Image: On a quest to find your perfect sausage? The prairies are a good place to start. (Illustration: Bruce Roberts)
As I watched my sausage-stuffed suitcase disappear into the scanner at the Edmonton airport a few Christmases ago, I suddenly panicked. What if the security guard thought all those frozen Mennonite farmer sausage links were some kind of explosive device? “Hope that meat doesn’t thaw,” I offered, perhaps a little too cheerfully. The guard, his eyes on the screen, gave a little smile. “Nothing new,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how much sausage comes through here during the holidays.”
It took a few moments for the elation to set in. My wife Jan and I weren’t alone! Our strange bi-annual ritual — returning home from visiting our families in Alberta and Manitoba toting an old vinyl suitcase crammed with sausage — was part of a cross-country airlift of this prairie comfort food.
The Ottawa Valley, where we now live, is full of excellent small-scale meat processors, but neither love nor money can purchase the taste we associate with home, family and our ethnic Mennonite heritage. Even Ontario’s Menno Mecca in Kitchener-Waterloo can’t help us. Farmer sausage from the prairies is beyond compare — a wood-smoked pork sausage that is quite lean compared to other minced and tubed meats.
It’s the smoky aroma that hits you first, then the mouth feel. Ranging from fine to coarse grained, the texture is dry and crumbly rather than smooth. Historically, salt and pepper are the only seasonings, though some producers have recently introduced a garlic version — a sacrilege to traditionalists. Unlike, for example, Ukrainian kielbasa, Mennonite sausage must be cooked (fried, baked or grilled), although another traditional practice is to dip it in vinegar and eat it raw. (We’re still trying to summon up the courage for that variation!) Serve it with boiled new potatoes, fresh peas and a vinegary salad and you have earthy peasant cuisine at its finest, something you won’t find talked up by “foodies” or packaged with spa retreats. Quebec has its cheese, Ontario has its wine and the prairies are bristling with sausage.
Over the years, our friends had extolled the virtues of various Mennonite sausage brands, but we couldn’t get the big-picture view from anyone. Creatures of habit, Chris and I each knew what we liked, which led to a constant battle for freezer space. I preferred the sausage made near my childhood home of Morden, Man., while Chris was devoted to the taste of his youth from Edmonton. Last summer, we resolved to put to rest this long-running source of domestic tension by undertaking a foolishly ambitious quest to find the perfect farmer sausage.
We identified three sausage-making hubs on the Canadian plains: Edmonton and the Kalyna Country region to the east; Saskatchewan’s Hague-Osler district north of Saskatoon; and the Mennonite heartland of southern Manitoba’s Pembina Triangle. We would traverse the prairies by car, gather as many brands as would fit into our cooler, cook them all up and let our palates decide. All very clinical and systematic. By the time we were finished, however, we had visited 10 farmer-sausage makers, accumulated 18 different brands and sampled three homemade varieties. Our voyage of discovery wasn’t as simple and straightforward as we’d imagined.
We’re in the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market in Edmonton. Crowds gone, the high-ceilinged hush gives this former bus barn the feel of a holy place, a sanctuary to food. George Janzen, with his no-nonsense manner and easy smile, is the one-man show behind Menno’s Sausage Inc. in Ardrossan, one of only two licensed farmer-sausage artisans in Alberta. He’s also the closest thing to a farmer-sausage philosopher that we encounter. “A good farmer sausage crumbles on your tongue,” he quips aphoristically, “not your plate.”
Janzen has sausage-making in his bones. When he grew up in Fort Vermillion, a hamlet in northern Alberta, community members would travel from farm to farm in the fall, butchering pigs and making sausage. Sausage is only meat and smoke, but the variations are endless: sow or weanling meat, the ratio of pork to fat, the grind, the type of smoke and casing. The real secret is in the smoking, in itself a quasi-mystical process.
Janzen uses a very traditional blend of smoking woods, but he keeps the precise formula secret. “In the past on the prairies, they would have used poplar, wheat straw and diamond willow. The straw imparts a wonderful flavour,” he says. “I try to keep to the original recipe — that’s what gives it a distinct flavour.” The sausage casing, which is typically made from cow intestine, needs to give a pleasing “snap” without being tough, Janzen adds, but achieving this involves perfectly balancing the sausage’s fat and moisture content.
In the Edmonton area, Mennonite sausage takes a back seat to the Ukrainian variety in terms of popularity, availability and formidably spelled names (see Widynowski’s Sausage House or Marchyshyn’s Home Meat Market). Although Mennonite sausage was the beating heart of our journey, any prairie sausage tour would be grossly incomplete without at least a pit stop in Mundare, home of the famous Ukrainian institution, Stawnichy’s Meat Processing, not to mention the world’s largest sausage, a colossal curved link that towers 12.8 metres above the town.
Down the road at the restored Vegreville Train Station restaurant, we savour a homemade Ukrainian meal of pickly cabbage rolls, delicate perogies, local ham-garlic sausage and nalesniki (a light crepe with a cottage cheese filling). It’s nothing short of perfection. No wonder we Russian Mennonites appropriated so many culinary traditions from the Ukrainians.
The next day, we’re a half-hour north of Saskatoon and, under record-breaking, ditch-brimming rainfall, we navigate gravel roads grooved into mucky corduroy. Mennonites from the Russian Ukraine began settling here in 1895. Breaking the typical prairie settlement model of settled quarter sections, they bought large collective land “reserves” and lived in residential villages, as they had in Russia. The Mennonite character of the area endures in a landscape complete with combination house-barns and the tell-tale names flashing by on mailboxes: Toews, Derksen, Klassen, Enns.
In the village of Neuhorst, Jen and Cory Wiebe (no relation … or maybe they’re distant cousins) operate Ideal Meats on what was originally Cory’s grandfather’s property. Quiet and reserved, they serve us a barbecued sample of their excellent sausage in their dining room, then show us their scrupulously clean shop. The Wiebes still make their sausage by hand in the traditional way, a process that takes more than 11 hours. “The more automated it becomes, the more you lose the art of the craft,” says Cory, who, as a teenager, helped his father start Ideal in 1983.
The sausage belt north of Saskatoon is home to a variety of producers with different approaches to the sausage-making tradition. Like Cory, however, they all learned the technique and the business at the side of their parents and grandparents. Even the oldest and largest operations in the area — Valley Meat Processors in Gruenthal and Riverside Meats near Warman, which smokes a whopping 1,350 kilograms a week — are run by proprietors who proudly lay claim to sausage-making as a family tradition. Although Jan and I have never witnessed a traditional swine slaughter (or schwein schlachten in Mennonite Low German), our parents fondly reminisce about the community celebration (schwein kjast) around the fall butchering, an all-day affair of work, laughter and feasting. An old Low German saying translates as, “He thinks highly of short prayers and long sausages.”
Yet everywhere we go, people seem slightly reluctant to admit that there’s anything terribly special about sausage. “The level of discourse around sausage just hasn’t gotten there yet,” food writer Amy Jo Ehman tells us over breakfast at the Park Town Hotel in Saskatoon. “It’s just something you do, and you don’t discuss doing it.” I don’t really believe her. For one thing, Ehman’s food blog, “Home for Dinner,” makes the bold claim that “sausage is the quintessential Saskatchewan food,” something that’s made in homes and small butcher shops across the province.
Still, for people such as Kevin and Melanie Boldt, owners of Osler-area Pine View Farms and key figures in the Saskatoon locavore movement, sausage is taken for granted. “It’s a bluecollar everyday food,” says Kevin. “People eat it three or four times a week. And really, there’s not much to it: it’s just meat, salt and pepper and smoke.” When we press him on the supposed “simplicity” of sausage, he concedes that there are a million different ways of making it —“just like fine wine in the Okanagan.”
We ask the Boldts if they know any local families that still make farmer sausage for their personal use. “Dick and Kathy Braun,” Melanie says without hesitating, reciting their phone number from memory. Within two hours we are sitting down in the Brauns’ Osler home to a dinner of homemade noodles (kielke) with cream gravy (schmauntfatt) and, we can hardly contain our excitement, their homemade farmer sausage. It’s probably the first truly homemade farmer sausage I have ever tried. The flavour is mild; the texture, tender. This may be the perfect sausage. My mind flickers back to a 1946 photograph of my grandmother in Speedwell, Sask., shaving the bristles from a huge pig suspended from an aspen tree. She would have eaten sausage like this. Then we play the “Mennonite game” with the Brauns and try to piece together a blood connection or at least friends in common. It turns out, of course, there are several; they’ve even met my parents. The warm, almost automatic hospitality offered to us by the Brauns is one of the highlights of our prairie sausage pilgrimage. The other comes when we get to the epicentre of North American farmer sausage production: the Winkler-Altona area in southern Manitoba, which is dominated by the venerable Winkler Meats Ltd. and Pioneer Meat Ltd., the latter making nearly 900,000 sausage links annually. Placed end to end, they would stretch 375 kilometres — a glorious sight to behold.
Mennonite settlement of this rich agricultural area began in the 1870s and there are many villages, such as Neubergthal and Reinland, with beautiful heritage architecture. Even more beautiful is the fact that at most grocery stores, one can choose between five to eight brands of locally made farmer sausage — more than when I grew up here! — and even gas station freezers yield rare and exotic finds. Farmer sausage is also a staple of area eateries such as the Triangle Oasis and the Mexican-Mennonite fusion restaurant Del Rios. Not only that, but there also appears to be a local renaissance of the schwein schlachten, a practice in steep decline since the 1970s. One of my Winkler cousins offers me some custom-made sausage from “a guy she knows,” cryptically protecting her sources. She’s convinced the tradition is undergoing a revival among a new generation of Mennonites.
Among them are Frank and Monica Harder, a soft-spoken young farming couple with a growing family near the village of Lowe Farm. Frank grew up on the farm, which was his maternal grandparents’. They make their own sausage completely from scratch, right down to raising six or so weanlings a year in outdoor pens and butchering them in November. Why bother when there is a cornucopia of choice all around them? Because self-sufficiency and control over what they eat are important. “I need to eat natural food for health reasons,” Frank says, “and I find the meat from pigs raised in big industrial hog barns doesn’t agree with me. Maybe it’s all the antibiotics and drugs they inject.”
For Frank’s father John, cost is an important factor, but family tradition and enjoyment also play a role. Here, on this land, they have always made sausage. The Harders show us the pig pen where their six pigs are digging in the muck and munching on fresh dill from the garden. A wooden outbuilding holds the sausage-making equipment, including a large metal cauldron (miagrope) for rendering the lard. In the kitchen, Monica offers us traditional, homemade canned sausage meat which we spread on bread. Without the smoking, the taste is much milder, the texture, silky.
Flying back home from Winnipeg with yet another sausagestuffed suitcase, Jan and I realize that, despite our travels, we still haven’t done justice to the world of farmer sausage. There’s an Abbotsford, B.C., brand called Rempel Meats that we’ve never tried, and Jan’s cousin in Vancouver tells us she’s got a source — a clandestine operation involving a Chinese grocery and the bottom of an ice-cream freezer. And what about the rest of the world? If Neapolitan pizza can be named to UNESCO’s cultural heritage list, why not farmer sausage? Isaac Funk of Funk’s Meats near Winkler told us how he had learned sausage making from his parents on the Mexican-Mennonite settlements in Chihuahua. Perhaps we need to follow the Mennonite diaspora to Mexico, then Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and beyond.
Early on in our journey, Chris and I had realized that our quest for the perfect sausage was futile. When we described our intention to Kevin Boldt, he looked skeptical for a moment, then replied, “Well, you probably will find your perfect sausage. But it might not be someone else’s.” He’s right, of course. A sausage consensus is a foolish dream. Which brings to mind another Low German saying: aules haft en enj; bloss de worscht haft twee. Translation: everything has an end, only the sausage has two.
Jan Schroeder is an English professor at Carleton University and Christopher Wiebe works at the Heritage Canada Foundation. They live in Ottawa, but left their hearts — and stomachs — in the prairies.