Some cookbooks are conceived out of lifelong passion for a particular cuisine; others out of reflection on an esteemed chef's career. Many are born out of practicality, to get covered in flour and oil and to service readers who need "easy weeknight meals" or "crockpot classics."
Then there's the niche stuff. In an era when there are cookbooks specifically written for the hairy, hypermasculine needs of bears, for instance, you can rest assured that the bases are pretty covered.
But sometimes, a cookbook starts with a pun. A great pun, of course.
Such is the case with The Wurst of Lucky Peach, the new sausage-centric anthology from Chris Ying—editor-in-chief at Lucky Peach—and his fellow editors. In The Wurst, Ying and company seek to illuminate the universality, diversity, and culinary resonance of the humble wiener. It's really more than a cookbook; it's an examination, a meditation on tubed meat. In New York, our mind's eye instantly wanders to the ubiquitous corner hot dog, while in Poland, one can hardly take a few strides without encountering a kielbasa. In Mexico, we have the entropic heat of chorizo. On Thailand's street corners, sai krok isan.
Take the old idiom about not wanting to see "how the sausage gets made" and flip it on its head. Instead, you'll find out exactly how it's made, from the cold cuts of mortadella at a Brooklyn deli to Berlin's late-night currywurst to the "kanga bangas" of Australia. On top of taking you on a delicious journey from continent to continent, The Wurst explains all of the meats, spices, and surprises that go into each of these iterations of the wiener world.
I recently sat down with Chris at Karczma, a Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, to eat blood sausage and talk about why wurst is kind of the best, and why you shouldn't be afraid to grind up some of your own.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Chris. So, what was the conversation like that led to creating a book entirely focused on sausage? Chris Ying: It's a little weird to have a book that has such a narrow focus, especially after we did our first book [101 Easy Asian Recipes]. Lucky Peach had up until that point been a place where we published a lot of difficult recipes, that had some idea behind them or had come from a very high-level chef. 101 Easy Asian Recipes was like, OK, cooking at home is important, and we can help people. To follow that with this sort of single-minded exploration of sausage is a little bit nerve-racking, to be honest with you.
But I really do like sausage a lot. So often, when you're talking about food, you have to discover what's new or exciting or the best restaurant for this or that. To get to write about universal food stuff like sausages is a nice thing. There's the Time-Life series of books that were sort of single-ingredient, or James Peterson or Alice Waters will do these books that are just about a single topic; these were our rough inspiration. We had other topics—eggs, and that's going to be the next one, and rice, and my mom is always in my ear about doing a book about coconut, which would be even more narrow and obscure. But then there was sausage, which was in the running, and then the title kind of occurred to us, and it just really put it over the top. For a long time, it was a joke that we thought about too long, and then it became a reality.
The book is organized by continent, to show that you can find renditions of sausage in virtually every type of cuisine in the world. Is that something you really wanted to focus on? For sure. The universality of sausage and eggs and rice is what attracts us to these particular ingredients. Sausage is really funny in that any meat-eating culture that has food that has emerged from necessity or poverty has created sausage, because it's created out of leftovers, when you kill an animal and you don't want to waste it and you stuff every bit of it into its own intestines. It's a grim idea, but it's how you preserve it. The fact that you can go anywhere and find sausage in some form is super exciting.
Considering that it's found everywhere, where would you say is the world epicenter of sausage-eating? Germany. Central Europe—Germany, Austria, France. And honestly, America. Once I started writing this book about sausage, I started seeing it everywhere. It becomes this weird cognitive dissonance or something where you're just like, damn, why do we eat so much sausage? For instance, we got an email from a movie studio that's like, "We're putting out an animated movie called Sausage Party with Seth Rogen. Do you guys want to partner up?" I was like, what? It feels weirdly part of the zeitgeist in the most unhip way. I saw the trailer. It was a little insane. Sausage felt so niche and like weird, but it's everywhere you go.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you do a lot of traveling? Yeah, some. We did this book a lot like we've done a lot of our Lucky Peach stuff: We tap into writers we know everywhere and ask them to speak to their expertise. But I also did go and did a little fishhook trail from Alsace, France through Germany and Austria. Then I went to Bangkok and did some sausage research there. Mostly, we kind of counted on people to speak to their own expertise.
Peter Meehan, who founded our magazine, wrote about New York's dirty water dogs. What he wrote was actually in the magazine before—this sort of takedown of New York hot dogs and just how crappy they actually are. Then, we got this handwritten letter from a six-year-old that was like, "Dear Lucky Peach, I really like your magazine but you're wrong about dirty water hot dogs. They're actually very good. Every time my mom and dad bring me into the city, we have one." So we printed it full page in the book.
Obviously, a big focal point of the book is making sausage. Why do you think so many people are nervous about making it at home? Well, I mean, there's the old hackneyed saying about how you don't want to know how laws or sausages are made, or whatever. [People are starting with] this idea that what goes into your sausage is bad. It doesn't have the same romance as, say, homebrewing. But I had been making sausages since my freshman year of college. So many homemade approximations of stuff kind of suck compared to the real thing, but every time I've made sausage, I'm like, this is better than all the other sausages. At the very, very least, the version you make at home can be as good as a version you can get outside.
There's also discussion in the book about certain things that you shouldn't make at home—for instance, ketchup. Fucking hate that stuff.
What, homemade ketchup? Yeah. I really don't like it. Because I really like ketchup a lot—I was raised in a ketchup household where we would there was just like a gigantic, industrial-sized container of ketchup. Heinz ketchup is so good. Its viscosity is perfect, it's shiny, and perfectly sweet. It's like the exact opposite of homemade sausage, where the version you make at home or in your restaurant is never going to approach storebought stuff. There are also mustard purists, for sure. The whole city of Chicago finds it to be sacrilege to put ketchup on your hot dog.
What are the rules of eating sausage, to you? I think it's pretty regionally specific. In a Polish deli, for instance, there's local knowledge about which mustard goes best with which thing. Chicago has their very particular notions about hot dogs, and in LA, the sausage has to kind of "snap." In Germany and Austria, they eat their sausages with so much sauerkraut it seems like a joke.
What were the craziest things you encountered while writing this book? The sort of classic one is andouillette—not to be confused with andouille, which everyone loves in their jambalaya and gumbo and stuff like that. Andouillette is a super lower-intestiney, gnarly thing in French cuisine. It's kind of like durian, where it's legendarily stinky and you can't transport it across county lines or whatever, but there's this secret society of fans who go around and award special honors to the stinkiest ones. The whole notion of sausage to begin with is so kooky. It seems like the original person who came up with sausage was a little fucked up. They're like, let me just like squeeze the food and poop out of this part, fill it up with animal, and then hang it up and I'll eat it later.
Piggybacking off of the expression that you "don't want to see how the sausage is made," after doing all this research, is there still an element of sausage that's gross to you? There's sort of two sides to it. As your culture becomes more well-off, and the value of off-cuts and offal kind of disappears, and people think of meat as only ribeye and loin and filet, that [causes that] sort of aversion, which I definitely don't feel sympathy for. On the other hand, we live in a culture where there's a thing called pink slime that food is made from, so that's still gross to me. Sausage gets a little bit of a bad rap, but culturally, it's an important thing. Maybe less so for us now, but at some point it was an important point of how people ate and survived.
Now would actually the right time in history to reexamine how food waste is actually a really big problem, and how inefficient a lot of our food systems are. In a way, sausage is actually like an antidote to that. Sausage is for sure an antidote to that. At this point, the whole offal trend has come all the way around and people roll their eyes at the idea of eating tripe and liver and lungs and heart. But honestly, that's still important from a sustainability standpoint. Climate change is one of the things I preoccupy myself with outside of stuffing my face, and meat is sort of the worst thing from a climate change perspective. If you're raising animals for those choice cuts and the rest is going to waste, that's a huge problem. If people were eating more of the whole animal, we would have to raise less animals, ostensibly, and there would be less pigs and cows shitting and farting and fucking up our shit. So that's my astute analysis of the situation.
RECIPE: Pigs in a Blanket
Any other advice that you would want readers to have if they're ready to embark on making sausage? There's a whole range of difficulty in the book as far as homemade sausages go. There's one that you go and buy some pork shoulder and you put it in the food processor and pulse it and then you've got sausage. And then there's a mortadella, for which you have to strap ice bags to your grinder and emulsify the sausage and stud it with lard and pistachios. A pro tip would be to start simple. The other thing is to make it slightly easier on yourself by buying the right equipment. The book also has a bunch of recipes to make with sausage. There's a pancake recipe for pigs in a blanket. I just made those pancakes last weekend.
Thanks for talking with us, Chris.