SUNDAY MORNING, I dressed in the dark and quietly let myself out the front door without awakening John; our three indoor sleeping dogs (don’t get me started on that one); or our houseguests, Rosalie Paine and her husband, Scott Davis, who were in town to celebrate the birthday of Rosalie’s childhood friend, Pete Bansen.
Happy big 6-0, Pete, but this story isn’t about you. It’s about sausage.
I left our house stealthily in the darkest dawn of the year, the one that comes in the first moments of the spring-forward Daylight Savings Time change, because I had forgotten to stop at the Valley Grocery on Saturday to buy fixings for breakfast.
I drove down Centerville Road slowly, trying to avoid kamikaze deer and families of robber raccoons. In addition to presenting a constant choice of creating new road kill or becoming one, Centerville Road has, I believe, been quietly designated by the county as an official hazard raceway for drivers of immense trucks hauling four-wheelers and dirt bikes. (“What’s the history of that deep crevice, that path, up to the cross?” Rosalie asked, after returning from a “very brisk” walk on the beach. “Mountain bikes,” I said. Natural erosion isn’t happening fast enough: let’s crumble those bluffs before the sun goes down.)
Alarmed by my headlights, barn owls left their fence posts and soared over the top of my car. I counted four between our lane and Robert Miranda’s house. This happens often in the dark on Centerville Road, and I try not to remember — which means I never forget — the Kwakiutl Indian belief that “I heard the owl call my name,” is the warning of imminent death. My hope is that I’ve changed my name so many times, the owls have lost track.
At seven a.m. on a Sunday morning in early March, the lights of the Valley Grocery are a shining city on the hill. I was happy. I could already taste those sausage patties, plump and juicy, not overcooked. The handle of the Sunbeam electric frying pan (a 1964 wedding present) has everything a bride needs to know written on its handle. Sausage: 300. The glass top steams after the first sizzle, and the spices in the secret mix warm up…well, as a New Yorker cartoon once observed, “When did our relationship move from the bedroom into the kitchen?”
I walked up to the meat counter and there were three hillocks of ground meat. Two seemed redder than the third. Lean, ground grass-fed beef. Lovely, but where is the pig that inspired Shakespeare? (“Those are pearls that were his eyes; nothing of him that doth face, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange..." Yes, rich and strange, and, as Chris mixes it, hot and sweet and spicy and those are pickles that were his eyes.
The sausage appeared remarkably pink and pure.
Dot Wentworth, who has retired from managing the grocery store, came around the corner to answer.
“I’m not here,” she said. “I’m just helping out because Loretta and Chris are both gone this weekend.”
“Where did this pale pink sausage come from?”
“They mixed it for us at Hoby’s,” Dot said.
“It doesn’t look the same,” I said.
“No,” she said quietly. “It’s not.”
I took two pounds home with me and tried to guess at a few of the ingredients used by the butcher, Chris Cowan. My efforts were satisfactory, but no cigar.
I gave Chris Cowan a few days to recover from his vacation, and then I called.
“There was no sausage on Sunday,” I said. “Where were you?”
“I went to visit my uncle in Alturas. We were hunting ground squirrels —“
“You don’t put that in the sausage!?”
“Oh, no, no, no! That would taste kind of funny. My uncle is friends with one of the ranchers over there. They’ve been having problems with the ground squirrels tearing up the land, the alfalfa fields. Cattle and horses step in the burrow holes, and the horses break their legs.”
Although I realize that Chris has family obligations — he and his wife, Celeste, have an 11-year-old daughter, Tracey — he can’t take any more vacations. Or, the least he can do is give advance notice so we sausage junkies can stock up and freeze, if we have to.
Chris is originally from Beaumont, in Riverside County; he moved to Fortuna years ago with his mother and step-father, Julie and Phil Ross. His career started at Fortuna’s Safeway, where he trained for two-and-a-half years. He came to the Valley Grocery three years ago when Josh Adams left.
“The recipe for the sausage was from when Josh was here,” Chris says. “He gave it to me, and I added a few little things. Almost all the meat I use is choice cut, really good flavor. I basically determine the percentage of fat and leanness when I grind it. I try to get an even ratio. That gives the best possible flavor. I grind it, and then I hand-mix the ingredients. It’s all done my hand at that point, and although I try to be as consistent as possible, there sometimes is a little pocket of pure spice. You’re eating and suddenly, there’s a burst of flavor.”
Mmmm. I didn’t think he appreciated how grim Sunday morning had been. “The stuff Hoby’s sent over?” I said. “There was no face.”
“I do the faces, too,” Chris said. “I get my inspiration from the children. They come in and stand by the case, look at the sausage, and give me suggestions, ideas. They’re always battling later about whose face, whose idea, won.
A pleasant story. Nonetheless, the experience has left me shaken.
What if, one day, the Valley Grocery no longer hosts the olive-eyed, pickled-nosed pork? What’s next, the tractor parade?