Welcome back, barbeque fans! With pro sports on hiatus, our annual Smokin’ Sausage Showdown is the most exciting competition in town!
Before we get to the action on the gridiron, a public service announcement: support your local butcher! The meat shortages and price hikes America has experienced during the pandemic are largely the result of corporate consolidation of the industry. When supply chains rely on massive meat-processing facilities run by abhorrent actors like Tyson Foods, which treat their workers no better than swine, we all suffer. The neighborhood butchers who remain provide product that’s more expertly and safely prepared, and much more of the money spent with them stays in our community, supporting local jobs and farms.
Speaking of local meat meccas, hearty congratulations to the Sausage King of Maine, Maurice Bonneau, on the occasion of his retirement this summer. While we’re glad for Maurice that he’s free of the daily grind, it must be acknowledged that this is a massive loss for Maine’s culinary scene. We still have butchers who make links, but Bonneau, who operated his Sausage Kitchen in Lisbon Falls, was a sausage maker par excellence, miles beyond anyone else we know of in this state in terms of craft and selection.
As in recent Showdowns, this year’s competition is one big Wild Card round. Maine Sausage Hall of Famer Fresh Approach, in Portland’s West End, would continue to take top honors in the Hot Italian and Sweet Italian categories every year, so we’ve eschewed those in favor of more diverse flavors.
This year’s Showdown was done in two sessions, both using soaked maple wood for the smoke and lasting between three and three and a half hours, at an average temperature of 250 degrees. Beers were provided by Island Dog Brewing, in South Portland, whose Clear Cut IPA and Apriweizen apricot hefeweizen proved to be excellent accompaniments to the pork and chicken links.
Let’s start with the Honorable Mentions. The garlic cheddar pork sausage from Great East Butcher Co., in Scarborough, was 100 times better than expected, given that odd combination of ingredients, but its conventional texture kept it among the also-rans. Here’s hoping they make the “loaded steak bomb” variety again, which won the Wild Card two years ago.
The Other Side, a deli with locations in Portland’s West End and East Deering neighborhoods, continues to impress with its bánh mi pork sausage, based on the Vietnamese sandwich. It’s the younger meat artists like those employed here that give us hope for Maine’s sausage future, now that sages like Bonneau and Dickie Colucci (former owner of Hilltop Superette) have hung up their blades.
Pat’s Meat Market, on Stevens Ave. in Portland, entered three chicken sausages into the competition. The pesto and Florentine varieties suffered the fate of so many chicken links exposed to extended smoking: dryness. Good thing we got extras, since both had excellent second acts as ingredients in pasta dishes.
Thanks to the addition of a wet ingredient, barbeque sauce, Pat’s BBQ chicken retained its juiciness under the heat and tied for the Bronze Medal this year. (It also made a bang-up addition to a subsequent fried-rice dish.)
The other Bronze goes to the Thai pork sausage by The Thirsty Pig, the bar and eatery on Exchange Street in Portland that’s once again offering its creative links to the public for retail sale. The Pig also gave us a side sauce, a sweet Sriracha-mayo-style concoction that paired with the pork beautifully.
The Silver goes to Fresh Approach for its Chinese sausage. This sweet style can be divisive, but master butcher Chet Knights and his crew went over the top this year, crafting a post-modern version that tastes like a link full of char siu (Cantonese-style roast pork). Absolutely amazing!
And the Gold Medal winner: Swedish-style potato sausage by the retiring grand master, Mr. Bonneau. Made with pork, beef, bacon, potato flakes and subtle spices, this link had a liverwurst-like taste and texture, a fine Old World grind perfectly packed inside a casing that delivered the classic snap of the best smoked links. By the time you read this, all the fresh and frozen product at the Sausage Kitchen will almost surely have sold out. Check the back of the freezer of your local market for any last vestiges of greatness.