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.
I have heard that the appreciation of food — particularly its production and preparation — brings with it an enhanced appreciation of the physical senses.
As worthy an observation, I think, is that food appreciation grows when we recognize the physical skills that its production and preparation require, as well as the chemistry that shapes it.
I say this as a person not much blessed with good hand-eye coordination or any command of spatial geometry, and one who was lucky to get Bs in physics and chemistry. I still nearly clip the right passenger-side mirror of the car when I park it in the garage, and I have trouble estimating how large a Pyrex to put the leftover potatoes in. After 40-odd years on my planet, I find myself something of a stranger to the world’s pieces.
I know that the world is made of atoms and that these atoms are moving. I also know that my eyes and hands are instruments too dull to capture fully the movement of objects around me. Solidity and ethereality, in this sense, are functions of my cloddish body and its goofy, earnest methods of uploading information.
Though I can do little about my physical limitations (and those of our entire species, for that matter), I can manipulate the variable of time. The more time I spend on any project, the more I am able to understand the elements that determine its outcome. That’s why I like to think about food projects I have taken part in, like sausage-making; the egghead in me demands a good chunk of time to make sense of what I have seen and touched.
In that sausage-maker’s paradise that is Duluth, we worked until two in the morning, with time out for dinner, piano recitals, and a puppet show (!). Curt had done much of the preparation beforehand (sorting recipes, testing equipment, grinding pork butt), but several tasks remained: grinding the venison; unwinding and opening the casings; pulverizing the garlic, juniper, pepper, and other seasonings, and mixing them with the ground venison; then, finally, feeding the fragrant, anarchic mess into casings in a process comparable to getting toothpaste back into a whisper-thin tube with a toothpick, funnel, and a small motor.
Devin and Curt took the lead in grinding and stuffing, while I checked recipes, organized and prepped ingredients, fetched the odd tool, and washed some dishes. (Melissa and the kids went to bed because they had obligations the next day.)
Sometimes the work required such intense concentration that we became slaves to the molecules — some of them slippery, some round, some gelid, some flimsy, and all seemingly helter-skelter. Everything around us surged toward or surpassed breaking points. Sometimes this was our desire; other times it was not. In the blunt landscape of mortar and pestle, the sage leaves became a fine powder, with only the occasional stem to remind us of their old form. The venison, once rubbery and supple, turned through the grinder blades and was reduced to easily flattened pearls. Inflated with water, the shimmering casings nearly slithered down the sink drain. The sky also changed form: pearlescent at dusk, it turned obsidian, Lake Superior disappearing at nightfall.
To tame these unruly molecules, we submitted them to the discipline of freezing. “Keeping the meat thoroughly chilled,” Noelle Carter writes, “is essential. If the meat warms, the protein and fats can separate, causing the sausage to break as it cooks, resulting in a coarse, grainy texture.” Obviously, the sausage does not stay cold forever. The trick is to make sure its transition from cold to warm happens after it is safe inside the casing.
Salt also plays a role in this transformation. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee explains that salt “controls the growth of microbes, and it dissolves one of the fiber filament proteins (myosin) out of the muscle fibers and onto the meat surfaces, where it acts like a glue to bind the pieces together.” The word “sausage” itself derives from the Latin word for salt.
All that molecule management is meant to make getting the meat mixture into the sausage casing easier. Good luck. There’s my toothpaste analogy, but here’s another: casings in the midst of being stuffed look like wood shavings falling from a lathe, though instead of curlicues arcing from the edge of the rod, there are sausages — packages under pressure — dropping like pink and brown commas on the cutting board. Devin and Curt’s learning curve was impressive. In the last batch, nary a casing burst.
How to describe the 2 a.m. feast? The sausage was delicious, the company bleary-eyed and prone to giggling, the kitchen a disaster zone.
For millennia, we humans have preserved our meat by grinding and binding and salting it until we are ready to sit down and eat. I like to think that in that time, there have been millions of pre-dawn meals consumed by people who thought to themselves, “Wow. Did we just do all that?”
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