Last fall, my husband and I accidentally bought two pigs. “This would only happen to you guys,” friends said when we announced our dilemma. “Not true!” we protested. It seemed like a common enough marital quandary — Alex said yes to George, I said yes to Drew. Only instead of party dates or hand-me-down patio chairs, we were talking about two full-size pigs, butchered and ready for a place in our suddenly puny-looking chest freezer.
We often buy whole animals because it’s the most affordable way to eat the kind of meat we believe in: meat from healthy animals, raised by people we know, close to home. We usually split a pig or a cow with friends. Our portion fits neatly into the same chest freezer where we house extra summer berries and crushed tomatoes.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Alex. George is a lifelong farmer and an old friend. Drew is a few years younger than me, a former co-worker just getting started with pastured livestock. I tried to imagine telling one of them we didn’t want the animal he’d spent six months raising for us.
“We’re going to buy a second chest freezer,” my husband said.
A week later, Drew brought over 279 pounds of pork, and George delivered 283. We forked over the equivalent of a mortgage payment for the animals, plus another few hundred dollars for our second freezer. We emptied our checking account and then cooked a stunningly good pound-and-a-half, thick-cut pork chop for dinner. Our predicament swung deliciously between absurd and genius.
Over the next few months, we tried everything we could think of to use up the pigs that had taken over our basement. We started a side-hustle selling ham to friends. We traded spare ribs for beer, made homemade salt pork for Christmas gifts, and rendered giant slabs of fat into tidy jars of lard. We brought pork to every potluck for a year.
Eventually, though, all we had left were cuts we — and everyone we knew — were sick of. “Ham steaks again?” our 7-year-old asked one morning at breakfast. That’s when we decided the only sane thing to do was to use everything left in the freezer to make the one thing we actually still wanted: sausage.
The thing about sausage is that using up extras is its purpose. Historically efficient butchers filled the empty intestines of their animals with all manner of scraps far less desirable than the pork goodies littering the bottoms of our freezers.
In preparation, I spent an afternoon reading about casings: 32–35 mm or 35–38 mm? Natural? Collagen? Fibrous casings? I settled on $7.99 of 32–35 mm natural hog casings promised to last several years in my fridge. I asked my friend Teresa if she was free on Saturday and went online to order a sausage stuffer for my Kitchen Aid meat-grinding attachment.
“Got a sausage stiffer!” read my auto-corrected text to Teresa. “Interesting!” she replied.
On Friday, I thawed 11.5 pounds of ham steaks and full-fat pork chops and cut parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage from the garden. We planned to make one herbed sausage with egg and breadcrumbs and another fennel, garlic, and red pepper-laced version, both from Darina Allen’s “Forgotten Skills of Cooking.”
The grinding was easy. We cut the meat and fat off the bones and into one-inch cubes and stuffed it down a hopper that churned out worms of pork in white and pink. We mixed the ground pork with all the fixings and made two big bowls of filling — “herbed” and “Italian.” Teresa attached the casings one by one to the kitchen faucet to rinse, and we watched in fascination as the water filled them up — delicate, animal, translucent.
When it came time to stuff, we discovered that the sausage stiffer was not a joke but an erectile necessity. We struggled to push the meat mixture into the stuffer tube without tearing or shooting off the carefully rolled-on casing. We shrieked and maneuvered until we gained a basic proficiency. We stuffed casing after casing and twisted them into links.
Finally, we fried up a sausage. Juice dripped down our hands as we devoured it straight from the pan. We opened beers, raised our glasses to my empty freezers, and basked in the joy of fresh learning.
Elspeth Hay has been reporting for the Cape and Islands NPR station for the past decade through The Local Food Report and also writes for The Boston Globe and other local and national publications.