By Mike Leifheit
At first, I leave the heavy sausage-maker on my van. I wait until Jose and the dishwasher get to work, and have them bring it into the building, letting it sit under the waitress check-in station until the following morning. Jonathon comes over, but it is kind of heavy for me, and I call my old cook Troy, who graciously comes over with Bella, his little girl, in tow. Katy watches her while Troy and Jonathon wrestle the machine up the narrow stairs and into place on the counter.
I drive over to Nicholson Hardware for an appliance cord while Jonathon assembles the list of ingredients I have given him for the kitchen. The dark-meat chicken, jalapenos, basil, salt, pepper, goat cheese (a last-minute inspiration, but a good one) and, of course, the casings. We disassemble and clean the old grinder, trying to understand the process as we go. We don’t fully understand the grinding process, however, and the meat is coming out of the machine at a much slower rate than I remember from watching it in my youth.
Forty years ago: In my early 20s, I have a soft drink route for the RC Cola company. My territory is Broadway from about Seventh Street all the way to “Five Points.” A number of my stops involve me going into or through the butcher areas of grocery stores. Two nationalities make homemade sausages—the Italians and the Swedes. Ronnie (who is now the head of the meat department of the East State Logli’s) is the kid in the butcher department at the old Logli store on Broadway, the original store, and I am the kid on the RC truck. The other butchers are older and wiser, and they tease us because we are the youngsters.
Another store that makes a lot of Italian sausage is where Frank’s Sports Page is now. I cannot remember the name of the store, but one of the butchers is named Guy Massetti. (I think he is still around and in the meat business, or maybe not. I believe he started 640 Meats.) I stand and watch as he or Bill, the owner, spin coils of sausage off the grinder. To me, it seems like magic. I have always had a fascination with the preparation of food.
Today: The meat just doesn’t seem to want to go through the grinder. It takes us about four hours to grind and pack only 10 pounds of sausage. The dark meat is made up of two kinds—thighs and leg meat. The tendons in the leg meat are problematical in that they are plugging the extruding plate of the grinding mechanism. We are constantly removing the plate to clear it. It is really slow going. Elise is hanging out with us, and she lightens the process by running to get us things as necessary.
The sausage itself, however, is delightful. The fresh basil retains its integrity, and the amount of jalapeno we have chosen to use is perfect. Next time, I think we will add a little more goat cheese as the dark meat by itself is fairly dry (for sausage). I am so proud of it that I walk down to bother Damien at Cru. He is busy, but I leave him with a trophy of sausage. Damien says he used to be a butcher, and that dark meat is fairly impossible to grind. That makes me feel a little better.
All that evening, we cook up little portions of the sausage and distribute it to anybody who will try it. The reviews are great, but we still have to solve the problem of it taking so very long. I know we must be doing something wrong, and by the time you get a new project done, you usually have learned how you should have approached it.
The next morning, I am driving into the city to go to the market. I have an impulse and order 60 pounds of pork trimmings from Amity. Then, I call back to Cornille and add a pound of basil and a pound of fennel seed to my order. I am stepping up to the challenge. I am going to make 60 pounds of Italian sausage. No matter how long it takes.
More next week.
Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.
From the September 9-15, 2009 issue