The Sausage Story: Not For Everyone

Our writer takes a butchery class and learns in inti­mate detail just how com­mitted the pig must be to cre­ating this savory delight

Somewhere in Maiale Deli & Salumeria, on Lancaster Pike in Wilmington, there’s a Tuscan sausage with my name on it.

Even for sausage, it’s not all that pretty—a bit lumpy in spots, to be honest—but at least it didn’t burst. And I made that salami with my own two hands and one foot that was working the pedal that pow­ered the machine that shot the pork and fat and spices into the casing—a process that requires sig­nif­i­cantly more hand-eye-foot coör­di­na­tion than I usu­ally dis­play. Still, I managed.

The pork came fresh from a pig butchered during a class led by Maiale owner Billy Rawstrom. And right now, as I type, my sausage is curing in a temperature-controlled envi­ron­ment at Maiale, bac­teria inside the casing releasing the acids that will slowly “cook” the salami, until the day Billy calls to let me know it’s ready to eat.

I can’t wait to eat that salami.

But I’m get­ting ahead of myself. This is not about eating the sausage. It’s about how the sausage is made, and it starts with a pig—a 230-pound Delaware pig named Tommy. (Truth be told, they don’t name pigs at the farm. But Tommy is the farmer’s name, and after seeing it written on the animal’s hide, it was impos­sible not to think of him that way.)

Let’s be clear: This is not a story for everyone. Some people, even those who love their bacon, don’t want to think about the sausage-creating process. So fair warning: I won’t be sparing any details. This is your jumping off point. Class is starting. You may want to step out now.

Because we’re going to have to cut the head off that pig.

one. After Rawstrom makes all his cuts, it still takes a couple of solid twists to break the neck bone and remove the head, which is placed in a metal pan to be worked with later.

Once that is done, he goes into the belly of the pig to remove the ten­der­loins, and this is when I have my first rev­e­la­tion of the morning: Every pig has two ten­der­loins, no more, no less. You can under­stand that intel­lec­tu­ally, but until you see the butchering process, it’s hard to grasp how every pair of tenderloins—marinated, pre-wrapped and sit­ting in the super­market cooler—represent all a single animal had to give.

“It def­i­nitely makes me think about how I use my prod­ucts,” Rawstrom says.

Of course there are other cuts beyond ten­der­loin, and a com­mer­cial butcher shop would use a band saw to quickly split the pig in half, but in this small space, Rawstrom employs a simple handsaw to slice the pig from the tail, along the spine, straight through to the neck.

Half a pig now lies on the table, and even in this raw state, it’s easy to see familiar cuts. There’s the Boston butt. The belly that will become the bacon. The spare ribs. The small back­bone nubs that were once con­sid­ered scraps until Applebee’s invented the riblet and started serving them with fries and cole slaw for $12.99. And the leg, the first to go, looking exactly like an Ibérico ham when removed from the pig.

As he breaks the pig down, Rawstrom describes in detail the dif­ferent ways he uses each part in the store—curing the loin to make Italian lonzo, frying the pork cheek like an oyster to make “pork cheek po’ boys,” or cooking the loin sous vide as the first step in his roast pork sand­wich. (“That’s a great sand­wich!” Doug says. “It’s cool to get a look behind the curtain.”)

Finished sausages created by students from one of Maiale's classes.

Today, the fresh pork loin from Tommy will become sausage. You hear jokes, of course, about what sausage is made of, but Billy uses cuts straight from the loin (and fat from all over the pig) to make his pork sausages. In the back, he lets us step up to the grinder to feed the meat and fat into the pow­erful machine, and then after he adds the spices (salt, pepper, fennel, garlic, sugar, and some starter cul­ture to get the chem­ical reac­tions going), we make our own. Ten salamis from Saturday’s class are already hanging.

After our ama­teur attempts at sausage making, Maiale staffers use more of the pig to whip up some fresh Italian sausage (ours to take home), and tell us they’ll call when it’s time to come back to pick up the salami (and a little bacon too, because they want us to be happy, and bacon makes people happy.)

After that, it’s all over but the snacking. Billy takes Tommy’s ten­der­loin off the grill, sea­sons it simply with some salt, pepper and oil and puts it on a plate. We eat with our fin­gers, the fat still hot and melting in our mouths. It’s deli­cious. Freshness makes a clear difference.

So what did we learn? If I ever have to butcher a hog in the future, I’ll prob­ably do it very, very badly—but I’ll know where to start. And I learned how a good butcher will faith­fully follow the “snout to tail” phi­los­ophy. All through the process, Rawstrom would tell us how the ears, the trot­ters and the trimmed bits would be used in soups, in sand­wiches and elsewhere.

I remember an old saying about the divi­sion of labor involved in break­fast: Sure, the chicken made a con­tri­bu­tion, but the pig really com­mits. It’s tough not to respect that com­mit­ment once you’ve seen Billy Rawstrom work—and he was still at it as I left, carving out pieces for the rest of the week. Tommy would pro­vide nec­es­sary nour­ish­ment to many people, even if they’d prefer not to know his name.

Billy Rawstrom runs butchery classes out of his shop, Maiale Deli & Salumeria, 3301 Lancaster Pike in Wilmington. Class was $125 for about two-and-a-half hours, and each stu­dent goes home with some meat. Follow Maiale on Facebook or sign up for emails to learn about future classes at www​.maiale​cured​meats​.com.

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