Poetry of Sausages

A writer confesses his love for chorizo, kielbasa and other tempting forms of charcuterie.

Even their names are poetry to me: chorizo, merguez, rosette, boudin noir, kielbasa, luganega, cotechino, zampone, chipolata, linguiça, weisswurst. Whose mouth has not watered in a well-stocked butcher shop or fancy-food market at the sight of many varieties of sausages: fresh and smoked, stuffed with pork, beef, lamb, liver, veal, venison and poultry and seasoned with herbs, garlic, pepper and spices too numerous to count?

Until about 10 years ago, there was a small store specializing in regional French sausages on Rue Delambre in Montparnasse, that famous little Parisian street where at one time Isadora Duncan lived, Man Ray had his first studio and Hemingway met Fitzgerald in a bar called the Dingo. Each time I entered that shop, I felt as if I were about to lose control of myself and make a scene. I'd point to one kind of sausage, change my mind and point to another, then ask for both. Often, after they had been expertly wrapped and I was on my way out, I rushed back and bought a couple more. My visits were a year apart, but the owners remembered me well and approached me each time with a smile of recognition and a touch of apprehension.

"They are bad for you," some of my friends warn me, as if all that stood between eternal life and me were one nicely grilled, richly seasoned kielbasa. Sad to say, there are people who regard lovers of sausages as relics from a kind of nutritional Dark Ages, ignorant of cholesterol and calories. For them, all the Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, North Africans, Chinese, Germans and Portuguese happily frying, grilling, boiling and poaching sausages are living terribly misguided lives. "Don't you know the disgusting things they put into sausages," they say to me incredulously. Of course I know. Some of the oldest and wisest cultures on earth eat them is my defense. In France there's even an organization called the A.A.A.A.A., the Amicable Association of Appreciators of Authentic Andouillettes, whose members regard the sausage that is made with pig's intestines filled with strips of choice innards mixed with pork fat and seasonings as the one and only ideal. In Finland, there is a similar society whose members meet once a week in a sauna to conduct "sensory testing" of sausages cooked over hot rocks.

If that still doesn't impress my friends, I tell them about one of the last conversations I had with my father. He told me--or rather, he told the hospital ceiling--that he had made one serious mistake in his life, one that he was truly sorry for. I perked up at once, expecting a Dostoyevskian confession, the story of some great wrong, the secret of a lifetime to be revealed only at death's door. But no! Instead, he told me that he had made the error of following his doctor's advice when he was seventy. The doctor had counseled him to stop eating sausage, salami, ham, bacon, liver pâté and other such necessities of life, and foolishly he obeyed. For a couple of years, he felt awful; he was listless and mildly depressed, he said. Then one day he came to his senses, started eating everything that was bad for him and felt 200 percent better. He just regretted the years he'd wasted. My father's dietary philosophy--which I surreptitiously share--went this way: If it looks good and tastes good, it must be healthy for you. The current view, of course, maintains the opposite: The more delicious it is, the sooner it'll kill you. In my father's opinion potatoes, cabbage, beans and lentils simply do not taste right without sausages. As a matter of fact, they look downright miserable on the plate without them.

A sausage served in a restaurant of distinction can be an unforgettable occasion. An impeccably attired and dignified waiter has just uncovered a plate on which lies a lone wild-boar sausage next to a sprig of parsley. It is a joy to behold, and the first nibble doesn't disappoint, and yet something is not quite right. A sausage feels more at home at a carnival or in a steamy kitchen. Sausages are sociable. A hot Tunisian lamb sausage will get along just fine with a potato from Idaho; a good-looking chicken leg, tentacles of a squid and green peas from the garden make equally swell company. The Portuguese, who love to combine odd ingredients, make a stew of ham, chouriço and tiny clams. Sausages are true multiculturalists. A large, mixed and rowdy group makes eating them even more memorable.

My old buddy Bob Williams in Hayward, California, used to make Italian sausages and peppers to perfection. He'd invite five or six people, give us a few bottles of good Zinfandel and even better Chianti and take his time with the food. Finally he'd pour some olive oil in a frying pan in the kitchen just so our noses would know something was happening. Then, in due time, the onions would go in, so the excitement could really begin. Before putting in the sausages, he'd bring them out to us so we could feast our eyes on them and grow hungry in anticipation. Supposedly a Neapolitan guy in Oakland who didn't speak a word of English made them from an old family recipe. I never believed this entirely, but such stories seem to be obligatory among cooks. There's always someone in a small grocery store or a luncheonette in some outlying suburb or inner-city ghetto who sells the best sausage you ever tasted.

By now, Bob's sausages are beginning to send tantalizing smells our way and everyone is rushing to pull a chair up to the table. Even a couple of elegant women who by their appearance eat nothing but baby vegetables are fighting for the bread in an unseemly hurry. Bob is carrying in a basket of freshly picked hot peppers from the garden. We munch on them, grow red in the face, gasp with astonishment at the wallop they pack and gulp wine like water while listening to the sausages make their cheerful music on the stove. Since this is a confession, let me admit it: This dish can be a big disappointment. The sausages tend to be overdone, the peppers burnt, the onions likewise. Getting it right is all about timing, faultless timing. The accumulated experience of the cook in an inspired moment creates a small masterpiece in a frying pan.

The sight of so many sausages arriving on the table is always a shock. Despite his cherubic appearance and his broad smile, Bob makes me think of the devil in some medieval miniature dangling a tempting morsel before a saint kneeling in prayer. "Oh, how wonderful, but not for me!" a few of the company protest, quickly following that solemn announcement with "Well, perhaps, maybe, just a tiny little taste" as they reach with their forks. No one waits to be served. There's not enough bread and the sausages are vanishing before our eyes as if they were part of a magic act. A bit of grease has fallen on a pale yellow silk blouse, but its owner doesn't care. She's laughing with her mouth full. A sudden, horrible realization is on everyone's mind: I love sausages. I'll kill for another sausage. "Keep them coming," we shout to Bob, who is back in the kitchen, and he's more than happy to oblige.

Now comes a tough question, worthy of a thousand sleepless nights: What is the future of sausages? In these days of genetic engineering, what will some new Dr. Frankenstein do to the poor wiener? Plenty, I bet. But we won't eat it. As long as peppers and herbs grow in the garden, children run happily after butterflies, mourners blow their noses on their sleeves, cooks scratch their heads and dogs amble into the kitchen to find out what's cooking, the dream of a good old sausage will live on.

Charles Simic is a poet, essayist and translator. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990. Jackstraws, a collection of new poems, was just published in paperback by Harvest Books.

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