I am not an avid hot dog or sausage consumer, but occasionally I enjoy one or the other. Bratwurst and sauerkraut with fried potatoes are part of my German heritage. However, in recent years, it has been hard to find a good bratwurst. Several grocery stores have discontinued them in their meat counters. I must just keep looking and experimenting with various producers.
In this country, the word “sausage” connotes ground, seasoned meat to be fried in chunks. Usually, if the meat is stuffed into a casing to be boiled or fried, it is a hot dog to be served cooked. In most foreign countries, there are different names for casings stuffed with meat fillings and cooked.
The United States is very fortunate in that it has a number of climates in which almost every kind of food can be produced. That is true for sausages in casings. No one must serve just hot dogs in America. You can throw German bratwurst, Italian luganega, Scandinavian potato sausage, Mexican chorizo or even Thai pork and crab sausage on the grill, and everyone will be delighted.
The manufacture of sausages began more than 2,000 years ago. The first mention of sausage was in a Greek play, “The Orya” (“The Sausage”), written about 500 B.C.
Sausage was a favorite food of the Romans. During the reign of the emperor Nero, sausages were associated with various festivals. Early in the 10th century, the Roman emperor outlawed the production of blood sausages (made with ground meat and animal blood) following an outbreak of food poisoning.
The modern word “sausage” comes from a combination of French and the Latin “salsus,” meaning salted. The word was used to describe a way of curing meats before refrigeration. Basic sausage consists of pieces of ground or finely minced meat that is stuffed into a casing. In this country, the word “sausage” also means ground meat that is specially seasoned.
Dry sausages were made as a result of the discovery of new spices that helped to enhance flavor and preserve the meat. Different areas and cities started producing their own distinctive types of sausages, both fresh and dry (preserved).
In northern Europe and in other colder climates, sausages were kept fresh without refrigeration. However, it was soon discovered that smoking the sausage would help preserve it — and add to the flavor.
The earliest American colonists arrived to find that Native Americans, like Europeans, also depended on preserved meat to get through the winter. Native American pemmican was simply game, like buffalo or venison, mixed with fat and berries, molded into cakes and smoked — the first American sausage patty.
Early colonists brought pigs, some sheep and eventually cattle, which flourished in the New World. To prepare for winter, the settlers dried or smoked sausage links or stored sausage meat in a crock or muslin bag sealed with fat.
Later on, German immigrants, who missed their native sausages, opened butcher shops and delicatessens to supply their own needs. Not long after, neighbors stopped by the butcher shops, and German sausages became a staple of the area — particularly Pennsylvania.
Soon, the German butchers in other areas of the country began producing sausages from other countries to satisfy the growing clientele. By the end of the 1800s, it was not unusual for a German butcher to sell Portuguese sausages in New England.
It is still open to debate whether the American hot dog was adapted from the German frankfurter, the Austrian wiener or the Czech parkys; all share a common heritage. The American version is at least 150 years old now.
By the 1900s, there were hot dog stand from coast to coast, especially at sporting events. However, it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s very public love of hot dogs that made them the staple they are today.
Armour and Swift started the first meatpacking plants in the 19th century. This brought about the standardization of many American sausages. Animal cuts that did not qualify as expensive cuts were ground up and made into sausage.
Americans consume more than 6 billion pounds of sausage a year. That does not include homemade sausages or very small produced entities. Each meat packer has its own formula for sausage, sometimes varying it to appeal to different regions.
American sausage dishes have ranged from the very silly to the very practical to the very elegant. Some of the more unusual ones have been scrambled eggs with Vienna sausages for a wedding breakfast, and a “crown of frankfurters” on Lincoln’s birthday.
However, the more fancy and practical ones include a casserole known as Spanish paella and Chinese fried rice, and/or a platter of delicate crepes with fried sausage links.
From the 1950s to the early 1980s, sausage dishes tended to be easy and casual. Traditional dishes like “alderman in chains,” a roasted turkey with a chain of sausages around its neck, were discarded. Sausages just were not considered company food. Hot dogs were thrown into every imaginable casserole or soup. Bologna or salami sandwiches were lunch-box standbys, and it just wasn’t a barbecue without hot dogs.
There were street foods, like Italian sausages, onions and peppers, hot dogs and sauerkraut and, beginning in the early ’80s, grilled Middle Eastern sausages served in pita bread.
In homes and family restaurants, fresh or smoked sausages were served with rice, potatoes, corn, bread or hollowed-out vegetables. Sausage links or sausage patties often accompanied the traditional breakfast of eggs, pancakes, waffles or French toast.
Better restaurants rarely served sausages because their customers were unwilling to pay high prices for what they considered everyday food. Sausage stuffing for poultry was the exception to this trend, as sausage stuffing was considered good enough for the holidays.
All of a sudden, in the 1980s, the popularity of sausages took America by storm — both in very old recipes and new versions. Restaurants began creating seafood, game, poultry, and mixed poultry and veal sausages to complement their versions of new American cuisine.
The sausages were usually poached, then grilled or sautéed in butter and served with herb sauces. Two California chefs, Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, produced pizzas topped with exotic sausages made from lamb or duck. Delicious vegetarian sausages also were created.
The Cajun food trend of the 1980s introduced spicy hot links, boudin blanc, and smoked andouille sausages across the country. Southwestern restaurants popularized chorizo. Asian salads combined warm sausage with cool greens and stuffed chilies
There is an old saying, “There is nothing new in this world — just a rehash of the old with a new twist.”