Hot Dish, For The Grill

Dog days this summer: Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry ply their wares at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market.
Jayme Halbritter
My Sausage Sister & Me
Kowalski's Markets
Six locations, including:
8505 Valley Creek Rd.

I have a new cell phone, and if I run around the house with it yelling, "Hold still," it will take pictures of the cat. It knows the music of both Bach and the Clash. It thinks they are both the same. It offers up what I imagine would be a fabulous version of Ms. Pac Man, if I were only the size of a lime. As someone who has been known to lock herself in the stalls of some of Minneapolis's most prestigious restaurants, the better to sketch the pastry, I can only report that this seemed like a good idea, although now that I am bleary-eyed and bleeding from the thumbs, I have my doubts.

Generally, I regard all things that contain both digital bowling alleys and my dentist's phone number with the highest suspicion. I am not too wild about technology. I like objects that are low-tech, that lead their own lives, that help themselves if you only give them a running push. Like what? Like fire, for one thing. Or sausages, for another. Fire. Now, there's a real go-getter. As far as I can tell, the story runs like this: One day we've got Prometheus, soon enough there's Mrs. O'Leary's cow, and here we are, and I defy you to find a North Star State backyard without a fat-glazed grill and a flame-scarred set of cooking mitts. Obviously, sausages have followed the same path: Prometheus likely had someone waiting at home, stuffing casings, watching the horizon impatiently: Tubesteakeus, perhaps.

Meanwhile, readers near and far drum their fingers, waiting for something having to do with dinner tonight.

And so I say: Are you near a Kowalski's? Are you headed to the big Minneapolis Farmers' Market? Because if you are, you can have access to the work of the Sausage Sisters, Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry, who are nice Minnesota ladies on an empty-nest, second-career path which involves being extremely cheerful, extremely well liked, and packing their sausages with so much stuff that they are more than a sausage and somewhat less than a casserole: Minnesota, your Hot Dish for Grill and Tailgating.

For instance, the Chicken Risotto Sausage has within it chicken, turkey, rice, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, cheese, onion, and much, much more: It is like the famous artichoke ramekin, for people looking for a lot more protein, and a far cleaner taste. (Actually, it reminds me most of the chicken meatballs you get in delicacies like Italian Wedding Soup. I think if you start slicing this and throwing this in your soups next winter, your friends will think you've been to cooking school.) The smoked-pork Leave It to Cleaver has so much good old Minnesota wild rice and shredded carrot in it that the texture becomes downright light. (The sausage is named after June Cleaver, the mom from Leave It to Beaver, and to my ear has a nice loopy air of rage to it: Cleave this!)

The sausages are all made for the Sausage Sisters by Lorentz Meats, a small, local smokehouse and meat processor in Cannon Falls that works with local farmers and whose beef jerky and hot dogs I have become addicted to. I think those meat engineers down there are truly geniuses, because all of the Sausage Sister recipes I tried are always tender and well balanced, and never as wacky as they sound. And I am even talking about the turkey sausages with black beans, or the pork ones with dried cranberry and grated orange peel, which just cry out for you to make a pan of stuffing.

My absolute favorite, however, has to be the breakfast sausage made with apples, onion, maple syrup, and bacon--bacon, inside a sausage! Ladies and gentlemen, we have broken all known sausage barriers. I think we are basically witnessing the Concorde of sausage flight, without the pesky supermodels. Ahem. I lose myself in enthusiastic hysteria, but: bacon, embedded within a sausage? Finally, a conceal-and-carry for the rest of us. What next? Can we get cheese curds in the ice cream? I deputize you, Owatonna: Go! Brainerd, see if you can't get pot roast inside of a meatloaf. And St. Paul, with your many colleges, yours is the grandest task: See if you can't get green bean casserole inside of a sausage, with, necessarily, a little stripe of those French-fried onion rings. I truly feel that if you can accomplish this, Midwest Secessionism will finally have the rallying symbol we so desperately need. Provided we can leave the couch, of course.

And where was I? Yes! The miraculous breakfast sausage, full of apples, onions, maple syrup, bacon, sigh, and quite a load of apple pie-type spices, which leave you with the sweet and heady lingering taste of allspice. Marvelous. The name of this miracle? Poppa Joe Meets Granny Smith.  

Who is Poppa Joe? Glad you asked. So let us travel back now even farther in time, back to when people had no time because they were shoulder-deep in a metal tub doing the laundry for the farm family, not because they were bowling via telephone. The particulars: Eden Valley (up near St. Cloud), population 800, the early 1950s. The Gaspar family are the Eden Valley grocers. The grandparents, including Poppa Joe, and parents work the grocery and variety store. Let's say it's a Saturday night. Young (sausage) sisters Cherie and Merry sit on the floor, playing jacks. Soon enough their father, Elmo Gaspar, would return from the store, possibly with a package of sausages made by Butch, the butcher. Butch the butcher! No kidding. Soon, the rest of the extended Gaspar family would arrive for supper. (Supper, by the way, is not dinner. Dinner is what you have at noon.) And sometime in the course of the evening, the talk would turn to television. When could they get one, the six Gaspar children wondered? When, when, when? "Some day," said Elmo Gaspar. "Sunday? You said Sunday!" Cried the children.

Eventually, the Gaspars got a television. It came with a plastic film that was blue at the top, and green below. If you were watching Lassie, the plastic film made the black-and-white show look, perhaps, if you squinted, like it was shot outdoors. What it did to Jack Benny is less clear.

I learned of this scene talking on the phone to Cherie, as she drove to Cannon Falls to pick up her sausages, because the Lorentz Meats truck had broken down. We talked on little tiny phones that bowl and know some Bach, phones that make plastic films and people named Butch the butcher seem as quaint and low-tech as Prometheus. Cherie told me things about how even if the sausages are very low-tech--local farmers, a local meat-processing plant, she and her sister and a freezer case at the farmer's market--the world around them isn't. And did you know that while the Kowalski's people have been great to our little Sausage Sisters and have showcased their products for years, did you know that if you want to get into another big market, you have to pay an $800 "slotting fee" per sausage, per market? So if you want to get four sausages' worth of shelf space, so casual shoppers can see your product, you'll need $3,200 bucks per store, which is a lot of sausage, and explains why most grocery store meat departments are wall-to-wall Hormel.

And Cherie explained to me how she and her sister got into the business three years ago, after their father, the family patriarch, Elmo Gaspar, died. Cherie had worked as a home-ec teacher and a real estate broker; Merry had owned a beauty salon, and worked for a photographer. But with both sisters' children off to college, they were each in search of a new career. And they inherited their father's butcher-block table and they were off. Except, when you know traditions of Minnesota butchery like I know traditions of Minnesota butchery, you know that meats are traditionally a woman-hostile environment, and women don't plunge into areas where they aren't wanted just because of a big piece of furniture--a table is not an airline, after all. "We wanted to do something that women don't usually do, either transmissions or sausage," joked Cherie.

But seriously, I pressed, because I'm nosy like that. Nice Minnesota ladies don't get into sausage that lightly, and Merry and Cherie are two of the nicest. When you see them at the farmers' market, beneath the big Sausage Sister banner, they glow like beams of sunshine, and people seem to cluster to them for their warmth, a force so great it is nearly visible to the naked eye. How does it happen that your father dies, and your life zooms off?

Because the sisters now teach cooking classes at the Woodbury Kowalski's, have weekly fans at the farmers' market, and even rule the State Fair--look for their Food Building booth, and modified pigs-in-a-blanket called Twisted Sisters. Their photos will soon be on every package. They're debuting Little Sistazzz this year at the fair, which I am not at liberty to tell you about, but expect those to be on all the TV shows. That is a life zooming off, for women who have been quietly behind the scenes for decades. So, how? Why? I asked this of Cherie, as she headed south out of Hastings, into the high bluff country carved by ancient rivers.  

"Sometimes that's just the way it has to happen," she explained. "My father was a good person, I don't know of a better one. But still, he was an influential person in that small town, and his approval was hugely important for all of us kids. I think it affected the boys more than the girls, actually. And that's life: Your father's opinion and judgment can be a very problematic thing." Is it particularly Minnesotan for even unspoken expectations to run things, to keep the black beans out of the brats, as it were, forevermore?

After he died, explained Cherie, judgment and approval were cleared away, and the sisters could put whatever they liked in their sausages, and call them by whatever silly names they enjoyed, and generally could make a run for it. And that's the thing you are not going to know when you are my age, but it is the kind of thing you can find out from Sausage Sisters, if you pry. Soon after that, these silly little phones, phones that surely contained more technology than could be found in all of 1950s Eden Valley, these silly little phones were cut off by the prehistoric force of rock cliffs, but I felt fine about it, because they communicated more than I had ever dreamed possible.

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8505 Valley Creek Road
Woodbury, MN 55125


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