the rambling boy
Dr. Paul Will: Big Bend king of sausage
By LONN TAYLOR
I recently had a visit with a man I have come to think of as the Sausage King of the Big Bend. Dr. Paul Will, Professor Emeritus of Animal Science at Sul Ross State University, has been teaching students how to process meat for 39 years. His curriculum includes a class in sausage making that culminates in a sausage making contest, which I read about in the Big Bend Sentinel several weeks, so I decided to go over to Sul Ross and see if I could find out what makes a man who teaches sausage-making tick.
I will confess that, having lived for a number of years among sausage-making Texas-German farmers and considering myself something of an expert on homemade sausage, I expected to find a close-mouthed old German butcher type, a gruff man raised on a farm somewhere in the Hill Country who had spent his childhood slaughtering hogs and making jagdwurst. Instead I found Will to be a talkative and affable man, anxious to tell me about the mysteries of sausage making. He was in fact raised on a farm, but it was in the lower Rio Grande Valley, near the town of Donna, and his family grew vegetables and raised cattle but not hogs. Teaching sausage making was an economic decision for Will.
As he explained it to me, he graduated from Donna High School and went on to Texas A&I in Kingsville, eventually transferring to Texas A&M and graduating with a degree in animal science. He got a staff job at the veterinary school at Oklahoma State University, and after a year he decided that college teaching was what he wanted to devote his life to.
“I thought, well, I could get a Ph. D. in political science and probably get a job as a bus driver, but everybody eats and most people eat meat, so I decided that if I got a Ph.D. in meat science I would always have a job.” He was influenced in his decision by a remarkable professor in the Animal Science Department at Oklahoma State named R.L. Henrickson, who, Will said, treated his graduate students like members of his family. Henrickson’s specialty was sausage making.
“The thing about sausage,” Will told me, “is that you can change one ingredient and have an entirely different product.” Sausage, he explained, is made of ground meat, salt, pepper, and various kinds of spices. By varying the kinds of meat and the additives, one can achieve over 600 different kinds of sausage. Will made this point dramatically when he showed me the meat lab down the hall from his office, where his students learn to make sausage. The spice rack in the meat lab is 6 feet tall and holds 30 3-pound containers full of various kinds of spices.
Will walked me through the process of making sausage. “If you want to make 25 pounds of sausage,” he said, “you start with 25 pounds of meat, usually round, flank, or loin. You weigh out whatever you want to add to it – salt, pepper, spices, maybe even cheese or jalapenos. Then you coarse grind the meat, mix the other ingredients with the big chunks, regrind everything to a finer mixture, and put that mixture into a machine called a stuffer. The stuffer will force the mixture into the casing that you have attached to it, and then you have a sausage.” Will prefers to use natural casings – cleaned animal intestines – for his sausage, although some companies use synthetic casings.
Will’s students go through these steps in an immaculate laboratory equipped with the most modern sausage-making and meat curing machinery available, with the temperature kept at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and every surface gleaming, a far cry from the corner of a barn that I once helped my Texas-German neighbors in Fayette County make pork sausage in. The class culminates each year in a sausage-making contest. Each student comes up with a recipe and prepares it, and three judges recruited by Will pick the winning sausage. For the past few years the judges have been Dr. Mary Ann Weinacht, a retired Sul Ross faculty member; Henry Ogletree, Brewster County constable; and Phil Moellering, operations manager at the Gage Hotel at Marathon. I asked Will if it was a coincidence that two of the three judges had German names and he smiled enigmatically and said, “Could be.”
The winner of this year’s contest was Aubrey Simon, who comes from Georgetown, Texas and plans to become an animal physical therapist when she graduates. Simon’s entry was alligator-pork sausage, prepared 3 ways: pan-fried in patties for breakfast; boiled and then pan-fried in links for lunch, served with brown sugar bourbon beans; and smoked and served with dirty rice for dinner. I asked Simon if she had a Cajun background and she said, “No, I just like seasoned food.” She did buy the alligator meat at a grocery store in Austin called Stuffed, which specializes in Cajun food.
Of course, Will’s students learn far more than just how to make sausage from him, and many have gone on to responsible jobs in the meat industry. He has former students at H.E.B.’s central meat processing plant in San Antonio; at McDonald’s; at Ben E. Keith Foods; and at various state and federal food inspection agencies. One recent graduate works as a hunting guide, teaching novice hunters how to dress and preserve the game the kill.
Will retires at the end of this semester. He has already been granted emeritus status and is on a modified teaching schedule, and the University has named a lecture hall for him, marked with a big bronze plaque. I asked him what he planned to do in retirement, and he said, “Fool with my grandchildren.” And then he paused, smiled, and added “and make sausage for my friends.”
I hope our visit has made me a friend.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.