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2 october 2015

Gary Allen's global history of sausage at times amounts to little more than an annotated list of sausage varieties from around the world; but that makes for delicious reading.

Unless you're an adamant vegetarian, sausage is among the most appealing of food inventions. It's processed, packaged – in a sense pre-chewed. It's shelf-stable, salty, umami-laden. It's economical in both senses: cheap to buy and thrifty in its thorough use of animal resources.

Almost all the recipes Allen provides are for making sausage, something I have no ambition to do. I cook with sausage all the time, though. It's just so delicious. It's hard to think of a basic dish – soup, stew, cassoulet, paella, ragout – that isn't improved by adding sausage. These additions can be sliced or chunked or simply opened up and dumped. Much of the sausage I use is fresh and sold in bulk, without benefit of casing. At that point it's not so much sausage anymore as seasoned mince, but it shares an august name with its nobler cousins.

The body of Allen's text names sausage after sausage, with ingredients, traditions, and localities. He's insistent that the sausage map of Europe looks more like a medieval map of decentralized duchies than a modern line drawing of nation-states. Sausages are too old and localized to really have been taken up by entire modern countries, though the Danish hotdog comes close. But even the United States shows lots of local traditions of wieners and wurst and boudin and andouille. Allen lists several Texas sausages I'd never heard of, like "hot guts," though that may be just a dialect term for the familiar hot links.

Allen, an avowed sausage hobbyist, is interested in the chemistry and physics of the sausage, the many kinds of preservatives and casings that make sausages distinctive. The role of salt is particularly interesting. I had always assumed the salt was there as a preservative, and incidentally to draw in salt addicts. But Allen says that salt plays a key role in breaking down meat proteins and helping sausage bind and attain sausagy consistency.

The old saw about politics or whatever being like making sausage doesn't deter Allen or any other foodie. He's unsqueamish about the many mystery meats that comprise the humble banger. Blood and brains and pink slime ooze from the pages of Sausage.

In an odd twist, after presenting his recipes, Allen turns right around in an appendix and repeats much of the structure of the body of the book, listing many regional kinds of sausage from around the world. The appendix is not entirely repetitive, though, so if you skip it you'll miss a lot of sausage.

Near the beginning, Allen includes some global history of sausage humor. I guess he feels it's best to be upfront about it. If you're going to shake your salami, you should not hide it under a bushel. Jokes comparing sausages to dicks have a long and venerable history, going back to Greek comedy. Heck, Greek comedy probably has its origins in sausage/dick jokes.

I like my jokes more refined (yeah, right) but I love sausage and will try anything in that line. Someday I would love to do some sausage tourism in Italy, clearly the world's capital. (Allen charts how the town of Lucania, in the south of Italy, has been modified in most of the languages of the Mediterranean into a word for sausage, from loukanika to linguiça.) But lately I have been sampling German sausages, from Weißwurst to Milzwurst to Teewurst. (Teewurst tends to come in toothpaste tubes, one of the many ingenious casings for soft sausages.) Several of the sausages of the American eastern seaboard are variations on these German items, like my adored Lebanon Bologna, hard to find outside of the greater Philadelphia area. But we've improvised some faux-Italian items too, like the distinctly American invention pepperoni. Such ingenuity made the hoagie possible.

Allen, Gary. Sausage: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.