The traffic is fast but not too heavy on Route 6, east of its urban stretch. Out here, Euclid-Chardon Road is more often called the GAR Highway. If you’re flying along this scenic, hilly road, maybe distracted by its name—Isn’t gar a type of long-snouted fish?—you’ll likely overlook the homemade sign pointing south on Heath Road, running along the Chagrin River’s east branch.
The sign’s acronym origins are Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednota, or Slovene National Benefit Society. The national fraternal organization formed in 1904, offering financial assistance, insurance, and a social network to Slovenian immigrants and their descendants. The society’s activity revolves around community lodges, of which Cleveland has many. In 1939, six of these lodges founded the SNPJ farm, their rural retreat in Kirtland. Here dances, concerts, dinners, and festivals have been hosted for three-quarters of a century. During the most recent 13 of those years, people of varying degrees of Slavic heritage have converged on the farm in mid-September to celebrate a prized feature of Slovenian culture—smoked sausage. With nary a splice of Slavic DNA, I attended the festival last year hosted by the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame Museum.
The grassy field that serves as a parking lot fills up with sedans for the noon start of the Wednesday festival, and a steady stream of people—mostly retirees—make their way to the farm’s recreation area. Filing into the entrance built to look like a village hut, I am given a yellow ticket—my ballot for the People’s Choice for best Slovenian smoked sausage.
Early in the festival, things are pretty lively. People are talking and laughing in an open pavilion, where globe lights and colorful paper lanterns dangle from the rafters over a glossy concrete dance floor surrounded by tables. Others congregate around awning-covered picnic tables that overlook three lanes of busy bocce ball courts under a high canopy of walnut trees, frightfully loaded with nuts. Still others occupy islands of fold-out lawn chairs around an outdoor stage built of cinder block and concrete. A pop-up canopy and black pipe railing put the squeeze on a 15-piece band consisting of one sax, one bass, one drum, and two tubas. The rest of the band is composed of accordions. Others slowly make their way past tables of sale items including CDs of the many performers; old LPs of pop Slovenian acts, waltzes, and polkas; kazoos; spiral-bound cookbooks; signs warning “Parking for (insert specific Slavic group) Only!” and a full line of pro-Slovenian T-shirts.
I make my way to where the sausage is.
Cultural Heritage of Humanity
I meet my first Slovenian traditional smoked sausage at Rudy’s Quality Meats. Don Smiley, whose in-laws own the 80-year-old Willowick business, oversees two turkey fryers perched above blue propane flames. They are filled with boiling sausages. He gives me a sample on a toothpick. Amused by my expression, Don offers an apt description—“buttery deliciousness.” I concur.
Slovenian smoked sausage, also known as kranjska klobasa, was given protected geographical indication status in 2015 by the United Nation’s Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). What for Slovenians is a homemade staple, UNESCO recognizes for its Medieval origins, the result of traditional folk knowledge passed along generations of Slovenians as an example of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” The oldest-known written recipe dates to 1896. While it undoubtedly varies somewhat by time, place, and preparer, kranjska klobasa is a pork sausage with up to 20% bacon, spiced with garlic, black pepper, and sea salt. Stuffed into pork casing, it is cured and lightly smoked.
I make my way to the next sample. At Azman Quality Meats, Jeanne serves me a small sample with a big claim—“best damn sausage in Cleveland.” She directs me to the owner of the Euclid business, Bill Azman. Wearing a 1950s-style fold-out paper hat straight from the carhop or soda shop, he is tall and affable. He works a grill and holds easy conversations enshrouded in a cloud of greasy smoke.
As I wait my turn to talk to him, two men determine whether they’ve received the correct sausage. Thinking that Slovenian smoked sausage was the thing here, I ask one of the men what the confusion was about. He explains that the other man wanted rice sausage while he wanted the blood sausage because “it’s better.” By now, Bill is aware of my loitering and takes over the explanation, with a sizable sample of each sausage. Turns out, the only difference between rice sausage and blood sausage is the blood. The sausage is creamy, as if risotto had been squeezed into a sausage casing. It’s so rich, I wonder if I can manage to eat at the three other vendors at the festival. (Spoiler: I managed).
I point out that I taste unusual spices. Bill nods enthusiastically and lists them—cinnamon, cloves, rubbed marjoram, pepper. Then, with much enthusiasm, he reveals the irresistible ingredient that goes into the sausage—cracklins—the crispy bits of fatty skin and meat that crumbs off frying pork. “You know, the stuff you just wanna eat,” he says, his fingers wiggling in front of his happy mouth.
The Sausage that Binds Us
Bill Azman mentions that 2017 is the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s start at making sausage by the recipe he developed and passed down the generations. Turns out that his cousin—Frank Azman of Cleveland’s Azman & Son Market—will be celebrating the same event. I introduce myself to Frank, the next vendor, who is working a meat slicer.
Understandably, he seems reluctant to switch his attention to me, with my pen and notepad signifying myself as a reporter. A few silent moments later, he pauses and reaches down for a slice of rye bread into which he folds the meat, abruptly hands it to me, and returns to slicing. I taste the offering. Unlike what I’ve sampled so far, this is not buttery, especially greasy, or creamy. It’s meaty, with a spicy tingle that lingers. What he’s slicing is thick—perhaps four to six inches in diameter. Looking on, I ask “What am I eating?” “Zelodec. It’s sausage meat stuffed in a big intestine,” he replies. For size, he makes a circle with both hands, thumb to thumb, finger to finger, then returns to work.
John Komar, a volunteer and a longtime friend who helps in the shop, has been watching this interaction and offers me respite with a bowl of thick, creamy barley soup, a traditional recipe that is prized in the winter. As I turn toward my next sausage vendor, John says, “Puchas. Take it easy.”
At the counter of the Raddell’s Sausage Shop kiosk, the flow of customers is quick and constant. Youthfully attending their demands are the Raddell brothers. Zak, 24, is working the counter while Jay, 30, is manning the grill. Their father, Tom, owns the fourth-generation shop in the Waterloo District of Cleveland. Both brothers claim that they’ve been working there since they could hold a broom, when their father paid them 25 cents an hour. Today, both brothers do it all and are taking over the business. Jay’s sons (6 and 2) have taken up sweeping.
I accept a sample of their smoked sausage and ask Zak what he prefers to put on his sausage. I’ve seen sauerkraut and horseradish and mustard toppings offered but have tried none of it. Ketchup, Zak answers. That doesn’t sound very traditional, I respond, and he smiles and says that’s what he likes. I realize that I’m witnessing the Americanization of Slovenian sausage—the inexorable changes that happen when a cuisine is relocated, colliding with new ingredients and food traditions, while simultaneously passed to a younger generation that has grown up with a different food sensibility. Either change alone can alter cuisine, but here both were factors. Zak and Jay have not been to the Old Country. Their dad hasn’t either. Still, everyone I talk to here has maintained their adherence to an Old World family recipe and Jay assures that, as they transition the business from father to sons, they are doing so with as little disturbance to sourcing and recipe as possible.
I ask how one man’s business will sustain two sons. Jay says they’re doubling the family business by maintaining their small neighborhood shop of regular walk-in customers while expanding via online orders and overnight nationwide shipping, with customers placing orders from as far as Alaska and Hawaii.
One last contender to go. I decide I first need a palate cleanser and get a bowl of Raddell’s sauerkraut. Made at the store with fresh cabbage, its mouth-puckering acidity feels good. Revived, I move on.
A Facsimile, of Sorts
Denise is alone when I arrive at the pop-up tent of Harry’s Hofbrau*. I introduce myself and grab a sample of their smoked sausage. It nearly bursts in my mouth, perhaps the richest of the smoked sausages I’ve tried today. Denise’s husband and chef-owner Tom Quick started the business with his brother just a year earlier in Mentor. Everyone else here is running a multigenerational institution in or near a Slavic neighborhood. Tom’s claim to the Old Country is a mom who’s half-Slovenian and a recipe that, I gather, has some family roots but was developed, largely, by Tom.
It was a ballsy move to enter a sausage contest, up against established fixtures in the Slovenian community, held at their own club farm and hosted by a polka museum. Tom’s confidence reaches back to his training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco during the late 1980s. Following that education, Tom returned to Cleveland determined to drag Cleveland away from its Midwestern 1950s food sensibility into the future. In 1992, he and Michael Symon launched Piccolo Mondo in the Warehouse District. Cleveland’s culinary revolution had begun.
As I’m wondering about Tom’s sausage cred, one of the official judges, Joe Valencic, approaches to tell us that it’s about time to submit our ballots. Joe is also the president of the farm’s board of directors and of the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame Museum. He has just returned from the Slovenian Sausage fest in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. He informs me that Cleveland has the largest Slovenian population outside of Slovenia and that the sausage is just as good. As he’s talking, Denise cuts into a Harry Hofbrau sausage, which squirts molten fat in a greasy arch to Joe’s nodding approval. There’s actually a Slovenian adage, Joe promises me, that “a good sausage must squirt every time.” Seems Tom’s sausage has passed that test.
It’s getting later, and the population of attendees reflects the time change. Younger adults off work have brought their school-age children, who chase each other up a grassy hillside, while their parents settle into conversation with food and beer. The scattered festival-goers follow the music and crowd into the pavilion, where couples dance. The changes have transformed a dispersed crowd of acquaintances into a vibrant, tight-knit community.
I hurriedly submit my sausage vote, the culmination of my day of extensive reporting, and join the crowd in the pavilion. Soon the dancing is interrupted for the award announcements.
The People’s Choice award goes to Bill Azman, with second place awarded to the Raddell brothers.
Coincidentally, the official judges award in kind, but this wasn’t a cut-throat competition. Rather, the competition serves to bring together a multigenerational community under a pavilion of shared heritage. It is an opportunity to celebrate a culture that has survived oceans of time and water, managing to keep hold of its cherished cuisine.
For details on this year’s Slovenian Sausage Fest, visit PolkaFame.com.
*Editor’s Note: since Steve’s visit to last year’s festival, Harry’s Hofbrau has closed.