Glenwood, community mettwurst (sausage) making
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Among the many sausages produced in the Midwest and in Iowa is mettwurst. This is a cold-smoked ring sausage, similar in texture to bratwurst but made in a bigger casing and produced by communities of platt Deutsch (linguistically known as Low German) in southwest and northwest, Iowa. Typically made in midwinter (the traditional time to slaughter hogs, due to the cold weather and lack of other high intensity farm duties), the sausage is ground, mixed with spices, and then smoked at 70 degrees F for three hours. Although northern Germans in Europe eat the sausage without further cooking, those Mineola community members of platt German descent do boil or grill the sausage after smoking to make sure that all bacteria are killed.
Gary Schoening, whose platt Deutsch community of Mineola in southwestern Iowa celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2005, told me that his community commemorates its annual founders day with the local production of mettwurst—not bratwurst, which are not part of the community’s heritage. Several families, including Schoening’s, continue to make their own recipe for home or church-consumption only, since the cold-smoked process is not sanctioned by the USDA.
Schoening’s family came to Iowa from Schleswig-Holstein in 1858 with thirty other families. Fleeing the Prussian take-over of their homeland, many residents of the region settled in first in Davenport area and then made their way west to southwest Iowa. Ormand Schoening, Gary’s father, like his father before him, farmed 220 acres and raised hogs, corn, and soy. Ormand also made about 300-400 lbs of mettwurst a year for family consumption as well as for peddling to friends and local bars. During the 1980s Farm Crisis, Gary along with a neighbor and a cousin considered taking over and starting a sausage business, but they ended up buying and running a doughnut shop instead.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Mineola has long had an annual mid-February church supper that features boiled or grilled mettwurst as well as homemade sauerkraut, green beans, rye bread, fried potatoes, and banana cream pie. Each year they make and sell over 1200 lbs of sausage to church members and neighbors. People eat the sausage on the spot and buyextra to take home to mix with meatballs (for spaghetti), in spaghetti sauce, or on pizza--or to eat grilled or boiled. Since mettwurst is made only once a year, community members buy it up as soon as it goes on sale.
Gary Schoening related that while few families in southwest Iowa are making the sausage today, when he was a child and a young adult, most families had their own recipe, which some kept as a family secret. Different families used slightly different spices or different cuts of pork. Gary’s family always included Boston butts or pork shoulder in the mixture, but in his opinion, it was the two hams from a hog his uncle would butcher that extra flavor to the sausage along with the addition of brown sugar, sage, salt, pepper, and some secret spices.
Everyone in the Schoening family was involved in the process. When Gary’s daughter was young, he would make mettwurst with her. Later on, one of his nieces from San Diego returned to learn how to make mettwurst the traditional family way. When Gary was young, his father, Ormand, was in charge of the seasoning, while Gary and his brother-in-law did the de-boning. There was a designated sausage stuffer, hand meat grinder, and mixer. Gary’s mother guided the casings during the stuffing process and also tied them off. The latter was the worst job, due to the danger of cut fingers.
Once the sausage was prepared, family members would make a fire in the smoke houses (small wooden buildings once found on every farm). Beds of coals were laid and wet logs gradually added to produce a lot of smoke and not much heat. But since air temperatures were pretty chilly at that time of year, spoilage was unlikely.
Besides the annual church supper in Mineola, mettwurst can be found at
lockers in northwest Iowa. Until the early 1980s, lockers did use the traditional
cold smoking method. At that time, the USDA began to regulate the process,
which now requires hot smoking at 160 F.
Contact: Gary Schoening, 712/527-2044 (Work), Huffner5@aol.com
Photos courtesy of Gary Schoening