RUFFIN IT: MRS. PATE LECTURES ME ON SUMMER SAUSAGE
“What exactly is this?” I ask Mrs. Pate, as she hands me a small platter with saltines and several slices of something that looks vaguely like summer sausage. “Summer sausage?”
She shuffles back to her lawn chair and wallows down into it like something intent on making a nest and raising young. We’re on the Pates’ front porch at their place in Segovia, and it is mid-afternoon, hot already, though it is early April.
“Lord, naw,” she says. “Ain’t no way I’d put summer sausage before nobody. That stuff ain’t fit to eat. It ain’t coming in this house.”
She hesitates, then: “At’s Axis sausage, made out of Axis deer meat and chunks of pork, with plenty of spices. Got a guy in Junction grinds it up and packages it for us. It’s good. Go on and try it out.”
So I do, and she’s right: It IS good. Just salty enough, just spicy enough. Axis meat is like beef anyway, so it’s hard to go wrong with it. Lots of the exotics out here have a beefy taste and texture to the meat. I killed a Sika buck a few years back and sautéed some of the tenderloin alongside some beef tenderloin, and I couldn’t tell a difference between the two when I ate them.
Right now, though, I have some questions I want answered. “What do you have against summer sausage?”
Now, I know better than to open the door on this kind of thing. I’ve been coming out here long enough to know that Mr. and Mrs. Pate are set in their ways, and their ways are like concrete, or CONCREEK, as she would put it. Whatever they believe, they believe resolutely, and not the Almighty Himself could change them. But I love to hear her get off on her tangents, whether what she says makes a lick of sense or not. About the time she gets primed to answer, Bob Winship and Mr. Pate come onto the porch and take a seat.
“What I got against it is what all they put in it.”
She slides a cracker, piggy-backed with a slice of Axis sausage, into her mouth and goes at it with the few teeth she has left. She has a couple of partials in a drawer somewhere that fill her out, as she puts it, but she says they’re too much trouble, except on Sundays, when she wears them to smile at church.
“You name it and it come off a cow or a pig, and it is in there. Everthang you or me’d thowe away if we was butcherin’. Got stomach, guts, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, bones, blood, eyeballs . . . .”
“Why wouldn’t they thowe eyeballs into the pot, Perfesser? They bulk too, and once they ground up, you can’t tell they’re in there. It ain’t like they layin’ there lookin’ up at you.”
“Gums and adenoids, eyelids, gallbladders and sinuses and mucous membrane, too, I heard tell.” The old man is in on it now.
Winship is loving it. “How about hair and hooves, teeth, and horns?”
Mrs. Pate slings her jowls back and forth. “Naw, ’cause people would spot hair or pieces of teeth and hoofs. You can’t grind them fine enough. Too hard. People’d bite down on a chunk of something like that and break a tooth and want to sue. And ain’t nobody gon’ stand for hair in they food.”
She leans forward in her chair. It groans and complains but holds steady as a trestle. “Y’ever read the labels on stuff like summer sausage and potted meat and Vienna sausage, stuff like that?”
I shake my head no.
“Well, y’ort to sometime. It will open your eyes.”
“And shut down your hunger,” Winship adds.
[Next week you’ll learn a little bit more some foods you may have heard about but never tried—and won’t, after you’ve read what the Pates have to say about the way they’re made.]
She settles back in her chair again and pontificates: “They got fancy little cover-up words like ‘meat by-products,’ you know. And that means that it ain’t meat. It is what kept the meat alive and up walkin’ around until it got slaughtered. It’s all them thangs I mentioned, and prolly a lot more that I didn’t.”
“You forgot about that term ‘mechanically separated poultry’ that they use on them labels too,” Mr. Pate says.
I look at him. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I’ll tell you what it means,” the old woman breaks in. “It means what they do is take chicken bones and tissure that ain’t used in any other way and grind it up and force it thoo a sieve and they come up with a kinda paste that goes into the bulk of stuff like potted meat and summer sausage is what it means.”
I keep staring at the slices of Axis sausage on my plate. Once this conversation got really rolling, I just nibbled at my crackers. Right now I am in no mood for any kind of meat.
“Partially defatted cooked pork fatty tissure, partially defatted cooked beef fatty tissure, stuff like that, that don’t tell you nothin’. All that does is confuse me.” The old lady is animated now.
Winship laughs out loud. “And don’t forget sodium erythorbate, dextrose, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, corn syrup, lactic acid, hydrolyzed corn gluten, wheat gluten proteins, water, and Lord knows what other little dribblings to do this and that to keep it marginally fit for human consumption.”
“Give me head cheese any day,” Mr. Pate says.
I spin around and look at him. “What? That sounds about as appetizing as ear wax or TOE cheese.”
“Y’ain’t heard of head cheese?”
“Yes, I have heard of it, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Made out of the head meat off a pig,” he says.
Winship now takes the floor, so to speak. Having been to medical school and all, he knows a great deal more about most things than the average person. “What they do is clean the head and boil it until all the meat falls off the bone. Then they take the meat and chop it up and season it and put it back in the water it was boiled in. They pour it into molds and chill it, and what comes out is a jellied loaf that can be sliced. I don’t eat it myself, but Mr. Pate finds it a delicacy.”
Like Scarlett in the garden, I lift my eyes to the heavens and declare, “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”
“Aw, Perfesser, we talkin’ about stuff you buy in the store.” She points to my plate. “That sausage there ain’t got nothin’ but Axis deer meat and the best cuts of hog meat in it. I don’t even take a chanch of it goin’ bad just layin’ around and freeze it. I unthawed that just this mornin’.”
“Just this mornin’.”
I stand up. “Uh, Bob, I guess we’d better be going, don’t you think? I wanted to hunt a little while this afternoon.”
He nods and rises and we say our goodbyes.
“She unthawed it just this morning,” I mutter as we walk along the caliche road toward home, our feet making little whispering sounds, and then we don’t talk for a long time. When we do, it is not about food.