In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. If he’s Polish, garlic, coarsely ground pork and marjoram may also be involved.
That’s because Easter is kielbasa time for some Western New York families, who celebrate that feast day and Christmas by making five to 50 pounds of fresh Polish sausage. In these homes, setting up the sausage machine is as much a part of holiday preparations as decorating a tree.
For guys like Ken Gawel, it wouldn’t be Easter dinner without kielbasa, made with his own hands, and packaged for gifts to relatives and friends.
“I enjoy it because it’s a family tradition,” said Gawel, who grew up in Cheektowaga. “It’s something I enjoy because I grew up with it. My father, my parents, we did this for the holidays, and it’s a tradition I want to keep going.”
That’s why so many people with some Polish in their background are breaking out the meat grinders and sausage stuffers this week. Their work will be celebrated Monday, Dyngus Day, at the Buffalo’s Best Kielbasa Contest, held at the Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave.
A panel of judges will choose the winners in commercial and homemade categories, and lookers-on can sample kielbasa, sauerkraut and rye bread, and vote for the people’s choice crown. It’ll be a real sausagefest, in the best possible way.
Last year, Alex Cockerill, who is not Polish in the least, took home honors in the amateur nontraditional class with his barbecued kielbasa. “In Texas they have kielbasa with garlic and marjoram, but they hang it above the brisket in their smokers and ribs, and they use barbecue sauce,” he said. “Why not a Texas-style open pit barbecue sausage?”
Cockerill, the West Side Rowing Club’s boatman , said that after five years of sausage-making, he entered the contest to see how his work compared, and maybe learn something. “I’m interested in what other people are doing on this,” he said. “There aren’t too many other sausage-makers out there whose brain I can pick.”
In Cheektowaga, Gawel said he hasn’t entered the contest yet. His prize is the satisfaction he gets from doing it, and the rewards of feeding family. “I just enjoy it,” he said, setting up his sausage-stuffing machine to fill another batch of casings. He bought the combination meat grinder and sausage stuffer about 10 years ago.
“You make this stuff, and you cook it. People’s satisfaction is so rewarding. It’s fun.”
What Gawel calls fun, others call work, which explains why many kielbasa fans, Polish or not, would rather buy theirs. For about $2 a pound, he can make his own, Gawel said. At $6 a pound for good commercial kielbasa, he saves about $120 per 30-pound holiday.
There is some lugging and fiddly bits to sausage-making, he allowed. You have to be meticulous about cleanliness and keeping the meat cold. None of it is hard labor, or nuclear physics. “The biggest thing is time,” Gawel said. “You need to have the time in your life to make this.”
He starts with pork shoulder, also known as pork butt; this batch was $1.29 a pound from Wegmans. He removes the blade bone and thick top layer of fat, and cuts the rest into hunks. They get pushed through his electric meat grinder, fitted with a coarse disc. He folds in the spices with well-scrubbed hands. Garlic, chopped fresh, never from a jar, about a bulb for each five pounds of meat. Dried marjoram and coarse ground pepper, iodized salt and a dash of sugar.
He filled two big bus tubs and stored it in his unheated garage, the “Cheektowaga walk-in.” Mixed occasionally and topped with ice to guarantee it stays cold, it marinates for two days.
When he was ready, he refitted the machine as a sausage stuffer, a meat pump if you will, with a nozzle at one end. Gawel carefully threaded a length of hog casing, pig intestine, onto the spout. You don’t want holes. He tied a knot on the end.
Then he scooped handfuls of meat into the hopper. One hand pressed the meat into the stuffer with a plunger, as the other guided the filled tube off the nozzle, and curled the sausage into fat coils.
“You have to make sure you have the right tension in the casing,” the sort of touch that comes with practice, he said. He adds ice water to the meat tub to keep it cold and slippery, so it fills the casing with minimal tearing. “This stuff is freezing right now,” said Gawel. “It’s perfect.”
Gawel’s got the moves down so he can make kielbasa solo, but that’s not how it works everywhere.
In Kenmore, at the Lachut house, Gary Lachut’s sons Sean and Scott man the crank on an antique four-quart cast-iron sausage pump.
“They liked to eat it so much they needed to start helping out as well,” said Lachut, a science teacher at North Tonawanda High School. “And it does take some muscle to turn the crank.”
The press was originally obtained by Gary’s father John, who remains the chief kielbasa consultant. “My dad has been the guiding light in this,” Gary Lachut said. “He got it from his dad, probably, and passed it to me, and now me likewise to my sons.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no room in the kielbasa life for innovation. Lachut hasn’t ground his own pork in forever, buying coarsely ground pork butts from Johnny’s Meats on Hertel Avenue. Then it’s just seasoning and stuffing.
Recently, Lachut made another discovery, courtesy of son Sean. After an entire lifetime of boiled-then-broiled Polish sausage, he tried some grilled.
“That just changed everything,” Lachut said. “That had something in between the smoky and that boiled-broiled taste. It took Sean stepping outside my little parochial box, expanding that a little bit, and it had wonderful results.”