Like many others, I enjoy sausages, but my passion for them expanded in the summer of 2013. At 28 years old, I embarked on a two-month adventure, backpacking across Europe.
It started in Portugal. From there I made my way across Spain and Italy. After that leg of the trip, I went up through Germany and traveled as far east as the Czech Republic before trekking west again. I finally passed through France and ultimately departed from England to return home to New Jersey.
I had purchased plane tickets, boat fare, and rail passes ahead of my journey. For the trip itself, I had saved enough money to spend up to a hundred bucks every day. Mind you, that was my entire budget for everything I needed: food, beer, lodging, museums, activities, gifts, and any unanticipated expenses. Before you ask—yes, that was the order of my priorities! Money was tight, but I made it work. To save cash, I ate cheap and stuck to a steady diet of sausages across the continent.
I regret nothing.
My Sausage Summer
Sausages were inexpensive, tasty, and truly representative of the local cuisine no matter where I went. Though they could all be easily identified as sausages; each one was prepared completely different from one city to the next. The sliced chorizo at the tapas bar in Madrid arrived in a sizzling pan. The butterflied grilled sausage in Rome was more tender than a lot of expensive steaks I’d eaten back home. The onion-covered klobasa I devoured on the cobble-stoned streets of Prague kept my hunger at bay all afternoon. Somewhere between the wurst platter at the Bavarian beer hall and the bangers and mash in London, I realized something. I thought I had just been saving money, but I was actually sampling a taste of Europe in an important way.
Historically speaking, I had varied levels of access to ingredients across the continent, and different recipes proliferated throughout the centuries. This has a lot to do with the range and scope of deliciousness I encountered. According to the Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen, “By the Middle Ages, regional forms of sausage had begun to evolve into definite and unique forms all over Europe. Spices and herbs changed from region to region. So too did the choice to smoke or dry the sausage, or to leave it ‘fresh.’ Even the variety of wood used to smoke sausages and other foods changed from area to area and gave subtle flavor characteristics.”
All sausages have common attributes, like ground meat combined with seasonings, spices, herbs, and aromatics. The variations on these elements, however, are endless. Each style is a surviving sample of history, tradition, and culture going back hundreds, if not thousands of years; yet there I was in the twenty-first century, a happy recipient of those gifts from the distant past.
America’s Sausage Experience
On the plane back to Newark, I gazed longingly at the foodie photos I’d taken over the previous two months. I wished that there was something akin to the European sausage experience back home. Little did I know that my wishful pining was already true… American style…
America’s sausage is the hot dog. Yes, the lowly tube steak is our version of the cuisine I sampled that summer halfway around the world. Of course, there are many different national brands of hot dog, and many different kinds of meat compositions, including all-beef, beef-and-pork mixture, and even some that include poultry meat. However, it’s the regional serving styles that transform the commonplace experience of eating a hot dog into an adventure.
Chowing down on hot dogs across the United States is something like eating cheaply across Europe. Dirty water dogs are served with a dab of mustard and red onion sauce off the carts in NYC. Fabulously dressed-up concoctions in Chicago include a slice of pickle and a poppy-seed bun. The bacon wrapped Sonoran dogs in the deserts of the Southwest are more like casseroles than hot dogs! What’s considered “the usual” in one state can be completely foreign just a couple hundred miles away. Each version is easily identified as a hot dog, yet is still completely different from one city to the next!
New Jersey just so happens to be the hot dog capital of the world. Some of our roadside joints go back almost 100 years! Strange regional serving styles lurk in different pockets of the state. In fact, there are so many stops around here that it might take a series of blog posts just to give each one its due… Tag along with me as I eat too many hot dogs for Jersey Bites, Jersey style!