What Makes a Sausage a Sausage?

After witnessing the horrors of the Ordinary Sausage Channel’s ‘water sausage,’ suddenly encased meats were more mysterious than ever

Summer is here. America is hitting the highest peak of sausage season, those (like myself) in the U.K. are unenthusiastically looking forward to their three days of annual sun, and I’ve personally been having an existential crisis. 

I didn’t think a dumb YouTube video, sent in a group chat dedicated to memes, could do this to me, but it has. What’s the crisis, you ask? Well, the video shows a sausage casing being filled with water, boiled and fried, placed in a bun, and bitten. All of which left me with the big bang(er) of a question: What the Fuck Is a Sausage Anymore? 

Like, what qualifies? How is it defined? The dictionary isn’t great at telling us. Official dictionary results vary from the hideous (“a thin, tube-like case containing meat that has been cut into very small pieces and mixed with spices”), to the even worse (“a mixture of meat, fat, bread, etc. cut into small pieces, put into a long tube of skin, cooked and eaten whole or served cold in thin slices”). 

After cutting the dictionaries that served up these definitions into very small pieces, I set about figuring out what a sausage is myself. Historically, the sausage is about 3,100 years old and comes from Mesopotamia (roughly modern day Iraq, Kuwait and part of Saudi Arabia). They were made from whatever meat they had lying around and preserved with salt. The word sausage comes from the Latin for “salted” — “salsus.” This, I have taken as the original sausage thesis. 

In order to figure out what the fuck a sausage is in today’s world, though, I went back to the YouTube channel that caused my grief: The Ordinary Sausage. It’s anything but ordinary — it’s the hydraulic press channel of the meat world. From Big Macs and sushi to vanilla cakes and lobster, the channel is home-grinding and sausaging the shit out of everything, and people love it — the channel has amassed 174,000 subscribers in five months. So it seems if anyone is on the cutting edge of sausage, it’s this guy (called Steve, aka Mr. Sausage, and incidentally the nicest person without a face or second name I have ever spoken to).

“Anything can be a sausage if you try hard enough,” he tells me during our Zoom call. “A sausage is what you make of it — you just have to believe.” Upon elaboration, I felt the mess in my brain start to tenderize like pork in Diet Coke. “In America, we don’t appreciate the sausage as much as we should,” he continues. “We have bratwursts, Italian sausages and kielbasa, not much else. Yet there’s an entire world of sausages to find, and I want people to know you can push the limits of the sausages you make at home.” 

Inspired, I went digging for other people pushing the sausage boundaries, and I came across Maguire Meats, a butcher that once made a Vodka and Red Bull sausage. Keelan Maguire, the owner, defines a sausage for me as, “A staple part of many food diets, an all-rounder that’s bursting full of flavor,” which I find ambiguous once again. I ask what they were specifically meant to be, and he replies: “I don’t think you should limit your sausage to anything, your taste in sausage is personal — it should be what you prefer. It’s just learning quantities to get a balance of flavors. It’s trial and error.” 

A pattern was cooking up — that sausage was more concept than concrete. I needed to search not for definition, but for theory. I wondered who else would truly round out the philosophy of sausage, and upon realizing I had a butcher and a devout home cook (Steve’s been making himself sausages for near a decade), I figured I should approach someone who probably didn’t care about any of this: A vegetarian chef. 

And so, I ask Andrew Dargue, the owner of a gourmet vegetarian restaurant in London, what the fuck is a sauasage? “Well, there’s a lot around,” he responds. “Even vegetarian ones. It’s a good idea for people to eat less meat in general, so it seems like a convenient way to change the diet, to have a bit more variety. Perhaps even one made entirely from vegetables could work.” 

But then, the first sausage purism of my adventure enters the picture. “Sausage is bits of meat bound together with a rusk (flour, breadcrumbs),” Dargue continues. “So veggie sausages aren’t really sausages. The reason the veggie world uses these descriptions is that it’s just an obvious reference point. If you look at chicken nuggets, they’re not nuggets. They’re reformed chicken coated in batter. But that wouldn’t sell very well.” 

After pondering the fact that we shouldn’t be eating red meat all that much, and thinking some more about the possibilities of vegetarian “sausages,” I next wonder: Would we ever create a superfood sausage? Some delicious blueberry and beetroot bastard that made you piss red health for days on end? And if we did, would this qualify as a sausage?

My sausage advisors think it would. “I’d like to do a pickle and chickpea sausage, perhaps some extra vegetables. There’s no sausage off-limits. Of course, you’d need a synthetic casing,” says Mr. Sausage. 

“I’d use peppers, onions, garlic, spring onions, cauliflower, broccoli, aubergine and courgette, chopped very finely,” Dargue tells me. “I’d season it as I wanted it: TexMex, Italian, Curried, etc., and I’d add whole peas and sweet corn for texture. Then I’d bind it with breadcrumbs and fry it. That’d be my sausage.”

But again, what is a sausage, after all this? 

It isn’t just some sort of flesh cigarette (although they often are and they’re delicious when they are). Meanwhile, other places claim they have health benefits (though some people also have a meat-only diet and claim to have never felt healthier, so I’d take that with a grain of salt). Basically, I still don’t truly know what a sausage is. But I think I have concluded that a sausage is (usually) a cylinder full of unused potential. From my end, I see a sausage like ramen: the casing is the stock and noodles, everything else is up in the air. 

Mr. Sausage, in particular, is into this idea. “I think of them like dumplings!” he enthuses. “I saw someone making a soup dumpling recently, you bit into it and it was just liquid inside of a dumpling. I’m not sure that’d be a sausage, but if we battered and deep-fried some liquids that were in a casing, well, that’s a sausage in my eyes.” 

The main takeaway, then, is that we should all stop being so boring and learn to love our sausages. Oh, and cook them properly, too: Boil them and finish them in a frying pan. Whatever you do, just don’t grill them.