For this Romanian family from St. Paul, the weekend before Christmas is a holiday unto itself: "Pull on your gloves, boys. It's time to mix some sausage."
According to family legend, Eva Lapadat arrived in New York by ship from Beba Veche, Romania, in 1937, with three dollars in the pocket of her housecoat.
She would settle on lower Rice Street in St. Paul, raise three children, open a hair salon, command an armed robber not to come back until he could ask for money politely, and, over the decades, more or less dominate the social life of St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox church, both in her own mind and even to a great extent in real life.
But standing on deck, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, she was just Eva, thick featured, pregnant with her second son, holding the hand of 2-year-old John Lapadat, my future father-in-law, in hers.
It is the exact volume of one of those cupped hands that we are trying to quantify — four grown men in aprons, standing around a trough-sized enamel tub filled with 60 pounds of coarse ground pork.
“Is this a Grandma Eva handful?” asks Eva’s fifty-something grandson, Johnny, handsome in a broad-nosed, Jack Dempsey way. He holds out a thick paw containing a dainty-looking mound of coarse salt.
“A little more,” guesses his brother Pauly.
Papa declared that we would return to Eva’s original recipe: pork, salt, pepper and garlic.
“A little less,” guesses his son Mikey.
Satisfied, Johnny sifts the salt over the pork, followed by five more Grandma Eva handfuls of salt, and four of black pepper.
Then, from a steaming bowl of water, he lifts a plastic colander half full of crushed garlic and lets fall an aromatic rain that splashes into the tub, filling this 50-degree garage in Minnesota with one of the world’s great smells.
At his waist, held in place by a lowball glass of Manischewitz, lies a stained, handwritten recipe titled, “Romanian Sausage,” which begins, “Two handfuls … ”
The conversation from the adjacent kitchen has risen a score of decibels. Dogs chase each other. Kids are screaming. The Vikings are losing again. It’s like any other holiday party, except for what Johnny says next.
“Pull on your gloves, boys. It’s time to mix some sausage.”
We plunge eight hands, which ache immediately, into the 35-degree meat, and, groaning, fold the garlic water and what we hope are the right quantity of Grandma Eva handfuls of salt and pepper into the 2014 vintage of Lapadat family sausage.
The history of this sausage can be divided, like any great tradition, into several distinct eras.
There is antiquity, when generations of Romanian peasants teamed up at communal hog killings to process their winter meat.
There is the classical period, when, in dirt-floored Rice Street cellars during the mid-20th century, Lapadats put up sausage and made what we can only assume was awful concord grape wine.
We endured a 1980s Baroque, when such decadence as pouring cabernet into the mix, or using meat other than pork, or seasonings other than salt, pepper and garlic, gained traction.
But finally, John Lapadat, known to everyone as Papa, that 2-year-old boy in the New York harbor, the family patriarch and undisputed sausage king, stepped in, and in a semi-mythical moment in family history, ushered in our current Neoclassical era, declaring that we would return to Eva’s original recipe, unadulterated by anything beyond the four basic ingredients.
He announced this with one of an endless supply of Now cigarettes bobbing from his lips, which, during his proclamation, let drop an untended ash tip that bounced off the front of his sweater and into the pork.
Marianne, under her blond do, holds an empty toothpick in her right hand. She is this year’s appointed “meister,” a title that rotates annually, and although everyone — her four children, their spouses and 11 grandchildren — will shortly weigh in with an opinion, Marianne is the day’s acknowledged autocrat.
Everyone grabs a toothpick and samples a morsel of the pan-fried first batch.
Dee-Dee says more garlic. Roxy says perfect. Mary Jo says watch the pepper. Patrick says more of everything.
But none of it matters. What the meister says goes, and Marianne says more salt.
She leans affectionately toward her daughter-in-law, and smiles a little tiredly. This will be Marianne’s second sausage making as John Lapadat’s widow.
A former Hamm’s executive, Papa Lapadat trusted me from the start because I had German in me, and Germans knew beer and sausage.
During one of my first sausage makings, he explained to me in a growling baritone how all the different cuts of meat that went into the grinder added qualities to the final mix, and just as you couldn’t have good beer without good water — you know that, Stevie — you couldn’t have good sausage without good ground pork.
That might have served as a tempting metaphor for a naturalized Romanian American, born on the Serbo-Hungarian border, who had processed through the grinder of Ellis Island. But he didn’t want to talk to me about melting pots.
He wanted to talk to me — and did through four cigarettes and several backhanded thigh pats — about this family of his, and how everyone who joined it, by marriage, birth or friendship, came out of the experience a little bit Lapadat.
Being American was a privilege. Being a Lapadat was a gift.
The heavy black cast-iron sausage stuffer has seen its living quarters improve with the family’s fortunes. From East Side root cellars, it migrated up Rice Street into John and Marianne’s finished Shoreview basement, and now resides in the comfort of Johnny’s two-story Lino Lakes colonial.
Now it’s Johnny’s responsibility — the care and maintenance of the ancient, hand-cranked machine, and by extension, of the tradition itself. It is Johnny who each year disassembles the machine, meticulously washes pork splatter the consistency of dried caulk from all of its edges and threaded parts, and oils it down again for storage.
It is Johnny, in a similar spirit, who taught himself to make colac, which he bakes every year, artfully braiding locks of egg dough with hands made to stack stone walls.
He always serves the first pan of steaming, golden-crusted bread straight from the oven to a family that falls on it with butter knives and devours it in minutes. The second pan waits on a trivet, because the only really acceptable bread to serve with Romanian sausage is colac.
In the garage, kids are blowing into the ends of 25-foot, salty white pig intestines. The final seasoning mix has met with the meister’s approval and filled the cast-iron stuffer. A casing is threaded onto the aluminum spout, lubricated with a little crank of sausage meat, and sealed with an overhand knot.
We raise glasses of kosher wine to Papa Lapadat and, sacrificing taste buds in the service of tradition, choke down the grapey syrup that most closely resembles the homemade wine Papa remembered from childhood, with the exception that Manischewitz “tastes a little better.”
Hands are everywhere. Young kids grab the crank handle with both hands and with all their strength barely turn it. The hands of parents or cousins or uncles fold over the straining fists and help turn the crank, so that the meat is pressed out of the spout smoothly.
A pair of hands cradles the knotted casing, and applying just a slight back pressure, lets it fill and then spill slowly into a thick pink spiral in the catch pan. When the right length is reached, the crank pauses. A hand with a shears cuts the casing, another pair of hands knots the cut end, and the cranking resumes, filling hundreds of feet of lacy white hog casings with a steady crackling sound.
We make 2-foot lengths for entertaining. Foot-long loops for family dinners. Links for breakfast. And patties for meatballs, cabbage rolls and stuffed green peppers.
Johnny mans the bagging station, restoring himself with sips from his now smudged lowball glass while the vacuum sealer drones.
At his side, a cardboard box fills with vacuum packs that will chill down in a snowbank tonight, and then spend the winter in the freezers and on the tables of a tiny Romanian diaspora unfathomable economic circumstances removed from the kind of need that once made this a life-or-death activity.
The last person to know that need personally has just missed his second event in a row, which does not lend any sense of diminished importance to the squeals of reunited cousins, or the roar of shouted conversation, or the chime and clatter of dropped silverware and stacked ceramic plates.
It is generally agreed when dinner is served that the correct number of handfuls of salt have found their way into this year’s batch.
I have hung up my apron and switched to something a little drier than Manischewitz. Standing next to my wife, Mary Jo, I have a view across the kitchen island into the dining room where everything is laid out.
Our daughter appears at the sideboard, grabs a bias-cut length of her own history, folds it unthinkingly into the still-warm pocket of a slice of colac, and slathers it, properly, with horseradish sour cream. She moves away across the dining room, munching, and is gathered into the compliant chaos of shouted conversation and several generations of bodies still partly shaped by the necessities of manual farm work in 19th-century Romania.
She is a strong and independent 16-year-old.
Her grandfather used to call her the Moldavian Princess.
Her name is Eva Lapadat Hoffman.