Being apart of a generation who largely had traditions that go as far back as a Betty Crocker cookbook, how do we rebirth something that might be already lost? After some thought I clumsily took up the task grasping at the few lingering strands of the past to weave into my present hopes for something to someday take shape. I gave it my best shot- by making the oldest living relative I had one of his favorite foods, and making it again and again until he like it.
My grandfather comes a kielbasa-loving community nestled in the Pocono Mountains in Eastern Pennsylvania. He would entice us as kids with stories about the air in autumn filling with the perfume of wood burning from smokehouses full of sausage scattered in backyards throughout the town.
At first it was trying to make a living, and that is what introduced me to the skill of sausage making. It was a part of my job and while there was some uneven sailing in the beginning, things eventually settled into a place where myself, my employers, and the customers seemed happy with what I was creating. I hit a stride that created a sense of pride in the product which made it feel appropriate in my naivety to try and impress my grandfather with a batch of kielbasa for Christmas. I’ll always remember that dinner where I asked him what he thought of my sausage and he said gentle sincerity- “Needs more garlic.”
And “It’s dry.”
So much for that. But one year of sausage making was no match for a lifetime of kielbasa eating.
Our holiday meals were often delicious, but the menu was generally the predictable fare. For my soft-spoken, gentle Grandfather who was a living connection to our non-North American family history, it seemed that after him a treasure chest of the past would be lost. Despite having a bountiful backyard garden and an obsessive wine-making hobby, those memories were getting buried behind our consistent routine of family meals at truck stop buffets.
Without a family recipe to be passed down, perhaps I thought, we could find one he loves and hold on to it firmly enough to maintain that thread that went all the way back to Poland to carry with us forward.
The following year with more experience and a much improved smoking technique I took my refined sausage to Christmas and placed it on the table where it shared center stage with a lighter colored sausage bought at a small butchershop in his hometown. I watched him attentively as he took a little bite of both sausages, then completed loading up his plate. True to having lived through the depression he cleared his whole plate including eating both kielbasas, and when he reached for seconds he chose the other sausage. I asked him later what he thought of my kielbasa and he said nonchalantly like the year before, “Needs more garlic.”
My father understanding what I was trying to do attempted to console me by saying, “Oh he’s getting old and is probably losing his tastebuds.” But I wasn’t convinced. I believed that our Grandfather who’s been eating kielbasa his whole life simply knows what a good kielbasa is, with or without his tastebuds.
Two years later I had thousands of pounds of sausage-making under my belt and felt great about my stuffing, smoking, mixing, and seasoning on a professional level. Yet up to this point I still hadn’t succeeded in garnering my Grandfather’s kielbasa blessing. For the coming Christmas regardless of where ever the amount had already climbed to, I just about doubled the garlic again. I presented it on the table for Christmas dinner as I had in the many years before and I watched him take a small piece and eat it up just like he had before. Then he looked up and reached out for more. And that’s how I knew I had finally done it.
Later that evening my brother, who tried to stick up for me and my sausage over the years asked our Grandfather what he thought of the kielbasa. He looked up and said, softly and surely, “Yeah. Good.”
This is now the recipe that I carry with me that becomes a special batch made specifically as gifts for my family and for us to eat throughout the year. The thing though that I learned about tradition through this experience is that it isn’t as stagnant as it seems to be. Now with the family heirloom recipe in place it was time to let the recipe come alive through the stories it accumulates over time. The recipe changes according to how things have gone at the farm and occasionally from some other factors, but it’s the act of it’s creation every December, the distribution of it amongst my family, and the many favorite ways we like to enjoy it that makes it the consistent family heirloom that it is becoming, and that has become.
If you’re interested in starting to make your own sausage then check out the Resources page.