Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Great Sausage Caper

I knew for weeks before arriving in Ohio for the 2009 edition of the La Rue family reunion – a tradition dating back over 30 years – that there would be a considerable amount of work to go along with the reminiscing and merriment of the weekend. The “Left Coast” La Rue family had traveled in some 6 days before the Saturday, July 4 festivities, and it was a fine, trouble-free ride.

The “work” to which I’m referring is not so much labor, but a labor of love: the making of venison sausage or, to my eyes, “The Great Sausage Caper" (since I knew at the end of all this I was gonna steal some delicious meat!)

Dad (Carl) and I began early on Monday morning with a ritual my hunter-sister later called “processing.” Basically we were carving meat off the leg bones of a deer, making sure it was free of any freezer burn that might have crept into the meat or hair that might still be remaining to lodge in the unsuspecting teeth of an innocent eater. Afterwards, we cut it into grinder-sized chunks. It was a tedious process to yield the best meat, but easy conversation and a light mental energy task carried the next 3-4 hours well…

Before grinding could commence, Dad’s recipe called for mixing the venison with pork sausage, to give the whole concoction a little fat and lots more flavor. The commercial-quality grinder shone with power and purpose on the worktable. The threads were coarse, most likely for machine longevity and ease of cleaning. At the top of the grinder was a tray that allowed us to move venison, pork and curing agent into the round maw of the feeding hole. Emily delighted in pushing the meat-mixture into the hole with a plastic pole, and seeing the resulting stringy mixture of raw meat poke out from a screen in the machine’s side.

This mixture was pressed into rectangular baking pans and then compacted with as much force as possible and sealed by smooth butcher paper. Dad explained that he wanted the meat to properly cure and that the way to do that was to have it compacted to the point of molecularly bonding - I almost called “BS” at the term “molecular” until I realized that’s what it was probably doing. As it turns out, we ended up kneading the mixture by surgical-gloved hands 2 times a day for 3 straight days, so I had a lot of time to think about it.

Did I mention we kneaded this concoction 2 times a day? Egads that meat was cold, but our mission was clear – mix, mix and mix again to the point of molecular bonding (that’s just darned fun to say!).

After the kneading/curing process, it was time to stuff the meat into casings. Once again we turned to a machine. Dad would hold the casing bag – conveniently pre-labeled with the words “Venison Sausage” – tight against a tube, while I fed meat into a top-mounted cylinder and cranked a “piston” down to squeeze the highly compressed mixture into the sausage tube. Dad had poked a few holes in each bag to allow moisture to ooze out. Once a bag was full, we crimped the end with a u-shaped metal clip.

When we finished, 14 tubes of sausage lay on the table. I took pride in cleaning the equipment and washing down the table so that Dad didn’t have to bother himself with mundane “housekeeping” work.

The next day was “smoking day”, which I greatly looked forward to: basically 14 hours tending a fire to cook and smoke the meat.

Here’s how we did it: A dozen years ago or so, Dad rigged up an old Frigidaire refrigerator on top of a small hill behind the barn. He had dug a trench up the hill and laid a pipe up underneath the fridge. At the bottom of the hill was an enclosed fire-pit. The smoke from the fire-pit rises up the pipe and into the refrigerator, helped along by two draws cut into the top of the appliance (one of which was controllable by wire from the bottom of the hill).

Dad got up at dawn to start the fire and hang the meat from racks in the fridge. He woke me an hour later. The fuel was a mixture of sassafras, apple and maple wood, stored in a small woodshed next to the chicken coop. The smoke smelled great. Occasionally it rained slightly at times during the day, but that did not detract from the mission: 170 degrees steady!

As I said, I looked forward to the day because there would be no distractions from the job. I read Sherlock Holmes, wrote a bit on the Mac, watched the rain for awhile, and chatted with anyone who wandered by. Ethan busied himself tending a burn pile nearby, and driving around on the Kawasaki Mule (a four-wheeled vehicle with a tilting dump bed). Sister Dana, brother in law Bob and their family showed up. Dad supervised every once and awhile, and we all stayed well lubricated with rum & cokes.

Long about twilight, Dad and I opened up the fridge door for the first time and stuck a meat thermometer in some of the casings. The internal temperatures in the neighborhood of 152 degrees (give or take) seemed great and it was time to test the meaty fruits of our labors. Whoa… delicious. Not to say I was surprised, but I was…well, surprised. It was hot and flavorful.

We cooled the sausage by spraying it down and then moved it back into the barn to cut and wrap in butcher paper again, ready to dole out. So… the “Caper” comes to a close: I myself brought a few sticks home and am enjoying venison regularly, metering it out to stretch the goodness.

Thanks for the education, Dad!