As a kid, I loved the French fairy tale about a woodcutter awarded three wishes. Wish No. 1: sausages. Berated by his wife for his wasteful whim, the woodcutter wishes the sausage onto the end of her nose. I understood his pique: Who wouldn’t want a tableful of succulent sausage?
That’s certainly what I got as I roved around Asheville poking for the stuff. First up, Brätburger drive-thru on Merrimon (former site of VegHead). Within five minutes, I pulled away with a Johnsonville bratwurst, a Nations Best Chicago dog and french fries made in-house from real potatoes (they didn’t all make it home — I blame the stoplights).
I ordered the brat slathered with spicy mustard (although I was too conservative: mustard and sauerkraut are usual toppings). But I opted for the (mostly) traditional fixings feast on the Chicago dog: cherry peppers, relish, diced onions and tomatoes, celery salt, mustard and pickle spears. The sausage crown: soft but toothsome rolls made by Fred Dehlow, owner of Geraldine’s Bakery, also on Merrimon. I alternated bites between the two, savoring both the coarser brat bite and the salty snap of the dog.
Asheville just didn’t have enough quick-serve bratwurst, says Kevin Dolinger, co-owner of Brätburger: “We put ‘brat’ in our name to let customers know we’re different [from other burger places.]”
You can also get a brat fix at the Tap Haus at Whole Foods on Tunnel Road. The brats are braised in beer, grilled and served up with sauerkraut, green apple, and Asheville’s Lusty Monk Mustard.
“A bratwurst is very simple,” says Brian Bermingham, meat team leader at Whole Foods. “We start with a whole hog — a perfect 70/30 proportion of meat to fat — debone and grind it twice. Then we add salt, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, a little heavy cream and eggs.” The store makes 15-20 sausage varieties daily — including lamb, chicken, turkey and, most of all, regional pork.
Even though at times nothing will do but a ballpark dog or a sidewalk kielbasa, sausages are also going highbrow — a startling rise in a food made from scraps chefs would otherwise toss and, historically, meat for the poor, says Ashevillean Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout to Tail History of the Humble Pig. “You could take pig parts that might not be so edible, grind them up and add fillers to stretch them out. Meat was expensive; sausage was your entry-level meat.”
Though they still have the festival feel that Essig says goes back to ancient Greece, chef creativity — and in some cases, access to our area’s small, quality pork producers — has put an artisan twist on the once humble sausage. Dan Silo, a former chef at The Admiral, for instance, offers the monthly Sausage Party pop-up restaurant at MG Road on Wall Street (the next one is Thursday, June 18). “For the first party, I made a French-style boudin vert — pork sausage with tarragon, absinthe, Pernod, eggs, cream and flour or breadcrumbs. Another, dubbed the Russian Tea Room, had smoked trout, smoked trout caviar, fresh dill, caraway and creme fraiche.”
Silo sees the artisan sausage trend accelerating because chefs are drawn to sausage’s gateway to creativity. “Sausages are a really unique way to make something uniquely your own,” he says.
Wendy Brugh, co-owner of Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill, sells sausage to Chestnut, Homegrown and the Asheville City Market, and ground pork to Biscuit Head and Sovereign Remedies, both of which make their own sausages. Brugh feels sausage’s elevated status stems from people caring more about their food. “They want to know where the meat is coming from, how the animal’s been raised,” she says.
The Chop House on Charlotte Street has also gone upscale, offering six to 10 types of sausage daily, including bratwurst and sweet-and-spicy Italian as well as 12 smoked varieties, all from North Carolina pork. “Sausages are rising in popularity because now you can get them handmade, not off the shelves where you have no idea who made them or what’s in them,” says manager and head butcher Matt Helms, who trained at the Art Institute of Charlotte and honed his sausage skills as executive chef of Frank, an artisan sausage restaurant in Austin, Texas.
The burst of fresh herbs in the loosely textured Thai sausage — a blend of pork, lemongrass, cilantro, Thai chilies, fish sauce and galangal (a ginger-related Indonesian root, only more peppery and intense) — at Gan Shan Station on Charlotte Street took me right to (my idea of) Thailand, where street vendors sell sausages as snack food. “In Asia, people eat sausage daily like rice,” says co-chef Chris Hathcock, the only North Carolina chef among 50 nominated nationwide for the 2015 Eater Young Guns class.
In the evenings, Gan Shan serves a house-made charcuterie board that includes a mix of sausages, such as rice-fermented sausage (nothing to fear here — all salami is fermented, including pepperoni, says Hathcock), blood sausage, white miso bologna, broad bean bratwurst, Korean pepper salami, kimchee sausage or the Thai sausage. “There is a lot of French influence in Asian food,” says Hathcock, who made sausage for five years at Empire State South Restaurant in Atlanta. “What I’m doing is making French and European sausage and adding Asian flavors.”
Ashevilleans are lining up for the art and taste. As Helm says, “We can’t keep sausages on the shelf. But it doesn’t surprise me. We’re in the South. Pork sausage rules.”