“We don’t do it that way now”: Bottled Sausage

Conversations about homemade sausage make it clear that environmental and social contexts matter.

Around the world, animals raised for protein have been harvested before harsh weather begins, partly to avoid the costs of feeding and sheltering them through the winter. Since as early as 5000 BCE in Egypt and East Asia, making sausage has been one way to stretch and keep the resulting surpluses. [1] Grinding meat scraps together with fat, salt, sugar, nitrates, herbs, and spices helps to inhibit microbial growth, even as the process creates distinctive flavors. From cinnamon-infused lap ceung (臘腸) in southern China to American breakfast links flavored with fennel and sage, sausages index a range of meanings, signifying imperial power and elite access to the latest technologies, but also prudent planning and shared ethics and aesthetics.[2] In the United States, conversations recorded by oral historians make it clear that the methods used to preserve sausage are keyed to both environmental and social contexts.

Air-Dried, Smoked, and . . . Bottled?

“[Y]ou turned it [the bottle] upside down. You turn it upside down so that the sausage grease will be to the top. And then after it cools, then you can turn it back and it [the grease] will stay up there. That’s to preserve it, to keep it fresh and good.”

~Glen Vanoy, KY
Image of Morton Salt Company brochure from 1935 showing a white-haired man in overalls massaging a salt cure into a cut of pork.
Booklets like these assumed both that home-processed meats were common and that consumers were looking for “modern” ways to continue older practices. Morton Salt Company. Meat Curing Made Easy. Chicago, IL, 1935. Chef Fritz Blank Victus Populi collection (Print Collection 13), University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Sausage takes several forms, including types that need no further cooking before eating. The Romans developed a repertoire of highly spiced cured meats, relying on ingredient ratios and cool, dry air (or low, smoky heat) to create flesh that could travel. Legionaries carried garlands of preserved meats—ancestors of salami, for instance—on their exploits because it didn’t spoil in ambient temperatures and could be sliced at will. Not surprisingly, the English term sausage is derived from the Latin salsus (“salted” or “preserved meat”). Condemned by the early Christian church because of their phallic shape and popularity at pagan festivals, sausages nevertheless became local hallmarks throughout Europe, with “air-cooked” varieties especially popular in the drier areas.[3]

Historically, most sausage links have been encased in intestines that have been turned inside out, soaked in brine, and scraped clean, though in some parts of America’s Appalachian mountains corn shuck casings were prepared by washing and drying corn husks, packing them with seasoned meat, tying them with “corn fodder, bear grass, or a string,” and hanging this “shuck sausage” to cure in a smoke house.[4] Alternatively, some encased sausages, including hot dogs, bologna, and blood sausages, are heat-processed (e.g., pre-cooked in water) during initial processing.

Fresh forcemeats—including bratwurst, chorizo, and sausage patties—have also been important food products. In the early 1990s, small-scale farmers in Kentucky reported that their homemade sausage generally incorporated 30% fat (1 part fat to 2 parts lean) and was seasoned before being frozen. Some used the Morton Salt Sausage Cure; others made their own seasoning blend. One recipe, for instance, calls for 1 c. salt, 2/3 c. sage, 2 T. black pepper, 1 T. red pepper, and 3 T. brown sugar for every 25 pounds of meat. [5]

Jones Dairy Farm, "And as the New Year's Party Ends . . . Comes the First Breakfast of 1932," Good Housekeeping, January 1, 1932.
Some sausage marketing has relied on nostalgia and down-home tradition, while other ads have courted upscale customers. Jones Dairy Farm, “And as the New Year’s Party Ends . . . Comes the First Breakfast of 1932,Good Housekeeping, January 1, 1932.

In the United States today, blocks of ground sausage are most likely to be found in supermarket freezer sections. In 1920, Jones Dairy Farm of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, was the first company to quick-freeze sausage. The company’s founder, Milo Cornelius Jones, was an early marketer of brand-name sausage sold in 1- and 2-pound packages, rather than in bulk. In 1889 he started the company, which made sausage based on his mother Sally’s Vermont recipe, which was built around “choice cuts” of pork rather than meat trimmings. By 1903 he was advertising in national magazines, which over the years linked the sausage to high-end holiday celebrations, such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. [6]

Before electricity was widely available, however, uncured sausage in the United States was also preserved by potting or canning it in the fall and storing it in cold cellars or can houses through the winter. [7]

Stored in Fat: Potted Meats

In their study of food-related oral histories in Kentucky, Anne and John van Willigen suggest that the process of “canning” cooked sausage was “uncommon.” However, sausage sealed in bottles is mentioned regularly in oral histories throughout the Upland South and beyond, from Indiana to Utah, New Mexico to North Dakota.[8]

In Pennington Gap (Lee Co.), Virginia, Henrietta Lewis Logan remembered that in the 1930s, her family had a piano and many good books, but no electricity. Before they had a refrigerator or freezer, “sausage had to be ground and made ready for canning” by “the women folk” in her community. This involved partially frying sausage patties, and it was “greasy, hard work” compensated in part by the cooking sausage’s delicious aroma, in part by anticipation of future meals. When Iris Carlton-LaNey interviewed ten elderly Black women in the early 1990s, they also remembered bottled sausage as important to home economies in Duplin County, a bright-tobacco area of North Carolina’s inner coastal plain. The women on these self-sufficient farms “canned everything,” including peaches, string beans, okra, cabbage and other home-grown produce. When they killed 10 or 11 hogs each December, one woman recalled, they salted and hung the pork in the smokehouse, but “canned sausage in lard.” [9]

Illustration of canned meat in a Ball jar, 1921
Families with access to quantities of fresh meat have often preserved it at home. Section header, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 20, edition M (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, c1921), p. 34. Ball Corporation Collection (98.37), Box 1, Folder 10, The Minnetrista Heritage Collection, Muncie, Indiana.

How does one “can” in lard? The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes from 1921 did include recipes for processing jars of fried sausage packed in hot grease; as in its recipes for fried brains and fried kidneys and onions, the partially sealed jars of pre-cooked meat were then boiled for 90 minutes in a water bath. But the next edition (1926) recommended draining off all grease, packing the fried sausages tightly, partially sealing, then processing the jars 210 minutes in boiling water or just for an hour in a Steam Pressure Cooker at 15 lbs pressure. [10] [Note: In order to avoid the risk of botulism, food scientists today advise that meats meant to be stored at room temperature should always be pressure-canned, not boiled in a waterbath.]

It is possible, then, that when Carlton-LaNey’s North Carolina consultant recalled “canning sausage in lard,” she was talking about potting it: packing meat hot in fat-filled containers, without further processing. Potting has deep historical roots. By the late Middle Ages in Europe, thick crusts were being used to “encoffin” meat in butter-laden pies, thus keeping “air” (read: microbes) out and helping it travel without spoiling too much. By the sixteenth century, parboiled poultry could reportedly be kept for a month after it was coated in lard or clarified butter, seasoned with salt and spices, set in stone pots filled to the brim with more lard or butter, covered tightly with leather, and stored in a cool place. [11]

Edsel Little, "Maple Sausage Patties," January 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0
Traditionally, sausage has been partially fried before bottling. Edsel Little, “Maple Sausage Patties,” January 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0

This fat-saturated method of storing meat used high initial cooking temperatures, low moisture and oxygen levels, and physical barriers to reduce the growth of as-yet-unseen microorganisms, and it persisted in the United States for years. Oral histories recorded in the late twentieth century describe packing raw sausage in large dairy crocks, weighing the sausage down with a plate, and baking it; when the rendered fat cooled, it had covered the sausage. A related method involved first frying the ground sausage medium-well before placing it into crocks and covering it with hot grease. These crocks were filled in late fall or early winter (after hog harvesting) and stored in unheated outbuildings, where –crucially–they stayed cold or even frozen until spring. [12]

The advent of tempered-glass canning jars introduced a new element to potting. In central Kentucky (Casey Co.), Glen Vanoy described how people in his community fried sausage patties or balls and packed them into Mason jars, then filled the jars with hot sausage grease to within 1 inch of the top. After adding a rubber ring and a glass-lined zinc lid, “[Y]ou turned it [the bottle] upside down. You turn it upside down so that the sausage grease will be to the top. And then after it cools, then you can turn it back and it [the grease] will stay up there. That’s to preserve it, to keep it fresh and good.” These packed bottles and crocks (the latter covered with a clean white cloth that had been dipped in beeswax) were stored in cool cellars or spring houses, and their contents removed and re-fried when wanted. [13] [Note: both the cold storage and frying the sausage before eating contributed to the success of this method–botulism spores don’t like refrigeration, and botulism toxins can be denatured by high heat.]

In 1924, the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company broke ranks with the big bottle manufacturers by including a recipe for “Fried Sausage Stored in Lard” in its canning manual, alongside a newer recipe that used pressurized steam to preserve the bottled meat. Hazel-Atlas was based in West Virginia, and this addition seems to acknowledge regional culinary norms. However, the manual also notes the environmental limits of potting without further high-heat sterilization: “This method is quite satisfactory in cool climates, but products will not keep indefinitely without turning rancid in very warm climates.” [14]

It’s likely that rising global temperatures and disrupted climate patterns have contributed to the decline of sausage potting in Appalachia. Consistently cold winters, people say, are not as common as they used to be. As 95-year-old Pleasants County, WV, native Grace Hashman observed in a 2012 interview, “But we don’t do it that way now. You put it in the freezer. It ain’t good [tasty] like it was when we [potted our own sausage], but you don’t have winters that will keep it now. Sometimes you go to store it and it gets too warm.” [15] Today’s procedures for safely canning sausage always include a pressure canner.

Cooking up Social Capital: Shared Work

Before freezers were widely available, home-canned sausage was common throughout the United States. Today, sausage can still be safely canned by using a pressure canner. Russell Lee, “Mrs. George Hutton dishes up sausage made from her own hogs and canned last winter. Pie Town, New Mexico,” June 1940. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. LC-USF34-036599-D

Home-bottled sausage has economic benefits, but it has social ones as well, solidifying shared values and aesthetic preferences as it is produced and consumed. Knowing how to raise hogs, butcher them skillfully, and preserve the meat successfully are forms of social and cultural capital that establish personal reputations and networks of shared pleasure and obligation.[16]

Complicated tasks that require group labor become shaped into expressive behavior that enacts deeply held values of hard work, mutual obligation, and assistance.[17] Jenette Chapman remembered that in Dungannon (Scott Co.), Virginia, in the 1940s and ’50s, “Hog killing was a ritual when it got cold enough”; the butchering itself was shortly followed by rituals of preservation: “Later, Mama would fry up sausage cakes and can them for the coming year.” Neighbors pooled their skillets in order to cook patty after patty. Most of the women in Carlton-LaNey’s study, like many farm women in the United States through mid-century, regularly “gathered for work in small groups of relatives and neighbors,” sometimes as part of USDA-affiliated Home Demonstration Clubs.[18]

This shared work creates spaces for story.  Ruth Winkle, for instance, grew up canning spare ribs and sausage in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. One of nine siblings, she eloped in 1940 at age 22. The day before she married Carlo, they butchered three hogs; her friend Oda Flynn came to help her process the resulting tub of sausage. The women fried patties all day together, topping off the full jars with boiling grease and then turning them “upside down so that grease would seal the jar good.” As the day wore on, though, Ruth could no longer contain her news; as she related in a 2012 interview, “I told Oda I’s plannin on gettin married the next day, I said ‘Now don’t you tell nobody,’ so she kept it a secret.”[19]

Cooking up Cultural Capital: Shared Tastes

Fannie’s Sausage Gravy: 1 lb. mild bulk pork sausage, 1 c. milk, 2 1/4 T. all-purpose flour, 1/2 t. pepper. In large heavy skillet, fry sausage until brown and stir to crumble. Remove from skillet with slotted spoon and drain well. Leave 2 t. drippings in skillet. Gradually add flour to drippings, stirring until smooth. Cook over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add 2/3 c. of milk, stirring forcefully until mixture is smooth and thick. If you wish to have a thinner gravy, add the rest of the milk. Stir in pepper and sausage. Cook until hot, stirring all the while. Serve over split biscuits. Yields 4 servings.

~Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook

Flavor matters, too: food practices like these also reveal dominant taste preferences. For instance, Anne and John van Willigen write that “Older people [in Kentucky oral history interviews] often praised the flavor of sausage preserved [in jars], which apparently resulted in fresher-tasting sausage than that stored in sacks” outdoors in smokehouses. The 1924 Hazel-Atlas manual thought bottles upped the taste even more, noting that sausages would “retain their fresh flavor much longer when packed with hot fat in closed glass jars, than when open jars, crocks, or buckets are used.” [20]

This emphasis on “freshness,” a quality highly valued in twentieth-century American food talk and practice, also informs marketing discourses around meat preserving. A 1922 advertisement for the Burpee Home Can Sealer (which crimped lids onto metal Sanitary Cans) promised to support home economies and ensure delicious meals. By canning their own animals using technologies that ensured a “positive seal every time,” farmers could avoid having to sell livestock en mass for low autumn prices, and they wouldn’t have to depend on unnatural “salt meat or smoked meat” before next harvest season rolled around. “Canning is simply long distance cooking,” the ad stated, “so why not can your fresh meat now for next summer?” [21] This emphasis on freshness persists in advertising copy today; for instance, Newell Brands, the company that now sells all Ball and Kerr canning jars, refers to the practice as “fresh preserving,” even though foods prepared this way will have been heat-processed for at least ten minutes (and in the case of meats, considerably longer).

This Kansas City fundraising poster from 2016 demonstrates the enduring significance of sausage to groups throughout the United States.

Shared taste preferences of this sort form the backbone of regional identities: witness Biscuits and Gravy, a meal common in several U.S. regions. Here, sausage is an unstated but understood component. Even before commercial outfits like Bob Evans, Jimmy Dean, and Tennessee Pride sold frozen sausage gravy, and before chain hotels added sausage gravy to breakfast buffets in the South, Hazel-Atlas offered a recipe for home-canned sausage gravy in 1924, “made by adding a little flour and water to the fat in which the sausage has been cooked.” This mixture, rather than straight lard, was then poured hot over the pre-cooked sausage and processed in a pressure canner.[22]

Sausage gravy is broadly familiar in many communities today. For instance, Glenwood United Methodist Church in Galax, Virginia, has run a semiannual fundraising breakfast centered on Ruth Shropshire’s sausage gravy served on “split biscuits hot from the oven.” In 2009 Shropshire described the event as a way to “share in a community gathering,” but she also reported that people say her sausage gravy is the best they’ve ever had. [23]

In short, while the methods of making and preserving sausage have changed due to new food technologies, shifting environmental conditions, and altered rhythms of work and reciprocity, the meanings of bulk sausage persist. They resonate in daily private meals and in symbol-laden public gatherings, where people contemplate what counts as “fresh and good,” and what it means to be us.

Learn more

Cured South. Oral history interviews about meat production and curing, as documented by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Green N’ Growing: The History of Home Demonstration and 4-H Youth Development in North Carolina. Essays and primary sources about social clubs organized around food production, conservation, and preservation.

National Center for Home Food Preservation. The most recent government recommendations about home food preservation, from the University of Georgia and United States Department of Agriculture.


[1] Kantha Shelke, “Sausage,”  in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by Andrew Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 525-26.

[2] As one canning manual advised, “Kill it and can it, and thereby stop the expense of feeding” (A Book of Recipes and Helpful Information on Canning, 4th ed. Wheeling, WV: Hazel-Atlas Glass Co, 1924, 17). See Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (New York: W.W Norton, 2008). On the ways that sausage ingredients prevent oxidation and suppress or kill microbes, see David L. Thurmond, A Handbook of Food Processing in Classical Rome: For Her Bounty No Winter (Boston: Brill, 2006), 220-22; also Anita Dua, Gaurav Garg, and Ritu Mahajan, “Polyphenols, Flavonoids, and Antimicrobial Properties of Methanolic Extract of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Miller),” European Journal of Experimental Biology 3.4 (2013): 203-08; Biljana Bozin, Neda Mimica-Dukic, Isidora Samojlik, and Emilija Jovin, “Antimicrobial and Antioxidant Properties of Rosemary and Sage (Rosmarinus officinalis L. and Salvia officinalis L., Lamiaceae) Essential Oils,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 55.19 (2007): 7879-85.

[3] Sue Shephard, Pickled, Potted, and Canned: The Story of Food Preserving (London: Headline, 2000), 112-13; Shelke,  “Sausage.”

[4] Shephard, 116; Lesa W. Postell, Appalachian Traditions: Mountain Ways of Canning, Pickling & Drying (Whittier, NC: Ammons Communications, 1999), 88; Joseph E. Dabney, Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1998), 184.

[5] Anne Van Willigen and John Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 233.

[6] Jones Dairy Farm, “What Sets Us Apart,” Jones Dairy Farm.com, http://www.jonesdairyfarm.com/our-promise/history, accessed Dec. 1, 2016; “Milo C. Jones, Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Animal Science, http://www.ansci.wisc.edu/meat_hof/1994/jones.htm, accessed Nov. 17, 2016.

[7] Lyman Barnes remarked that before 1945, when families were able to rent freezer space in the Robertson County, KY, “meat locker” or purchase their own freezer chests, “everything [meat] was put in a fruit jar” (Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 217).

[8] Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235; Pearl McCall (Daviess Co, IN) in Eleanor Arnold, ed., Feeding Our Families, Memories of Hoosier Homemakers, vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 47; Renee Thackeray and Reese Loveless. “If Only Walls Could Talk: Thackeray Legacy Homes in Croydon [UT],” April 2015, document in possession of author; Minnie Ness (ND), in Eleanor Arnold, ed., Voices of American Homemakers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 138.

[9] Henrietta Lewis Logan, “Happy Hollow,” in Grazing Along the Crooked Road, edited by Betty Skeens and Libby Bondurant (Pounding Mill, VA: Henderson, 2009), 99; Iris Carlton-LaNey, “Elderly Black Farm Women: A Population at Risk,” Social Work 37, no. 6 (1992): 517–23, at 521, 518.

[10] Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 20, edition M (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, c1921), p. 37, and Ball Brothers Company, The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes, No. 21, edition N (South Bend: L. P. Hardy Co., 1926), p. 19, in Ball Corporation Collection (98.37), Box 1, Folder 10, The Minnetrista Heritage Collection, Muncie, Indiana.

[11] Shephard 188-91. Some kinds of potting also involved beating the meat, with spices and fat, into a paste (a confit or paté) before packing into a pot and covering with melted fat; Sally Smith Booth, Hung, Strung, and Potted: A History of Eating in Colonial America (New York: Clarkson N. Potter; dist. by Crown Publishers, 1971).

[12] Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235;  Dabney, Smokehouse Ham, 184; Postell, Appalachian Traditions, 88. A recipe recorded in The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery calls for fresh sage-and-brown-sugar sausage to be partially fried and packed into jars 3/4 full, then covered with hot grease and stored upside down; the book also documents balled sausage packed in churn jars, shuck sausage, and sausage smoke-cured “in small, clean, white cloth sacks”; Linda Garland Page and and Eliot Wigginton, eds., The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, Reprint (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 123.

[13] Van Willigen and Van Willigen Food and Everyday Life, 235.

[14] Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, A Book of Recipes and Helpful Information on Canning, 4th ed. (Wheeling, WV: Hazel-Atlas Glass Co, 1924), p. 24. The manual instructs cooks to “Fry sausage, pack in jars, pour hot lard over sausage until jar is entirely full. Be sure to have jar hot before pouring lard in and do not rest on metal tray or table. Close jar at once when filled, allow to cool, and store in a cool, dark place.”

[15] Grace E. Hashman, Interview by Katherine N. Bills, July 26, 2012, p. 14, Folder 14, Box 1, Appalachian Foodways Oral History Collection (SAA 164), Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, KY. Other oral histories in this collection note that curing ham properly is increasingly difficult.

[16] On social and cultural capital, see (for instance) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge UP, 1972) and “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson (New York: Greenwood, 1986): 241-258; James Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,”  American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 95–120. 

[17] On the social value of work and self-sufficiency—which has been especially well documented in the mountain South—see Patricia D. Beaver, Rural Community in the Appalachian South (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1986); Rhoda H. Halperin, The Livelihood of Kin: Making Ends Meet “the Kentucky Way” (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990); Lu Ann Jones, Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[18] Jenette Chapman, “Glimpses of Yesteryear,” in Grazing Along the Crooked Road, edited by Betty Skeens and Libby Bondurant (Pounding Mill, VA: Henderson, 2009), 138; Van Willigen and Van Willigen, Food and Everyday Life, 235; Carlton-LaNey, “Elderly Black Farm Women.”

[19] Mary Hufford, “ Ramp Suppers, Biodiversity, and the Integrity of “The Mountains,” Folklife Center News 20, no. 4 (Fall 1998), in Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia, Coal River Folklife Project collection (AFC 1999/008), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress; Ruth Winkle, Interview with Chelsea Bicknell, June 15, 2012, Folder 29, Box 1, Appalachian Foodways Oral History Collection (SAA 164), Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, KY, pages 14-15.

[20] Van Willigen and Van Willigen 235; Hazel-Atlas, Book of Recipes, 24.

[21] Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009);The Home Canner 1, no. 1 (January 1992), Home Canners Association of America, in Ball Brothers Foundation Collection (94.38), Folder 4, The Minnetrista Heritage Center, Muncie, Indiana.

[22] Hazel-Atlas, Book of Recipes, 24.

[23] Shropshire’s recipe is: “1/2 lb. Neese’s sausage, 1/4 c. flour, 2 c. milk (1 c. evaporated + 1 c. water), salt & pepper to taste.” After browning the crumbled sausage in an iron skillet, one should “stir in flour and let cook for a few minutes, add milk and stir till thick; season to taste”; in Skeens and Bondurant, Grazing, 250.

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