What are you talking about, you'll be back". They hugged a bit more kissed each other on the cheek and Uncle Charlie walked up the stairs. I didn’t realize what had taken place until later in my life. What I had witnessed was Uncle Charlie passing on the lead of our tradition to my Uncle Nick. Uncle Charlie lived on a few more years and we would take him sausage but that was the last year he had the strength to attend.
Uncle Charlie taught me how to properly stuff the casing with sausage, the right feel of tension on your fingers tips and in the casing it self. He taught me to make sure all the air was out of the casing, not filling it too tight or limp, getting the casing on the feed tube without tearing it and on and on. I was eighteen when I finally got to sit in the chair to do the stuffing and I think I was twenty when Uncle Charlie finally told me I was doing it right. But each year as Uncle Charlie was telling me what I was doing wrong; Uncle Nick would wink and throw me a knowing smile. I had apprenticed for four years prior to even come close to sitting in that chair.
We had jobs that were segmented by years of seniority. We had the mixer, the primary and secondary stuffer, the hanger, the engineer, the closer and the casing prep. The lowest level was that of hanger. As a hanger your job was to take the finished sausage from the closer and hang it over the rail. It was your responsibility to make sure the hot sausage did not mingle with the sweet and that none of the sausage fell to the ground. You always had to be ready when the closer was finished with the next piece.
The second to lowest was closer. This person was responsible for tying white string around the end of the sausage if it was sweet and red string if it was hot. Next on the list is engineer, this person turns the stuffing machine on and off as needed. When a casing is fitted to the end of the feed tube the secondary stuffer gives the ok to start. He or she then gives the sign to turn the machine off if the sausage is filled or the casing breaks during the process.
Next is the secondary stuffer, one of the two top ranking positions. Next to Mixer the secondary stuffer has the most important job. The casing has to be filled just right. To much meat inside and the casing will burst. Not enough meat inside and it will not cook properly or evenly. This person must have great touch and be adept at putting the casings on the feed tube quickly, lest everyone waiting to do their job starts to harangue and belittle the secondary stuffer. It is a hard room and everyone rides everyone else when ever possible in that playful ribbing way. We make sure everyone gets their fare share and no one person is singled out all the time. But, the secondary stuffer usually is the one with the bull’s eye on their back.
The primary stuffer is the person that puts the mixed meat into the hopper and pushes it down to go through the screw mechanism into the feed tube. With the old stuffer this was the most dangerous of the jobs with more than one person in the generations losing the tip of a finger. I unfortunately am in that group. With the new machine there are no more dangerous jobs, just speed and air.
The casing prep person washes, tests and sizes the casing for use. They then place the finished product in a bowl of water for later stuffing. Lastly, but most importantly is that of Mixer, the mixer is responsible for adding the ingredients and mixing them consistently into the meat. Taste is the mixers main responsibility. You can tell by look how well the ingredients are mixed and when there seems to be a good mix we get ready to cook some. As the meat cooks aromas fill the air that brings thoughts of Christmas’s long past and times spent with family doing this same thing year after year. We sing carol’s and tell jokes and catch up on family from the past year’s events.
Then comes the tasting, when cooking is completed; everyone tastes the finished product and comments on what they feel is good, bad or indifferent. This is a big source of contention as you may have guessed. There are times when no one comes close to agreeing and then sometimes we all agree. The final say comes from the mixer who is my Uncle Nick the senior member of the group. He listens to everyone then usually adds a little bit of something to tweak the taste. He may need to add more fennel or more red pepper depending on taste. Once that is done we plow through stuffing between one hundred and one hundred and fifty pounds of pork. It makes for a fun but exhausting day and a chance to remember all those that came before us.
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