It all started with a sausage.
(No, no, that’s quite all right, I’ll wait.)
I’d finally had enough of the hot dog texture and chemical taste of what was sold as “Polish sausage” in the supermarkets. So, as a transplanted Midwesterner, I decided to make my own. Moreover, as a former office-dwelling well-certified paper-pusher, I figured I had more than enough research and self-teaching skills to pull this one project off with aplomb.
What I hadn’t figured into my smug equation is that sausage-making, like all artisan skills, requires more than research. It also requires insignificant details like few interruptions, physical dexterity, organization, judgment, and most of all experience. Now while I’ve known that I have never been a particularly “crafty” person — the only thing I can reliably do with scissors is run with them — that didn’t slow me down a bit. I’ll leave you here for a moment to imagine my first attempt at grinding, mixing, and stuffing my first white kielbasa. Trust me, hubris has ugly results when a lot of pig fat is involved.
For some reason, though, I didn’t give up with the sausage-making after the first splattered disaster. Nor did I give it all up after my first attempt at wheat bread, which was nicknamed “The Egyptian Brick” by my thoughtful family. (Kid experimentally hefts the weirdly flattened, strangely heavy tablet off the rack, taps it on the counter for a disturbingly hollow ‘tonk’ sound, and says, “Didn’t Charlton Heston make this in ‘The Ten Commandments?'”)
Yet at about the same time, a container garden full of herbs began taking over the largely concrete back yard, the gigantic prickly-pear cactus suddenly presented itself as something other than a hostile nuisance, and my browser history started filling up with gardening, herbalism, and food-preservation site visits.
While I can’t completely explain what happened, I think I started asking, “What can I do with this?” That’s the basic question of any alchemy: discovering the technique of transformation, from one thing to another. Over a few years, “what can I do with this” has resulted in more than just sausage-making; the question has become jams, jellies, syrups, bacon, dried and tinctured and infused herbs, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits of all sorts, smoked meats of all types, lemonade and orange juice and now soap. What’s best about this kind of alchemy is that it doesn’t require crucibles or beakers or mystical reagents (not to mention Latin, long robes and a pointed hat). It can be accomplished in your pajamas with as little as a single herb pot on a windowsill, a single trip to a farmer’s market or grocery store, a pot or two, a spritz of creativity and a dollop of determination and a couple hours here and there. That’s all that’s necessary to become an accidental alchemist.
I thought I’d post some of my experiments on this blog. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll note that while it all began with a sausage, it hasn’t ended with one. While I’ve gotten really close a few times, the kielbasa still isn’t perfect. Check off hunter’s sausage, italians both sweet and hot, breakfast, chorizo, and bratwurst. The keilbasa still isn’t perfect, though. It might never be, because I’m trying to recover a taste memory that might have faded into the past.
It comforts me that the medieval alchemists never pulled off turning lead into gold, either.