Food is essential to life, but the meals that sustain our bodies often do even more for our souls.
There are foods for certain times of year, moods and even those that are only to be shared with certain people at certain times. There are foods so deeply tied to who I am, I can’t imagine life without them.
One of those is the smoked mettwurst-style sausage my family’s church in Cincinnati has made for generations. The men of the congregation spend a Sunday each year spicing, grinding and hand-stuffing the delicious pork sausages, which are smoked in batches behind the church.
The recipe is a closely guarded secret by one church elder whose parents first brought the tradition to St. Mathews. It has survived two church mergers and a move, having been carried on each year by the men known as the Brotherhood.
The sausage has always been a staple of grandmother’s cooking, as it became for my mother and now me. My grandmother likes it with sauerkraut, while my mother mostly made it in the slow cooker with green beans so the smoky flavor could permeate the entire dish. It would also fill the house, and during the cold months cause the windows of the kitchen to get steamy.
That’s how I prefer to make it: slow. It’s not just the taste of the dish I’m after; it’s that sweet wood smoke smell I want. One whiff of it is like stepping into a time machine. It can transport me back to any number of places and points of time in my life. I like to sit in the kitchen while it simmers away so that I can indulge in whatever reminiscent thoughts bubble into my head.
Most often, it takes me straight back to our big, old farmhouse with its French glass doors and windows and roaring Buck stove. Sometimes, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost hear the chickens clucking in the henhouse and the goats bleating to be milked in the barn just below my bedroom window.
The smell triggers other, more recent memories, too. Carl and I spent a weekend in a little, rustic cabin in the mountains of West Virginia for our fourth anniversary. For dinner one night we made the sausage with barley and kale in a cast iron pot on the woodstove. With the smell lingering in the air, we spent the evening snuggled together in the flickering firelight just enjoying each other’s company.
That’s why each year as the first weekend of November approaches I make sure to clear space in my freezer for a new batch of the sausages. My grandmother calls me in mid-October so I can place my order, and when the meat is ready, she stores it for me until I can get home to retrieve it, most often on Thanksgiving.
This year, when she called, she delivered bad news. “This could be the last year,” she told me.
The recent closure of an old Cincinnati business, which provided the meat and stored much of the church’s sausage-making equipment, along with the steady dwindling of volunteers and advancing age of the recipe-guarding elders, could bring the tradition to an end, she said. I ordered twice as much as normal. When the last link is gone, I know life will go on, but it will never be quite the same.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland.