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Alimentary, My Dear

Sausage — When Only the Wurst Will Do

By Tamia Nelson

March 21, 2006

Hearty eating in the backcountry needn't be complicated, and the menu can be simple indeed. With nothing more than a good-sized wedge of Cheddar, a loaf or two of crusty Italian bread, and a few generous handfuls of dried fruit, along with some loose tea and a large bar of dark chocolate, a paddler can spend a couple of days happily messing about almost anyplace there's water deep enough to dip a paddle — without having to do much more than "boil the kettle" for the tea.

What do you think? Is this the ultimate no-cook meal plan? Maybe not. In fact, I'm sure I left something out. And what's the missing link? How about a savory dry sausage? Of course, sausage isn't everyone's favorite food. In fact, it's come in for some pretty hard knocks over the years. In the venerable Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker give one of Winston Churchill's better-known rhetorical turns a culinary twist, describing commercial sausage as "a mystery wrapped in an enigma." Not the most glowing endorsement, is it? But that doesn't seem to have dulled readers' appetites. Just look in your local HyperMart. Start in the Deli section, where you'll find all manner of precooked sausages: pale pink bolognas, peppercorn-studded salamis, silky liverwursts, chunky head cheeses, not to mention such favorites as olive loaf or even (so help me) macaroni-and-cheese loaf. Nor is that all. In a nearby aisle, or a rack close to the checkout, you'll probably see colorful displays of shrink-wrapped pepperoni and hard salami.

Now let's walk over to the Meat department. What do we find? Hot dogs — lots of hot dogs. Precooked smoked sausages and garlicky kielbasa. Dark pink knockwurst. Pale bratwurst. Fresh sausage meat awaiting a casing alongside ropes of cased savory sausage. Putty-colored blocks of scrapple, flecked with brown. Small breakfast sausage links. And maple-and-sage flavored sausage patties. You'll even find sausage in the Dairy section. Sliced pepperoni sits on the shelf next to the shredded cheese. And you'll meet it yet again in the Snack aisle, though this time it's in pocket packs or club-like pepperoni sticks.

Surprised at the ubiquity of sausage on supermarket shelves? Maybe that's because you don't think of bologna, hot dogs, and liverwurst as sausages. They are, though. And we've really only just begun our reconnaissance. Leave the fluorescent-lit aisles of the HyperMart for the dark, pungent recesses of a neighborhood ethnic market or food co-op and you'll discover a hidden world of chorizos, boudins, blood puddings, haggis, and Chinese sausage, to mention only a few. Obviously, sausage has a history. After all, it was one of the earliest ways to preserve meat. It's likely that humans began making sausage not long after we first took up herding (and butchering) livestock. In any case, it's certain that the art of sausage-making has been practiced for at least 3,000 years in the Mediterranean basin. Of course, modern paddlers probably don't care much about the history of sausage-making. What matters most to us is that good sausage is delicious, that it provides energy for the long haul, and that some sausages can be kept for weeks without refrigeration.


It's time to unwrap the enigma. Let's start by…

Looking Inside the Casing

Sausages are made from chopped, minced, or ground meat and animal fat — sometimes a cereal binder is also added — salted and mixed together with flavorings and spices, and then pressed into a cylindrical casing, traditionally formed from scraped and washed gut, though artificial casings are now commonplace. (I'm ignoring vegetarian "sausage" here, obviously. Whatever else it may be, it's not really sausage. And it's usually not cheap, either.) As we've seen, these simple ingredients yield a dizzying variety of products. Regional specialties reflect local conditions. Pork is perhaps the most frequently encountered sausage meat, but beef and veal are used as well, as are many types of poultry and game, including wild boar and venison. Going beyond the basic constituents, sausage makers ring the changes, varying proportions, mincing fine or coarse, and precooking the meat (or not), as suits their fancy. The result is a bewildering range of choices. Here's a simplified taxonomy:

Fresh Sausage  Representative types? Finger-sized breakfast sausages, coarse-textured ropes and pudgy links, patties redolent of sage, and bulk blends sold like ground hamburger. What do they have in common? None has been precooked, and all will spoil quickly without refrigeration. Cook them thoroughly before eating.

Precooked Sausages  These include hot dogs, kielbasa, the hogmanay haggis, and lunch meats like liverwurst and bologna. They require refrigeration but don't need to be cooked — though the flavor usually improves with heating.

Dry Sausages  Uncooked, yet still ready-to-eat, these sausages are cured by salting and air-drying, with or without smoking. Examples? Landjäger, pepperoni, chorizo, and Genoa salami. They're good choices for paddlers who value hearty food and prize simplicity. If protected from damp and excessive heat, many will keep well without refrigeration for extended periods of time. Be warned, however: Because dry sausages have not been precooked, E. coli remains a danger. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that anyone "at risk" (the elderly, very young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems) refrain from eating them. Uncooked pork products have also been known to carry the parasite responsible for trichinosis. This isn't much discussed today, but it presumably remains a possibility. Let the careful eater beware.


Are you still game to take sausages along on your next trek? OK. Then it's time to consider…

Storage and Transport

Most dry sausages are good travelers. Keep them cool and dry and all should be well, though you ought to know that the USDA recommends refrigerating any leftover dry sausage after the original package has been opened. Is this good advice? Almost certainly. Still, many of us have ignored it and lived to tell the tale. It's up to you. And what about fresh and precooked sausages? Can these ever be considered paddling fare? Well, why not? Treat them the way you would any other perishable food, and they ought to last through a long weekend. Ice blocks and cooler bags (or a hard-shell cooler, if you don't plan to portage) will do the trick in all but the hottest weather. Some sausages — hot dogs, kielbasa, breakfast links, Italian links and ropes, bulk loose sausage — can be sealed in air-tight freezer bags and frozen ahead of time to extend their storage life still more. Just don't leave your common sense behind at the put-in. A bout of food-poisoning will ruin anyone's weekend in a hurry.


Enough of my cautionary words. We're ready to…

Eat and Enjoy

You don't have to spend hours hanging over a hot fire to eat well. A stick of dry sausage, some cheese, a handful of crackers or a hunk of bread, maybe an apple for dessert — it adds up to a very satisfying lunch or simple dinner. Slice the sausage and eat it in a sandwich, or wrap it jellyroll-fashion in a flour tortilla with Swiss cheese and mustard.

Want something a little more elaborate? Then roast fresh or precooked sausage links directly over the fire. Just place them on a grill — prick the skins with a sharp knife first — or impale them on a stick. Cook thoroughly, and eat right off the stick like you would satays, or make sausage sandwiches from pitas (pocket bread), flatbread, or hard rolls. Is the fire risk too high for a campfire? No problem. Sautéing in a skillet over a portable stove is almost as easy, even if it does dirty a dish. (As before, prick the casings of fresh sausages so they won't explode.) Cooked sausage breakfasts have long been a rest-day treat on backcountry trips. Who can resist the heady perfume of hot coffee coupled with sizzling breakfast links? Not me, at any rate. Sausage is also a welcome addition in one-pot meals. Cut pepperoni or kielbasa into bite-sized chunks and add these to bean or pea soup, or to pasta or rice dishes. Thinly sliced pepperoni is a natural on stove-top pizza, too.

A few hints: Keep in mind that up to half of the weight of any sausage is fat. This is good news on a cold day, but it can make for a messy kitchen in camp. Much of the fat will come out when you cook fresh sausage in a skillet, and unless you plan to emulate Mrs. Sprat, the resulting grease will have to be saved for later use, poured off in the bush (not a good idea), or carried out for disposal. That's why I prefer precooked sausages like kielbasa — they yield far less fat when heated. Oh, yes. Don't expect bears and other wild creatures to ignore an invitation to dine at your expense. Sausages and sausage grease are highly aromatic. Unless you like entertaining drop-in guests late at night, hang your food packs well away from your tent, or store all your food in airtight containers.

The Joy of Cooking was my first cookbook, and I owe the Rombauers a debt I can never wholly repay. But they got this one wrong. There's no great mystery about sausages — they're simply delicious. Mild or spicy, fresh or ready-to-eat, sausages are so varied and versatile that it's no wonder they've kept their place on the menu for thousands of years. So whether your next paddling trip lasts only a weekend or stretches out through a whole summer, take advantage of this hearty heritage. Sausage. When only the wurst is good enough, it's the obvious choice.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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