MEATS WITH APPROVAL — COOKING: Alpine Village sausage maker who offers a link with the old country continues to rack up award for his products.
By: Dennis Johnson, Daily Breeze staff writer
There’s a point in the wiener-making process where you’re not too sure that you’re looking at meat anymore.
It’s not disgusting or revolting, nor does it bring to mind a crusading Upton Sinclair, it’s just that after the beef, pork, veal, and spices have gone a few rounds with the bowl chopper, the cuts of meat resemble a thick puree.
Only when the mixture is fed into a casing and the links are twisted, smoked and cooked does the alchemic nature of sausage making take shape. It’s this place, between whole pieces of meat and the familiar form of a frankfurter, where Alex Lagger dwells.
Lagger is Alpine Village’s maestro of meat. Its head sausage master.
“When I go out and people ask me what I do, I say I’m a sausage maker. They ask, `What is that?’ ” said the 40-year-old Lagger, who has been bringing the bratwurst to European expatriates for 13 years.
Rather than explain, Lagger needs only point to the deli case of the Alpine Village market to illustrate his profession. For in those refrigerated confines are the meats of his labor.
The objects are desired by Bavarian immigrants and second-generation Hungarians. Meat products that earned Lagger five first-place awards and 10 awards of merit at the California Sausage Maker’s Competition last month, and dozens more from contests past.
“I have butchers come over from Europe and they say he makes a better product than they have over there,” said Hans Rotter, the owner of the European-flavored center on Torrance Boulevard near the Harbor (110) Freeway. Beginning at 3 a.m., five days a week, Lagger — who drives from his home in San Bernardino — and his crew of six make sure the market’s coolers are full for the crush of customers who come in each weekend for a taste of the old country.
From the moment he first helped grind hamburger in his Swiss immigrant father’s butcher shop when he was 9 years old, Lagger was destined — more or less — to be involved in the meat trade.
“I got suckered into it, my dad was a butcher,” he joked. “If I was going to do it differently, I would be a doctor.”
In Europe and elsewhere there are butchers and then there are sausage makers. Although their medium is the same — meat — their finished product is different.
While butchers specialize in the cuts of meats that they prepare, sausage makers are more like chefs in that they manipulate the chemistry of the food to achieve a certain flavor.
For European sausage makers, these flavors and ingredients play out like a road map of the old country. Polish kielbasa. German knackwurst. Hungarian smoked sausage.
It was while working with his father in the family’s restaurant in Los Angeles that he first became interested in making sausage. He left the restaurant and began his butcher’s apprenticeship at a competitor’s business, where he began spending more and more time in the sausage kitchen.
The work appealed to him because it was more like cooking, a cross between preparing recipes and working with meat. Like being a chef, he said.
After 11 years, Lagger branched out and was hired at Alpine Village on the recommendation of an old-timer in the business. It’s been weisswurst and biershinken ever since.
“He was an upcoming hot shot,” said Alpine’s Rotter. The market has a huge customer base, many of whom come because of the butcher shop, he said.
Inside the deli portion of the market, the walls are covered with dozens of plaques and awards, some obscured by the sausages they recognize.
One Grand Champion award from 1995 is for the 100 percent pork sausage in a .45 mm casing or smaller, another from 2001 recognizes Lagger for his large diameter lunch meat: salami and summer sausage.
In Los Angeles, Lagger doesn’t have much company in the niche market of European-style sausage makers — maybe 10 others or so. In fact, he doesn’t have much company in the area’s meat industry, period.
“The meat business is basically dying off,” he said. “When I first started it was going good.”
Mechanization and streamlining have done to the business what they’ve done to most others.
Lagger said you can go to the Farmer John factory in Los Angeles, push a button and process a pound of meat into a package of wieners from start to finish in about 18 minutes. For him and his crew, this process takes about two hours.
On one recent morning, he and the guys were processing 600 pounds of wieners, nearly half of 1,200 that is made each week. For Easter, they made about 7,000 pounds.
While the six men were working on the wieners, Lagger was mixing bags of spices. Each premixed concoction is measured out in practiced scoops onto a scale. On the table where he’s mixing are plastic containers of white pepper, ground coriander, mustard seed and something labeled “jagdwurst.”
Out in the kitchen, one guy was working the bowl chopper, a kind-of large-scale food processor that pulverizes the meats and spices into the sausage filling.
This mixture is then heaped into a machine called an extruder, which forces the filling into the sausage casing. Two others twist the casing into links which are handed to a guy who hangs them on a rack, preparing them for the smokehouse where they will be smoked for two hours and later cooked.
Overall they make more than 100 different kinds of sausages, including cured meats like ham and several processed products that have probably never seen the business side of the traditional American dinner table.
“Blood sausage, head cheese,” he said. “Stuff that normal people don’t even want to associate with.”
Most sausage today is made of quality spices and pieces of lean meat — not necessarily New York cuts — and not the creepy innards and gristle that make up most horror tales of the sausage factory.
In the beginning, people made sausage because they had all the leftover parts after butchering a hog or cow. What to do with all that leftover meat? Boil it, season it and stuff it into casings.
There was a time, Lagger said, the jellied sausage was made with just about any piece of meat that is attached to a hog’s head. You name it — head flesh, snout, tongue, brains — it was all in there.
Lagger’s headcheese only contains tongue and snout.
“It’s not like it was 50, 60, 100 years ago when everything was kind of a mess,” he said.
They’ve also dabbled in various types of vegetarian sausage, messing with tofu and the like, but nothing ever really worked out or sold too well.
With some sausages — like vegetarian chorizo — you can mask the tofu with spices, but for the real deal you just need meat.
Even in the magical world of sausage making, there’s only so much you can do.
“Our customers want cholesterol,” he said. “You try to give them tofu and they’d kill you.”