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Daily Gullet Staff

Sometimes a Sausage is Just a Sausage

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gallery_29805_1195_4056.jpgby Chris Amirault

Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like 'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?

- Nora Ephron


I attended a training last fall at which we were asked to share an object representing something important about mentoring, our focus for the week. I suspect that few in the workshop had difficulty coming up with their tape measures, baby photos, and flower pots, but I usually find this sort of assignment challenging, preferring simple denotations to forced connotations.

On the drive home, I rolled down the windows, sensing that the air was turning slightly crisp and cool. I savored that harbinger of autumn in New England, when my thoughts turn to braises, stews and charcuterie. After a summer of keeping the oven off in my non-air-conditioned kitchen, I dreamed of daubes, considered new curries, and generally jonesed for the promise of meat to come.

And then I realized that I had a perfect metaphor for mentoring: my 5 lb. vertical sausage stuffer from Grizzly Industrial, Inc. The next day, I lugged the apparatus to the training, hiding it behind a door for fear of ridicule. When my turn arrived, I hauled it out and clunked it down dramatically on the center table. "Good mentoring is like a sausage stuffer," I said, "for at least ten reasons:

One. When you make sausages, everything -- utensils, machine, meat, fat -- has to be properly cool. If you've got warm meat, you can't make sausage, so don't try. Heat will prevent for a good bind.

Two. It takes two people to make a sausage stuffer work. [Note: That's not entirely true, or at least it's idiosyncratic to my situation. My sausage stuffer is mounted to a free-floating piece of particle board and not to a countertop, and thus someone has to hold the thing still while the other person cranks away. But, hey, cut me some slack. It was overnight homework and I was trying to get to a round number.]

Three. Contrary to popular belief, you do want to know what ingredients are in a sausage. What goes in determines what goes out. Reflecting on the stuff makes the product much better.

Four. To fix a sausage that isn't working, you tweak it slightly; small changes can have big results. Trying to fix everything at once with bold gestures is doomed to fail.

Five. You don't find out whether your sausages are good while you're stuffing them. The proof is in the blood pudding. When you apply heat, good sausages bind unlike elements; bad sausages break and separate.

Six. The sausage stuffer takes something messy and encapsulates it, bringing order where there was chaos.

Seven. You never know everything that there is to know about sausage making. Hubris is your enemy, humility your friend. Ask around and make friends with experts.

Eight. You will never perfect your sausages. The greatest charcutiers in the world stress the impossibility of perfection. Forget about it. There are too many factors beyond your control. Strive for making them as good as you can make 'em.

Nine. The only sane approach to sausage-making is to take the developmental long view. After all, this isn't Plato's cave in which you're hanging the links; it's your unfinished basement. Since you can't get perfection, you want improvement each time.

Ten. Despite all efforts to the contrary, sometimes your sausage turns out really lousy. Flavor dissipates; binds break; good mold flees and bad mold flowers. When sausages go awry, don't wring your hands. Just do the best you can to figure out what happened, toss 'em, and take another crack. I mean, it's just sausage.

Thank you."
+ + +


That's the article as I started writing it. But over time, Nora's words came to haunt me. The whole shtick began to smell a bit fishy, and I began to fear that, like many tropes, this metaphor turned attention away from a trickier, worrisome truth hiding in plain view.

But unlike many tropes, the worrisome truth I was hiding is in the object, and not the subject, of the metaphor. That is, the metaphor wasn't really about my relationship to mentoring. It was really about my relationship to sausage.

Imagine the scene: I whip out my sausage maker and give ten reasons why my metaphor is bigger and better than everyone else's. (I did mention that I was the only man among three dozen women in that training, didn't I?) Laugh if you want, but one's sausage is important to many a man. A quick perusal of this topic reveals that I'm not alone. (You did notice the gender breakdown in that topic, didn't you?)

Last weekend, while in the unfinished basement of a chef buddy, talk turned to our sausages, and before long we four charcuterie nuts were looking at our feet and commiserating about our failures. We shared a bond: our sausages had the better of us, and we knew it. Pathetic though it is, are you surprised that I felt a deep sense of relief, even of control, when I walked through my ten reasons? My metaphor afforded me a rare opportunity to feel superior to the process of sausage-making, and believe me, that doesn't happen often.

My name is Chris A., and I have sausage anxiety.

Read that list up there about my sausage maker, the instrument that I describe with distanced assurance. It's a ruse, I tell you. No matter how often I try to buck up, no matter how definitive a recipe, no matter how wonderful a pork butt or a lamb shoulder, when it comes to making sausages, I go limp with worry.

Can you blame me? Look at all the places you can screw up, where your sausage can fail you utterly and leave you in tears.

You grab some wonderful meat, hold it in your hands, appreciate its glory. Chill. You grind it, add some fat, and sprinkle some seasoning, whatever the flesh requires. Chill again. Slow down, contemplate the moon or something. You paddle that meat to bind it, melding flavor and texture seamlessly. Chill some more. What's your hurry? Toss a bit into a skillet, ask: are we ready? and adjust as needed. Stuff away. Then relax. If you can.

I can't. You need to keep things cool to take care of your sausage, and it's challenging to stay cool when I'm all a-flutter about the prospect of a culminating, perfect, harmonious bind. If you read the books and you watch the shows, everyone acts just about as cool as a cucumber. But that's not real life with my sausage.

It's a frenzy, I tell you. I know I should chill and relax, but I get all hot and bothered, start hurrying things along, unable to let the meat chill sufficiently, to take things slowly. Hell, I'm sweating now just thinking about it.

I have to admit that I don't have this sausage problem when I'm alone in the house, have a couple of hours to kill, and know I won't be disturbed. I just settle in, take it nice and slow, not a care in the world, and everything comes out fine. But with someone else around, forget about it.

Despite this mishegas, my wife is as supportive as she can be. She humors me patiently about these things, gently chiding, "Slow down! The house isn't on fire. It's just your sausage." Though I know she loves me despite my foibles, that sort of talk just adds fuel to that fire -- I mean, she can speak so glibly because it's not her sausage we're worrying about.

Even if I am I able to relax, the prospect of sudden, precipitous sausage humiliation comes crashing down upon me. Think of it. All seems to be going so well -- a little too well. I'm keeping things cool, making sure that I'm taking it easy, following the plan step-by-step, trusting my instincts. I smile. I get cocky.

And then, the frying pan hits the fire, and within moments I'm hanging my head: instead of forming a perfect bind, my sausage breaks and I break down. I want a firm, solid mass, and I'm watching a crumbly, limp link ooze liquid with embarrassing rapidity.

Given my gender, in the past I've tried to subdue sausage anxiety with predictable contrivances: machines, science, and technique. If there's a tool or a book useful for perfecting my sausage, I've bought or coveted it. I calculate ratios of meat, salt, cure, sugar, and seasonings past the decimal; I measure out ingredients to the gram on digital scales; I poke instant-read thermometers into piles of seasoned meat; I take the grinder blade to my local knife sharpener to get the perfect edge. (We've already covered the stuffer above, of course.) I've got a full supply of dextrose, Bactoferm, and DQ curing salts numbers 1 and 2. The broken binding of my copy of Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie has xeroxes and print-outs from eight other sources, and the pages are filled with crossed-out and recalculated recipes.

It's the sort of thing that I used to do when I was younger: arm myself with all things known to mankind and blast ahead. It hasn't helped. I've learned the hard way that my hysterical masculine attempt to master all knowledge and technology has led, simply, to more panic and collapse.

There is, I think, hope. I'm older, and my approach to my sausage has matured. I'm in less of a hurry, I roll with the challenges, and when the house is on fire, I just find a hydrant for my hose.

If things collapse, well, I try to take the long view, recall the successes of my youth, and keep my head up. I mean, it's just my sausage.

* * *


Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Director of Operations, eG Forums. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

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Hubby and I, who are alike as two peas in a pod, laughed like hyenas.

I remained cool as a cucumber, but he became as white as a sheet upon hearing of your sausage malfunction.

Sharp as a tack, Chris. Sharp as a tack.

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Thanks for breaking the silence on this terrible affliction, Chris. I worry about any bit of charcuterie. The meat, the money, the time: all those investments create terrible and terrifying responsibility. I've got a 15-1/2 pound belly in my fridge right now that's doing nothing but scaring me to death.

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I laughed out loud, and am grateful for the article, but Chris, you're missing the point; it's supposed to be FUN. No one in the business would sling his tits over a hot range for a dozen hours a day if he didn't love the work. A butcher friend of mine on Fire Island makes and sells a ton of different kinds of sausages every summer. He makes the best pork with fennel, but also lamb, chicken, breakfast, and even turkey. He never frets over them, but he also takes great pride in their specialness. I've watched him at work, and like so many of my chef colleagues, his relaxed movements are those of a dancer who just lets the experience flow through his body. HE is the essential ingredient in those sausages. So my advice is to never let your sausages get tied up in a bunch. Tension drains you. and even if you turn out a rotten batch, just remember the point of the exercise was to enjoy it.

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Fun? You wouldn't say that if you ever had sausage that looked like this:

gallery_19804_437_32803.jpg

That is indeed a sad sight... all that time, wasted! Fun?!? Frustrating, more like. I was pretty bummed when my duck breast prosciutto didn't work out; I haven't had the fortitude to press on and try again, and went back to fresh sausage for the time being. Harder to screw up.

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Fun? You wouldn't say that if you ever had sausage that looked like this:

gallery_19804_437_32803.jpg

Oh Dearie Me. This is indeed an offense to your manhood, and a charcuterie tragedy. As my English grandmother would have said:"Keep your pecker up."

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Fun? You wouldn't say that if you ever had sausage that looked like this:

gallery_19804_437_32803.jpg

That isn't what the English call...?

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I saw that movie. Isn't that what attacked Captain Nemo's submarine?

According to "He Seeks the Giant Squid," it was a massive cephalopod, something with which I have no familiarity.

That isn't what the English call...?

Sayeth the source of all knowledge, wikipedia:

Spotted dick is a traditional English steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit (usually currants), which is usually served either with custard or with butter and brown sugar. Spotted refers to the raisins (which resemble spots) and Dick may be a contraction/corruption of the word pudding (from the last syllable) or possibly a corruption of the word dough. It is possibly conjugated originally from sticky pudding to dicky pudding to dicky to dick and finally spotted dick as in pudding with raisins. It is also known as spotted dog, plum duff, steamed dicky, figgy dowdy, dotted lloyd, packphour's lament, dicky widmark as well as plum bolster, Spotted Richard. and it is sometimes even called a Dickie Burton after the famous actor.

Compared to this, I showed remarkable restraint.

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What an ordeal!!! I was crying my eyes out laughing...thanks for the laughs... :raz:

Cheers,

austramerica

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