“Minnesotans need to do more of this,” Jack Riebel said. Riebel, late of the Dakota and now chef at the upcoming Butcher and the Boar, gestured across a room of more than 150 people, seated shoulder to shoulder at beer-hall tables, plates piled high with sausages and cured meats. There was a low hum of conversation and a pleasing number of casual elbows on the table — a room saying, “We’re all friends here.”
I’m pretty sure Riebel meant more community meals, more family-style dining, more old-fashioned potluck block parties. But he also might have meant eating more fantastic sausage made by the area’s favorite chefs. And Sausage Fest, hosted last Thursday at the Summit brewery in St. Paul by the Twin Cities Daily Planet, offered a lot of both.
The event was the Daily Planet’s second annual community fundraiser. Or, as Jeremy Iggers, executive director of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, likes to call it, a “friendraiser,” bringing together readers and supporters of the community news site. A little sausage — and a little free beer provided by Summit — can translate into a lot of good will.
The evening also marks the official merger of two of Iggers’ projects: The 3-year-old TCFoodies.com has now become part of the Daily Planet. Iggers is promising a fresh food story every day, in addition to a food-centric newsletter.
But, why sausage? “I was thinking about beer, winter, Mardi Gras, the German festival Fasching. Sausage is a good winter food,” said Iggers (above, right, with Twin Cities Daily Planet arts editor Jay Gabler) . “There’s also been a sausage explosion in the Twin Cities, with the [upcoming] Butcher and the Boar, with Green Ox.”
Think of it as a mini-explosion, or an augur of things to come. There were eight vendors at Sausage Fest — Kramarczuk’s, Black Forest, NateDogs, Clancey’s, the Modern, the Sample Room, Green Ox, and Butcher and the Boar — and that’s a pretty fair representation of the current crop of artisanal sausage makers in the Twin Cities right now.
The highlight of an evening when I didn’t put anything even mediocre in my mouth was easily the wild boar sausage from Riebel’s Butcher and the Boar. The pile of bright carmine links on the table looked promising even before I stabbed one with my fork and took a bite: almost impossibly juicy, with a sweet heat and pleasant, faint gaminess.
One of the cooks looks aghast: The barbecue sauce. I was supposed to eat it with the barbecue sauce. “No! It needs absolutely nothing!” I hear myself nearly shout. Then, I remember my manners, regain my composure, and find it in me to say, “Yes. Of course. I would love to try your house-made barbecue sauce.” It was tangy, smoky, and also an otherworldly red. But, I still maintain, that boar sausage needed nothing at all.
That sausage will be on the menu at the Butcher and the Boar when it opens late this month. As will a deconstructed ham sandwich Riebel was showing off: dense rye bread, whipped butter, thin-sliced sweet pickles, and wild boar ham. It made a lovely bite.
Green Ox, run by Mike Phillips, who has cooked at the Modern, Chet’s Taverna, and Craftsman, was showing off a impressive spread of cured meats, from a whole leg of prosciutto to pancetta, Genoa, pepperoni, coppa, loma, and lonza. Tyler Montgomery, who works with Phillips, said guests were snapping up the prosciutto, but his favorite is the coppa. “It’s got great flavor, with a fruitiness from juniper berries and spice from crushed red pepper.” This coppa — a dry-cured whole pork neck, was nearly devoid of marbling and yet still melted the moment it hit your tongue.
Malcolm Kaplan, head butcher at Clancey’s Meat and Fish, had brought a platter full of the popular duck sausage, made with meat from Au Bon Canard and a wintery citrus marmalade. Kaplan makes about a dozen kinds of sausage a week, including a fantastic lamb merguez, and he always makes sure there’s a duck sausage in rotation. “We take our sausage seriously,” Liz Kaplan, Clancey’s manager interjects emphatically. “We love it. And we love our duck farmers.”
Nate Beck of Natedogs — a bright orange food cart you can still find on the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis, despite the winter chill — doesn’t make his own sausages, but he does make his own fresh sauerkraut to top them. Instead, Pastures A Plenty makes the dogs to his specifications. You’ve got two choices: a classic wiener or — why have I never found this before? — a Bratdog. That’s right: a bratwurst you don’t have to unhinge your jaw to eat because it’s cased in a skinnier hot dog casing.
You may have heard that Matt Paulson, head chef at the Sample Room, is on a quest to create 100 unique sausages. He’s on track to finish the project in about two years and he brought sausage #11 to show off: a green curry chicken sausage (above). The chicken was silky and smooth (added pork fat helps) and the curry added just enough heat. Up next: Watch his specials board for a rabbit and plum sausage.
Even while he was handing out free sausage on a night when he could have been in his own kitchen, Paulson was clearly glad to be at Sausage Fest. “To get to a point where somebody like Jeremy Iggers calls you up and says, ‘We like what you do and we want you to keep doing it,’” Paulson said, “Well, I really appreciated that.”
Jim Grell, chef and owner at the Modern Café, was equally appreciative. “It’s just great to be around your peers and talking technique,” he said afterward. “I walked away learning a few things, which is great.” Grell claims his pork and fennel sausage is the product of his advancing age. “I’m getting to be an old man and I can’t cook on the line anymore,” he said. “Making sausage is one of the few things I can do that’s nice for our kitchen.” But the links on his cutting board belied his modesty. Flavorful and juicy, this was not amateur sausage. For that, too, Grell gave much credit to Mike Phillips, whom he claimed as a sausage mentor and the source of valuable critiques.
And there we were, having made most of the circuit around the hall at Sausage Fest and yet all the potential bad puns were left hanging in the air. So far no one was going there. Really? Were we all so very grown-up?
Apparently not. There on the Modern Café’s table, next to the forks was a pile of … condoms? “Natural casings,” explained Grell and smiled wickedly. An older woman, he said, had picked one up early in the evening and said, “Oh! Handi-wipes!” “I just couldn’t say anything,” Grell said. “She came back later and picked up a few more for her friends, adding, “We don’t need these anymore, but … .”