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Monday, February 28, 2005

Smelling Like a Portagee

Friday night was tough. I was crying intermittently for a friend of ours in the hospital while Bruce and I were driving down to the Central Valley. A bathroom break at In and Out Burger in Pleasanton was an opportunity to get something to eat. My puffy red eyes, pale face, and glum demeanor stood in stark contrast to the peppy teenagers, hopped up on teen spirit, attempting to explain to me why I couldn't have extra mayo on my double burger. I felt alien, as well as miserable, and wanted to crawl into a Jack In The Box where I knew there were others who could feel my pain.

7 AM: Do You Know Where Your Geese Are?

Maybe it was because it was 7 AM or the fact I had cried so hard the night before that on Saturday I was uncomfortably numb as Bruce and I got ready to make the linguica. We were to drive to a Red Barn on a certain road, but really we didn't know where the hell we were going. We were one of the first to arrive when Bruce saw his cousin Evelyn and her husband Joe pull up in their van. The morning was crisp and sunny, with a little fog, and a smell that says "Welcome to the Cowboy Capital of the World". As we made our way through the large red barn doors, inside were old men in farmer/trucker caps and heavy jackets huddled around a wood stove drinking freshly brewed coffee. To the side was a huge, glistening metal table, approximately 10 feet long, 3 feet wide, slightly slanted down, with a trough at one end to catch any liquid and a large metal cylinder attached to a spout and a hand crank at the other. On the walls were posters of beer babes in swimming suits and of matadors skillfully dodging bulls in past bullfighting events. Slowly but surely everyone wandered in, some carrying snacks for later on, others carrying huge coolers filled with marinating pork. All in all, we were to turn 360 pounds of marinated pork butt into linguica.

There's something about the smell of 360 pounds of raw meat in the morning that, well, kinda makes you want to gag. Or maybe my stomach wasn't feeling good, but the thought of embarrassing myself in front of Bruce's family by going into dry heaves at the first smell of meat was enough to allow me to get a grip. Eventually, the smell of the spices and the raw meat grows on you and, like kudzu, is hard to get rid of. Out of the coolers and into a large plastic strainer first goes the meat. The meat is then scooped into the large upright cylinder and packed in with an adjustable lid.

There are several people who play an important role at this end of the table. The first is the guys/gals who load the meat into the strainer, and then into the cylinder. The second is the person who operates the cylinder/hand crank. The third is the person who blows air into the casings (pig intestine) and then rolls them onto the spout at the bottom of the cylinder. The fourth is the person who holds the casing while the meat is forced into it. The fifth are the people near the front end of the table who take the sausages, tie them on one end, and prick them with baby pins to let out any liquid or air. Of course, this would instantly cause juice to squirt on the person directly across the table and become the source of the phrase "smelling like a Portagee". These people would then squeeze the sausages meat toward the tied end of the casing to further pack them in. Then they would tie the other end or pass it down to the next person who would either continue to the pack the sausage meat and prick the linguica with pins, or tie both ends of the linguica together to form a 4-foot round ring/link. This was what Bruce was doing.

At the other end of the table were myself and an old guy named John, originally from the Azores. John took about 10 wooden poles and covered them with cloth sheathings. These were what we would use to hang the linguica from.

When a linguica link was passed down, John would take it and place it in a bucket, to free up the table for more. He would also push any liquid on the table (mostly from the homemade Portuguese wine used in the marinade) towards the drains on the end, which would drain into the trough sitting on the floor. When about 11 links were made, I would take one end of the pole while John loaded the other end.

With me holding one end and the other resting on the edge of the table, John would space out the links so that they wouldn't touch each other. If you ever want to get a good full-arm workout early in the morning, I suggest you volunteer at your local Portuguese Social Hall during the linguica making season. We would then carry these heavy suckers out to the smoke house, which wasn't anything impressive; just a corrugated metal shack with racks to hold the linguica and a fire pit. Now, I don't know how old John is. I know that he's a grandfather. But this guy was lifting these linguica-filled poles far above his head in what could only be described as an Old World Shoulder Press. Gym Bunnies: step back! Before 10 AM had finally hit, John had lifted at least ten or more of these.

In between loading up the links and taking them out to the smokehouse, John and I would talk about the bullfights and whom the best matadors were. He told me that as a youth, he would fight the bulls in the streets of Terceira, sitting in a chair and using an opened umbrella like a matador's cape. I don't know how much of it was BS, but something told me this guy probably wasn't kidding.

The linguica making was a collective event, with both men and women participating equally at various stations, and everyone equally shooting the shit, so to speak. That morning there were around 18 men and women, half of whom were making the linguica while the others were chewing the fat (not literally!). The linguica was made for 4 different families who had brought their own linguica mix, some more spicy than others. The linguica made for us was roughly 53 pounds of pork shoulder/butt, 2 gallons of homemade wine, cayenne, salt, pepper, homemade pepper sauce (piri-piri), and other spices. Not as much paprika went into ours. Joe says that cheap linguica is often disguised with a lot of paprika to cover up the high fat content, so that when you fry it you have a greasy, red mess.

Occasionally the casing would break as meat was being forced into it, and when this happened, Evelyn would take a metal funnel and stuff the linguica the old-fashioned way, i.e., by hand. She learned this technique by watching her mother-in-law (and Bruce's grandmother). She said in the old days, they would butcher a hog and spend hours cleaning the intestines with baking soda, oranges, and water. The casings we used on Saturday were the pre-packaged kind, which she says is better since you cut down on the cleaning time. They weren't as thick and fatty as those she used as a young woman, but that it was easier to add fat to the sausage mix instead. And while they still kill hogs for making linguica, we were using meat purchased in large quantities from a slaughterhouse.

After all of the linguica was hung, it has to dry out for a day. Then, John will light a fire and restart it every 4 hours or so to smoke-cure the linguica. This goes on for about a day and a half. Then the linguica is divided up, put into plastic bags, and frozen. When the linguica is finally cured, it will have lost around 20 percent of its weight.

When we were finally finished and the linguica had been hung out to dry, Joe and Evelyn broke out some of the linguica they had made the week before. They also broke out the Portuguese bread, pepper sauce, and homemade wine. Someone carried in a huge platter of asparagus wrapped in bacon and fresh vegetables. More folks streamed in to join what was turning out to be an afternoon social event. The linguica was cut into chunks as oil was heated in a cast iron dutch oven. According to Joe, the best way to cook linguica is fast and hot so that the outside skin pops, otherwise it comes out tough.

While some of the men cleaned the linguica-making table off outside, the rest of folks were cooking and resting inside. Bruce and I had a couple of hot pieces of linguica with bread and a little bit of Joe's pepper sauce. Wow! This wasn't like the linguica I had from the supermarket. This was a lot more complex and not as greasy. It wasn't overly spicy either and went great with just plain bread.

Man, if we could've stayed, we would've. Unfortunately we had plans to be at Aunt Paula's for the Almond Blossom Parade, so we thanked our guests, shook hands, gave hugs, and made our way back to the car. Bruce and I were so happy to have taken part in this experience. For Bruce I think it was important because it reconnected him with a part of his ethnic heritage and a side of his family that he wasn't close to. And they were really happy to accept him into it. Being an outsider, I felt very welcome and I was genuinely honored to take part in a ritual most people's families have lost or never had. To say the least, I am inspired.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you post the recipe for linguica? I grew up in Woodland CA and moved to Arkansas. Love here, but no portagees and no Linguica or soupas.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, a recipe please!. Used to live in the Bay Area and now live in Indiana. Not any linguica to be found. Tried a few recipes but not quite right, missing the "tang". I think the wine I am using is not up to snuff.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Bacon Press said...

If we make it again, I'll try to find out more specifics. Most of the ingredients are listed in the post (53 pounds of pork shoulder/butt, 2 gallons of homemade wine, cayenne, salt, pepper, garlic, paprika, and homemade pepper sauce)

One note though: the meat was SOAKED in the marinade for several days. Also, our linguica tastes very "winey" with a whole lot of smoked flavor.

Even in the Central Valley it's hard to find authentic linguica, but there is a chain supermarket called Save Mart that I've seen real linguica for sale at. Try contacting the Save Mart in Oakdale and see if they can send you some (I think they have 3 or 4 different kinds from different linguica companies). They also have a lot of other portuguese goodies like cheese and blood sausage.

I'll try to do a follow up on this post when I'm down there next.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you can always order it from Gaspar's website if you don't have the time to make it...

6:30 AM  

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