Fat-free sausages are hideous, unnatural creations. They should be corralled and thrown on a pyre. I suspect that if burned, they would give off an eerie blue glow. They are not food. Don't let one near your mouth.
"Fat is what makes sausage wonderful," says Jamie Bellerman. I'm watching him put pure pork fat through a grinder. It comes out the other end in stringy white chunks. "When you cut into a sausage and there's that white marbling in it, that's fat. Fat is what makes a sausage juicy."
Despite what you may have been told, there is no secret to sausage-making. There's a lot of equipment, chemistry, insider techniques, lore, timing and disinfecting agents involved, but no secret. Bellerman, a local omnivore and home sausage maker, laid it all out on the table for me. Literally.
"I grew up in a German family," he says, "On the weekends, we would go down to the local meat market and get weird German meat. Like, literally, a slab of meat. We'd eat that without vegetables or anything."
When Bellerman developed an interest in making his own sausage, his proud father enrolled him in a German sausage guild. The group sent Jamie a calendar, which now hangs in his kitchen. The proud Teutonic smile of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel beams down approvingly as we set to work.
Today we're making a sweet Italian sausage. One bowl of pure pork fat and another of ground pork sit waiting in the fridge. All ingredients must be kept cold, otherwise they'll melt together into a paste and compromise the sausage's structural integrity. Perfectly chilled, they are mixed together with a handful of spices: toasted fennel seeds, paprika, pepper and garlic. Mixing the meat and fat together is a bit like kneading dough. Bellerman uses a Kitchenaid, and the mixture goes from crumbly to sticky within minutes. Then the fun part begins.
Straight from the freezer, the intestines resemble a dish rag that's gone through the laundry too many times. They are about the width of shoelaces, tangled together in what Bellerman calls a Gordian knot. He gently untangles them under a stream of warm water. Thawed and rehydrated, they regain enough elasticity for him to take the edge of one and roll it over the spout of his sausage stuffer.
"Er, the obvious analogy here is putting on a condom," says Bellerman. Being a lady, I'll have to take his word for it. (Stop laughing.)
He pours the mixed meat and fat into the top of the 2-foot tall, cast-iron stuffer and turns the crank, tamping the mixture gently while monitoring its passage out the spout and into the casing. When the casing has filled to the proper size, he takes a length of twine and ties it. Soon a string of stout little sausages has wended its way across the kitchen counter.
The Kitchenaid and fancy sausage stuffer are a fraction of the investment Bellerman has made to his craft. He also built a smoker in his backyard. Homemade salami hangs curing in his laundry room. And he's learned a lot about chemistry.
"I always liked eating sausage but I've always had this lingering suspicion about what's in it," he says, referring to that dread foe of all processed-meat lovers: nitrates.
Just as fat is essential for flavor, nitrates are essential as preserving agents for cured meats. Bellerman has learned to use sodium and potassium nitrate after doing what he calls a "cost/benefit analysis." On one hand, there are understandable fears about high blood pressure, yes. But on the other hand, there's botulism. Nitrates it is.
Happily, freshly prepared sausages don't need preserving agents, so Bellerman heats a heavy saucepan on the stove and adds today's work, along with some lamb sausages made the day before. The pan quickly fills up with grease. Those tiny little cavities you see when you cut open a fried sausage? That's where the fat has melted.
The spicy-sweet Italian sausage we made is good, although my host pronounces it "a little mushy" due to excess water. The real show-stealer is the lamb sausage. Made from organic lamb and pork fat and lightly seasoned with oregano and paprika, it seems to stimulate every papillae in your mouth. Before the sausage, your tongue was like a city in a blackout. Then you raise it to your mouth and bite into it. The snappy casing rips under your teeth and, block by block, the lights go on. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Umami. And pervading it all, the musky, earthy aroma of lamb: a whiff of dissonance that brings the rest of the flavors into sharp relief. Grease coats the entire surface of your mouth. You run your tongue over your teeth again and again the way you do just after visiting the dentist. There's only one thing that could possibly make this experience better.
"Do you have any Larrupin mustard?" I ask, then freeze. The sausage could stand alone. Maybe I'm being rude.
But my friend the sausage maker just chuckles and opens the refrigerator, adding that he regrets not having whipped up a batch of sauerkraut.
"There are no rules when it comes to eating sausage," he says, "Only enjoyment."
Check out video if you dare.