Monday, February 12, 2018

LFH--Thoughts While Canning Sausage

Traditions of thrift and sharing build wealth of a community

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
FEB. 11, 2018

The pig was 12 cents a pound, live weight.

My delight with this bargain was tempered by a pang of sympathy for the hog farmer, whoever he or she might be. You think of such things when you once drove a load of pigs to the sale barn at age 16 in an old pickup truck that liked to stall at intersections. Our family finances, sketchy at the best of times, descended deeper into debt and despair when the price of hogs dropped.

I’ve learned since then that poverty is far more complicated than dollars and wages and prices. It also encompasses invisible and immeasurable metrics of support and skills, opportunity and relationships, and values and traditions.

My husband’s sister Lois and her husband, Ken, are remarkably self-sufficient, even for Mennonites, in every domestic art from gardening to rug-making to keeping livestock to home repairs. Ken reminded us that he could help us butcher a pig if we needed pork, and when he found a 600-pound hog for that impossibly low price of 12 cents a pound, we agreed it was time.

My husband, Paul, and Ken worked together in Ken and Lois’ cold utility room on our half of the pig, slicing the meat into strips and feeding it into the grinder. Then they mixed up the sausage, following Paul’s Grandma Lena’s famous recipe, here in its entirety:

90 lb. ground pork
5 T. pepper
5 T. ginger
2 c. salt
Optional: 2 T. sage

The hardest part of the process, says Paul, was cranking the old sausage stuffer that used to belong to Grandpa Orval. Paul turned the handle and Ken carefully controlled the casings so they were full but not bursting. After that, Ken smoked the meat for three hours in his brother David's smoker.

Meanwhile, I dug in the pantry for all my empty quart canning jars, Kerrs and Balls and Masons, many of them older than I am. I also pulled my pressure canner off the shelf and borrowed another canner from Lois and two more from Simone, the cousin’s wife just down the road. Paul stomped heavily into the kitchen and placed an enormous blue plastic tote of sausage on the table, then a red one a few minutes later — 150 pounds of meat in all.

The long cold sausages looked and acted alarmingly like large snakes, coiling heavily in the totes and then flopping in muscular curves and curls when I lifted them out, one by one.

In the Smucker family tradition, there is one and only one way to can sausage. You cut it into 2½-inch pieces. Then you put seven of these, upright, into the bottom of the jar, like stout spools of thread standing side by side. Seven more stand upright on top of these, and two more lie down on the very top.

That is how it’s done.

There must be a faster way. I picked up a long rope and carefully threaded it head first into a jar, then coiled it around and around and snipped it off when it reached the top. I shoved another piece down the empty space in the center and snipped that off as well, and the jar was full.

“No one can fill a jar like Lois,” Ken had told Paul. “She can get two pounds of meat in a quart jar.”

I weighed my jars. Two pounds of meat in each. Yes! Quickly, I filled one jar after another, coiling and pushing. They looked just as horrifyingly snake-like inside the jars as out, but I wanted the job done fast.

Paul, who seldom has opinions about food preparation, happened to come inside as I was working. “I’ve never seen anyone put sausage in a jar that way. Are you sure it’s OK?”

“I don’t see why not.”

He actually called Lois, just to make sure.

She laughed. “I don’t think it ever crossed any of our minds to do it that way, but I don’t see why you couldn’t. All of us — Grandma Lena and Mom and Aunt Susie and Aunt JoAn and I — we always did it exactly the same — cut it in chunks and put seven in one layer, seven in the next and two on top.”

I felt like those spunky and courageous girls in “Amish” novels, breaking family tradition like this.

After they’re filled, the jars must be pressure-canned at 10 pounds of pressure for an hour and a half. Every good farm wife has an extra stove just for canning, especially if the kitchen stove has a flat surface. My canning stove came from my friend Gina years ago, for $20.

It’s stained and old, but it works perfectly.

Watching two or three pressure canners at once takes even more courage than breaking a family tradition. I flitted nervously back and forth, monitoring gauges and timers and burners, knowing that if one of the canners exploded, it would take half the house and me with it. And what would Grandma Lena say if I showed up in heaven as a result of canning sausages a new and very wrong way?

When I had used up all the non-mayonnaise jars in the pantry, I poked around in the east half of the chicken shed for the box of jars I inherited from my mom’s stash. In typical ingenuity, she had zig-zagged a long strap of old fabric and duct-taped it cleverly under and around the heavy box to form two handles.

My daughter Amy washed out the spiderwebs and dust and sanitized the jars in the dishwasher. Emily filled them with the last of the sausage. Seven quarts per canner, 90 minutes each, batch after batch. Rows of sealed jars, plump and proud on the counter. Another generation learning by doing. This is also how it’s done.

I have been reading about poverty — from news articles on fees and fines that impede progress for low-income people, to Barbara Ehrenreich’s condescending but informative book “Nickel and Dimed.” I’m learning about the descending spiral of poverty and the difficulty of climbing up and out.

When we had four small children, I stayed at home and Paul worked a barely minimum wage job. We slowly worked our way out of that frustrating lifestyle to a pleasant place where we can now buy new shoes if we want to, and a car breakdown doesn’t derail us financially.

This transition was possible because we always have had access to that mysterious source of wealth that is never tallied on government reports or factored in economic projections — the resources of a caring family and community, skills and equipment and thrift passed from one generation to another, and a willingness to help others for no compensation besides eventually being helped in return.

The price of commodities is out of my control, and there is little I can do about vast inequities and financial policies. We donate money to charities that offer help to the poor, and I loan my pressure canner to others who need it. But maybe my husband and I need to find new ways to draw people into our circle of family and community, trading their skills with ours, sharing what we have, teaching what we’ve learned, and learning from them.

True, we put hours of hard work into this project, but it was mostly because of a generous circle of people who offered, taught, loaned and helped that we were able to gather 65 quarts of the best sausage in the world for less than $50. We are abundantly blessed and breathtakingly wealthy.


  1. I think you would enjoy this book as you learn about poverty. It was eye opening for me, and fit what I've learned in my life in the city.

    1. That looks very interesting.

  2. My mom's side of the family always canned sausage with the links standing on end in the jar, but on my dad's side there was only one right way -- coil it in just like you did! My gross-mommy Lena wold have been proud of you for showing up in Heaven for that reason. LOL

  3. My question is: why does sausage have to be in links? Wouldn't it be much easier (and not so snake-like) to just package it like we do hamburger? ...for a bigger yet break from tradition. Thinking out loud, LRM

    1. I'm not sure. I wanted some not in casings but forgot to tell Paul so I have lots of tubular sausage!

  4. Very interesting article........yes, you family has "helped and blessed" you to make this project possible. Mennonites are good about "helping each other" something our local people in AL don't always have. Thankfully if they are part of our church......they do have family :)

  5. Sounds like you would love many of the classes I took/am taking for my master's degree in International Community Development.

  6. We always canned sausage coiled in the jars. My mom didn't have pressure canners so it was 3 hours in the regular canner.

    Now I'm hungry for sausage!

  7. "And what would Grandma Lena say if I showed up in heaven as a result of canning sausages a new and very wrong way?" Oh this made my day! Thanks for the laugh!

  8. What was wrong with that hog? Selling for 12 cents a pound? That actually shouldn't happen in today's market, you know! We raise hogs, so just sayin'. From our experience bulk, or unstuffed sausage stays fresh longer in the freezer, but for some reason if you stuff it, it stays fresh longer canned. And did Grandma Lena also use the 'natural' casings? :) I agree, there's just nothing like fresh sausage that you've made all by yourself!

    1. The hog was too old to cut up for roasts and chops. That's all I know.
      And I would guess that Gma Lena used the "real" casings, but I don't recall any of the aunts clarifying this.

  9. Interesting! Yes, we cut it in pieces, too..... I thought it was so we could remove it easier, when it was does it come out just fine, coiled? .... and did you add water? ...we didn't, but my nieces do and makes a moist sausage where ours was condensed and firm....just curious. :)

    1. It comes out in pieces but not crumbs. And I didn't add any water.

  10. I don't think I know any one that cans sausage. It must not be a thing here. But just about everybody has a smoker or smokehouse so maybe that is the difference.