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
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
dishes. Thinly sliced pepperoni is a natural on stove-top
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
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