I had never heard of ‘Sausage Kitchens.’ Turns out they are everywhere in Louisiana. You can even buy homemade sausages at some gas stations. Just like slices of pizza are sold on the streets in Italy, the people in Louisiana enjoy their Cajun sausages everywhere -and in many variations.
Whenever my friend talked about her dream, her eyes lit up. She told me about her uncle, and how he had been able to support a family by making sausages. She showed me old photographs and I joined her on her trip down memory lane. She had inherited all his recipes, and over the years it had become her dream to have her own kitchen, and her own smokehouse.
We knew each other for years, had at one point even been neighbors, had seen each other every day. We had been canning and ‘jam-ing’ together every summer. Our love for preserving fruits and vegetables had given us full pantries every year. We had shared stories about our upbringing, and had always been fascinated by how similar it had been. One in Louisiana, the other one in the Austrian Alps, we both had been brought up with the same values and chores. We talked about helping in the kitchen and apple picking, yet her biggest dream and the ‘sausage side’ of her family never came up. Neither did mine.
I had never shared how I had been making sausages on our farm in Austria either. It just didn’t seem important. I had been my Grandma’s little helper, rinsing out casings and doing everything I was told whenever we butchered -and we butchered all the time. When I got older I worked beside her, and other little helpers assisted me.
My friend and I spent the first week alone in the evenings. We played cards or domino, and we talked a lot. She told me how it all had started. In the evenings, she and her neighbors had made plans while smoking together, and her dream of a sausage kitchen had become reality. She bought a nice building and had it set up in her backyard.
She got supplies and equipment, and one of her neighbors -and soon-to-be chef sausage maker- had transformed the large shed into a kitchen. I had seen it from the back porch, had watched the men work on it, but hadn’t seen the inside -yet. After all, it was none of my business.
“I am going to sell Boudin, Andouille, and Tasso, and a few fresh sausages,” my friend told me, and I had no idea what she was talking about. I had never heard of any of it. The next day I tried my first crawfish ball and my first Boudin sausage, and I loved it.
My friend, my wonderful friend had jumped head over heels into a new project. Her enthusiasm for new projects was one of her biggest virtues -and vices. She could be quickly excited and then she gave 150% but she also quickly lost interest when something didn’t work out right away, and then she gave up.
When she took me in, she had put almost all her savings into her dream, and part of her retirement fund. When the recession hit, she had to take a pay cut -like so many. She still had a good job at an oil company, just less income. She had been risking it all and it scared her, I could hear it, even though she didn’t say the words.
“He,” meaning her neighbor and soon chef-sausage-maker, “is going to make the sausages during the day, and I will continue working until the kitchen takes off, then I will retire early.” In November 2009, she was 55, eight years older than me. It sounded like a solid plan. I was happy for her.
The next evening I met the neighbors and the chef-sausage-maker.
His name was Ben. He lived across the street with his wife and his two little girls, in a rented double-wide mobile home that had seen better days. He was a young kid in his early 30’s and looked ‘wild.’ He was not just her future chef sausage-maker in the kitchen, but also the one who provided my friend with the weed she smoked now on a daily basis. “That’s how we met,” they told me and both giggled and laughed, the way stoned people do. Ben never had a job in his life, but was a stay-at-home dad, while his wife worked two jobs. He sounded proud and amused when he told me. His wife sat beside him.
I met the next-door neighbor Steve, a young man who also didn’t work and stayed at home. A very smart kid, very well educated -a computer nerd. They had four kids and his wife also worked a few jobs to provide for them and their kids.
I didn’t say much. Susan Boyle had taught us all to not judge a book by its cover, and I tried very hard not to. However, over the years I have also learned to trust my instinct. I listened to their conversations, often sitting on the couch just a few feet away in the living room area because the smell of weed gives me a headache. It’s interesting how much you can learn just from listening.
I found out their kitchen-partnership was solely founded on spoken words around the kitchen table, and that all the money came from my friend. Ben was just providing his “know-how” and his muscles, and my friend had paid him extra for all the work he did in the building and in the yard. “So you are a cook?” I asked him and he shook his head. “No, but it’s easy enough,” he said and grinned. I nodded. I would get good at nodding.
I talked with my husband every night and sometimes during the day. He sounded so depressed. “There are hardly any places left where I haven’t filled out an application.” He was frustrated and it broke my heart. “How about you?” and I told him about my day. I had filled out applications online, had even offered to travel again -in case a company needed a translator in another country. Nothing on my end either.
I told him about the sausage kitchen and the smokehouse. “Honey, maybe you can help in the kitchen,” he suggested, and I didn’t say much. An inner voice told me not to get involved in my friend’s project.
The next day, I followed my friend to the sausage kitchen, where they had just stuffed the sausage maker to make fresh pork sausage.
My eyes widened, and I smiled when I saw the kitchen and all the shiny, new equipment. A few minutes later my smile disappeared, and my neck hair stood up when I saw the highly questionable product laying on the table.
Forty years earlier, with the arrogance of the youth, I had asked my Grandma why I had to learn how to make strawberry jam and sausages? “You can buy all of it in a store?”
Right then and there I got my answer -and not for the first time. Whatever we learn, we learn for life. May it be butchering or sausage making, biology, or physics in school. It’s like riding a bike. Even if you don’t have a bicycle for many years, you hop right on it and while the first minutes might be a bit wobbly, soon you will take off as you did so many years ago.
When I stepped into the sausage kitchen, all what I had learned as a child came back to me within minutes. The kitchen and the meat mixture was too warm, the casings hadn’t been flushed. The way they ‘linked’ the sausages was amusing but not effective. There were air bubbles in the sausage, and a hanging rack was missing. It was a mess.
I felt like I had stepped into a time warp. I hadn’t made sausages for almost 40 years. For all these years all the knowledge had been resting in a drawer in my brain just waiting to come in handy one day.
That evening I put my hand over my friend’s pot pipe and asked her not to smoke. We had to talk.