By now, my family has gotten used to my kitchen gadget requests. Having grown up in rural Western New York, where grilling, hunting, fermenting and all realms of do-it-yourself food preparation and preservation reined out of necessity, not Next Food Network Star aspirations. So when I asked my mother and then my father if they had an extra meat grinder kicking around, each said they knew my grandmother had at least one.
“I remember making sausage with her and Grandpa,” my mother said. “We’d sit around all afternoon filling link after link.” She added, “The grinder we used was a big one – table top sized. I don’t know if you can get it back to Boston on the plane.” That was the dilemma. I was heading to my hometown for a quick weekend visit for a family birthday party, and was limited to what would fit in my suitcase – and then what could be stored in my city apartment. My husband’s instruments and studio equipment took up much of our duplex’s basement, thus whatever I acquired would have to find a home in our second floor kitchen.
On my last morning in town I called my grandma with my request: Did she have a grinder I could take home with me? I’d be stopping by in an hour to visit, regardless.
What she had setting out when I arrived fit into a large plastic zip-top bag. Perfectly cleaned and organized, I shouldn’t have doubted that Grandma would have known right where it was. My visit was so brief, I didn’t have time to ask what her favorite recipes were, or to recount stories of making sausage or ground beef with Grandpa, who had been gone now nearly a decade. Her eyes still dampened when she spoke of him.
“Next time you drive home, we’ll find the big grinder in the barn,” she told me. “You can have it. We’re not using it any more.” It’s true: with Grandpa gone and her kids all moved away, there’s no need to buy meat in bulk anymore and no one is bringing home a whole deer to be processed and frozen during hunting season. In many ways the old way of life is being replaced by the growing business of industrialized and processed food. Those who still make their own sausage perhaps are hunters – and there are still plenty of those left in my home county – but fewer are processing their own livestock or purchasing whole animals to save on costs like my grandparents had to fifty years ago when they were bringing up five kids on a laborer’s salary. Today a large family on a small budget can often afford to buy cheaply produced versions of what my grandparents had to do themselves. The quality may be different – but the new attitude is: who has the time or equipment to grind their own meat anymore? Even my grandmother buys white bread and cold cuts. The square footage of her garden and her canning output decreases every year. She enjoys the process, but with her bad back and cataracts its just so much easier to buy what she wants to eat.
When I got home, I figured out the puzzle of putting together the grinder and screwed it into place on my tabletop. I cut up my bone-in pork butt and minced the garlic and ginger – seasoning inspired by the charcuterie master Michael Rulhman rather than my grandparents. They had no ginger growing in their garden, I was sure.
As I cranked the three pound of pork through the small grinder, I actually longed for the large table-top one. How could they have used this small device for anything other than the most modest of projects? My arm tired halfway through – my grandmother was certainly tougher than me.
But then I got into a rhythm. Every minute or so I transferred the ground meat to a metal bowl in ice, to ensure that the meat was kept cold – both for food safety reasons and to keep its texture firm, not mushy. Three pounds of pork butt took less than ten minutes to grind. I made some into patties and rolled the rest into a log, wrapped it in plastic wrap and then a plastic bag, to be defrosted and eaten later. The whole process took less than thirty minutes, including clean up. Sausage in casings would come later – I didn’t have the right attachment with this grinder – or maybe I’d have to drive home and pick up the table top version and finally take the time to ask Grandma how she used to flavor her sausage and if she had any advice. I’m sure she did.
Sausage is a humble food – one that is relatively easy to make (with the right equipment) and good for enhancing a fatty, cheap cut of meat (a high fat ratio is, in fact, a necessity for making good sausage). But I actually want to make it even slower next time. I want to ask my grandmother or my parents for the stories of when they made sausage in the past. Where did the meat come from? How was it seasoned? Sausage was the food of my rural ancestors – and I will honor them by finding a space in my tiny city home for the large meat grinder, by preserving the recipes and methods of my grandparents for the next generation. Even, for something as humble as a breakfast food.