Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
A long-time practitioner of the sincerest form of flattery, I have been copying Alice and Martin Provensen’s richly colored landscapes since I was a kindergartener, producing villages on hillsides like this.
Provensenian villages are simultaneously cozy and improbable; they speak of a world in which harmony is a crowded and slightly irregular phenomenon. (The Provensens, by the way, also illustrated cookbooks, a lovely example of which is The Fireside Cook Book, by James Beard).
Because I grew up on a big hill, I liked the idea of houses and businesses connected by serpentine footpaths no civil engineer would dare to propose. Sometimes we descended our hill on a road my mom calls “the cow path.” I would slide from one side of the back seat to the other, each switchback tumbling me toward the less acute angles of the lowlands, my ears popping about halfway down.
Duluth, Minnesota, is just the sort of magical hillside city the Provensens’ illustrations prepared me for. Houses and businesses surround an international port and a cluster of stately buildings. Patrolled by superhuman snowplow drivers (yearly snowfall totals typically hover around 80 inches), Duluth’s steep, winding streets enjoy amazing views of Lake Superior, a broad mobile blue expanse with lighted shipping channels and bridges connecting peninsulas, wide ore docks jutting north, and pleasure cruisers mingling with commercial frigates. Nearly atop one of Duluth’s tallest hills, not far from a craggy, waterfall-riven park, live my old friends Curt and Melissa, along with their kids.
This is a long-winded way of saying that even without the lure of sausage-making (about which more very soon), beauty and friendship draw me to Duluth several times a year.
This particular trip began with last year’s deer hunt. In November, I watched Devin shoot two good-sized deer. Two months later, along with the steaks, roasts, and sausage we had ordered from the butcher, we received a 14-pound bag of trim, leftover cuts too small for the butcher’s machines. The bag sat in our freezer for months as we listlessly ran through options for using (i.e., getting rid of) this bundle.
Early on I suggested making sausage, an innocent-enough idea if you are not aware of our house’s small size (about 1,100 square feet) and the extant diversity of hobbies we both pursue. A 19th-century chemist named Liebig posited that a plant’s rate of growth is set by the availability of the vital nutrient in shortest supply. The vital nutrient in our house will always be space, Devin reasonably asserted; unless we could find somewhere to store our other stuff, we had no business starting a sausage-making concern with its attendant grinder and casing stuffer and other gewgaws. I opened my mouth to rebut him, but before I got a single word out, I tripped over a chest of drawers I’ve been meaning to decoupage since 1999.
As I have learned, people with a surfeit of hobbies attract like-minded friends, and sometimes these friends settle in Duluth, where abundant fishing and hunting enable a thriving local food culture. Curt, an excellent cook, angler, mushroom-forager, and grouse-hunter, is a more temperate food-minder than I am in a million ways. Years ago, for example, I tried to snag him with a recipe chain letter. He countered with a handwritten sheaf of his favorite recipes, for me and me alone, along with a plaintive request that I keep his address as far from the chain-letter mafia as possible.
But when Devin told him about the bag of trim languishing in our freezer, Curt’s moderate streak snapped — partly because he had recently been drafted for a cameo role in an episode of Guy Fieri’s "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" about sausage, and also because he is wired for ambitious, complicated ventures that last until the small hours of the night.
Faster than you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Curt had invited us to Duluth, unearthed the sausage-casing stuffer his father had given him half a decade ago, and declared his house a sausage-maker’s paradise. The children were dispatched to the woods to gather wild leeks, a package of “Qual-a-Tee” casings took up residence in the refrigerator, and a dog-eared copy of Jerry Predika’s 1983 book The Sausage-Making Cookbook was splayed open on the kitchen table. Pork butt, garlic, peppercorns, and juniper berries had been pulverized or placed in dangerous proximity to the mortar and pestle.
The moment I entered the house, I knew that something splendid was in the offing. Or perhaps I should say that the offal was about to become splendid.
(Stay tuned for the story’s next installment.)
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better