When Smoked Sausage Gets in Your Eyes

June 1st, 2006 by Tim Barkow

Each month, Sara Reistad-Long thinks of something she wants to learn, then charms her way into a family business so she can be taught by the best—and recount the story of the passion behind the profession.

Does your family have a skill and a story behind it? Let us know.

I recently reached the conclusion that I’m not a skilled individual. I’m decent at my profession as a writer and editor, but, let’s face it, beyond that my talents are few and dubious. It’s one thing to be knowledgeable-well-versed in Hollywood’s silent era, say, or an expert on the Civil War. It’s another to actually know how to do things.

I’d love to be one of those people who can churn out a scarf in a waiting room and knows how to play the card shark no matter what the game (the upsides are obvious, plus you’re always great at a dinner party). Having muddled by with a lot of general knowledge but few areas of expertise, I’m ready to learn some serious skills, I’m ready to turn myself into someone who, well, knows how to do stuff.

IMG_0271.jpgWhere better to start than sausages? After all, how many people can say they’re able to wield several tons of raw meat? Sausage speaks to me. And learning to prepare this delicious porcine delicacy from scratch bodes well for another 60 years of breakfast.

The storefront of Kurowycky Meat Products, a third-generation Ukrainian establishment in the East Village, is alluring. Everything looks salty and succulent and just plain genuine. Venture farther in, and the wares take on a special and imported feel-boxes and containers with obscure names and etchings that seep of the motherland, that is, if you happen to be Ukrainian.

IMG_0274.jpgWhen I first ask 40-something East Village native Jerry Kurowyckyj (the family has added a “j” to the surname) if he’ll teach me to make sausages, he sounds a little thrown and not entirely thrilled by the prospect. “Come at 8 AM, we start early,” he mumbles. But when I turn up the next morning, this open-faced man is all warmth. He’d been at the dentist when we spoke, he explains. Toothache. Over the next few hours Jerry’s vivacity yields story after story. He’s devoted to his wife, a former dancer in the New York City Ballet whom he’s known since he was 15. His 14-year-old daughter is at the top of her class, and a national level gymnast. The whole window of the store’s tiny office is covered with photos of her, and he gushes about her every chance he gets. The couple also have a 19-year-old son, who has a few more challenges, ADD and autism.

I learn all this over a gigantic, churning vat of meat, into which countless cloves of fresh garlic are being ground. An assistant sits in the smoke room flicking apart the herb with astounding agility. Up front, others carve meat and hang sausages, creating a scene that’s vaguely oompah loompa-ish. No one’s little or green or anything like that (in fact, most are tall and readily identifiable). But the way these men go about their business with sureness and conviction-no chatting or loitering here-is hypnotic.

IMG_0275.jpgJerry makes his sausage using generations-old European recipes, ones his grandfather perfected as a Certified Sausage Master in the Ukraine. This means, to the consternation of red-tape health department bureaucrats, no chemicals or preservatives. And, according to Jerry, unlike most sausage made in the U.S., his product contains no added water to dilute the pure flavor of the produce. These qualities have earned Kurowycky’s a fanatical following.

In 1975, Mimi Sheraton wrote a feature about Kurowycky’s for her debut piece as The New York Times restaurant critic. Since then, the store has been written up in nearly every major food magazine. Martha Stewart, who grew up in the neighborhood, still shops here and has even taken a sausage-making lesson from Jerry on her television show. On the wall hangs a photograph of Jerry’s son with the late Law & Order sausage lover Jerry Orbach. “When my wife and I went to the New York City Ballet anniversary gala, it was actually astonishing-I knew more people than she did. They’ve all been customers,” says Jerry, as he rushes to greet the umpteenth little old man to wander in for some morning shopping.

IMG_0281.jpgThe sausage we’re making is called Kovbasa Krayana. It’s mostly beef, with some pork mixed in for fatty flavor, all seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic. The grinding process doesn’t take long. Soon I’m watching the mixture being scooped up and taken to the fire hydrant-like machine where assemblage takes place. Overcome with excitement-Jerry’s really getting into the mentoring process-we leave the glopping to an assistant so that I can take a look at the smoke room, the oldest in New York. When we open the door, a dense cloud of hot steam-heat and moisture essential to preserving flavor as the product cooks-envelops us. Dramatic theme music would work here. The sausages themselves, all a deep, mouthwatering burgundy, hang on racks, the larger Kovbasas on top and the smaller Kabanosy below. The latter will be ready to taste before I leave. This is a good thing.

Back at the mystery machine, I find myself standing next to a container of pig parts. A full ear, in particular, stands out. This is for headcheese (which I will not, to my relief, be tasting). Jerry gets down to the business of teaching me how sausage is done right. With the meat itself filling up the body of the sausage machine, the casing-made from intestines and looking like a very long jellyfish-is placed over a horizontal outlet. Water is then run through the skin (in order to loosen it up a little). Holding onto the outlet with his left hand, Jerry flips a lever with his right. This starts the meat flowing. Talking nonstop, Jerry smoothes the meat into the casing with amazing artfulness, considering how fast the stuff is moving. Just as the meat gets to the end of its new skin, he flips the lever back and ties the ends of the sausage up neatly. Just like that.

IMG_0282.jpgThe trick seems to be ambidexterity. Ambidexterity is not something that I, a certifiable klutz, possess. My mentor, meanwhile, has tied off maybe 20 sausages in what feels like as many seconds. “Can I try,” I ask, my voice nervous and small. All encouragement and enthusiasm, Jerry helps me get into place. My first effort is a total bust. The left hand just didn’t make it to any of the right spots at the right times and my sausage is an anemic, lumpy mess. Undeterred, Jerry readies another case and gives me some more pointers. Now I’m really nervous. At this point, I’m definitely a sausage-making dunce. Jerry’s assistant looks at me sympathetically as if to say, Honey, we’re not all cut out for this.

IMG_0283.jpgI reach for the lever, and, suddenly, as if in one of those “the underdog takes the lead” great moments in cinema, I’m holding a big, slimy, perfectly shaped sausage. It went so fast that I’m in shock. I want to do it again! Coach K smiles and says, “See, that was easy, wasn’t it?” He goes on to explain that while most of the sausage is smoked on the premises, they do reserve some for people to buy raw and prepare at home. “You know, you should really meet my dad, too,” he says, his face contemplative. I have made Jerry proud. I’m beaming. I’m the Karate Kid of sausage.

IMG_0285.jpgA few minutes later, Joroslaw Kurowyckyj, an equally jovial character, has nipped out of his East Village apartment and into the shop. It was Joroslaw who, in 1955, moved Kurowycky’s to this location, the very shop where family patriarch Erast held his first American job. Joroslaw is everything you want a grandfatherly shopkeeper to be, and he, too, launches in on stories about his family and their achievements (his wife, Jerry’s mother, heads a women’s rights division at the United Nations).

Between father, weaving tales of the old neighborhood in between greeting customers, and son, who’s turning out piles of sausages, dealing with administrative issues, and attending to me all seemingly at the same time, I feel like an old friend at a convivial block party. “Dad, Sara made a great sausage. It was much better than Martha’s,” says Jerry.

Martha, you heard it from the sausage king himself. Now, I can eat in peace.