By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
Denny Gray, proprietor of Al’s Quality Market, in Barberton, Ohio, opens the door of his smoker. Hot, white clouds billow out forcefully enough to fog glasses and make eyes tear, and the fragrances of garlic, summer sausage, and spareribs fill the air. “Here is our magic,” he exults, “smoking like a freight train!”
Despite his way with words—and wood—Gray has only been a slam poet of pork since 2005, when he bought Al’s. “I have no meat background,” Gray readily admits. “I sold bearings.” But as a Barbertonian devoted to Al’s, he could not resist when he heard the place might be for sale.
Dick Buehrle, the Sausage King of Barberton, owned Al’s until 1999, and he still appears on Saturdays for three or four hours to chew the fat with customers who are old friends. The royal title is not official, of course, but just about every sausage fancier in Barberton, or for that matter in most of Akron (of which Barberton is a southwest suburb), acknowledges the authority of Buehrle along with that of Al’s, where he worked for half a century.
While he’s there, Buehrle also makes sausage just beyond the wall where eight-by-ten publicity photos of noted local accordionists are on display. The rest of the week, the meat man is Gray, whom Buehrle taught the formulas for the spice mixes that give each kind of sausage its distinct flavor. He makes Hungarian and Slovenian sausage, as well as five other smoky links, plus netted cottage hams, stingers (extremely spicy snack sticks), twice-smoked bacon frosted with garlic and paprika, and head cheese made from tongue, skin, snouts, and an explosive measure of red pepper. “Spice isn’t the only thing that makes the difference,” Gray explains. “It’s using the right cuts of pork, and it’s technique—knowing how to grind, spice, and stuff, and how to operate the smokehouse.”
Sausage is made in 100-pound batches, starting with butts and picnic shoulders that are sometimes so large that Gray has to stand on a ladder to feed them into his grinder. “This old dinosaur is from the 1950s,” he says, patting a big silver contraption that is dented and worn but operating-theater clean. “When something breaks and I try to order parts, the company laughs at me. We’re lucky because we’ve got a local machine shop that can fashion what we need.”
Showing how the pork is ground and cased in long, dense spirals, he demonstrates the importance of having a sensitive touch when you feel the casing slide off the horn. Buehrle taught him how to ensure that each sausage is uniformly packed and free of air pockets. “Air pockets lead to quick spoilage and discoloration,” says Gray. “That’s the difference between us and a big-store sausage stuffer. It’s also why ours look pretty—that and because we link them by hand.”
Al’s Quality Market is not licensed to sell meat wholesale, so if you don’t have your own stove or grill nearby, the only place to taste it is at Al’s Corner Restaurant, half a block away. Run by Gray’s wife, Beth, this amazing diner is so much a corollary of the butcher shop that until recently it didn’t have its own phone number. If you wanted to contact the restaurant, you called the meat market and someone would run down the block to deliver the message. It is the sort of inconspicuous city café that a passing motorist might never notice, but a broad storefront window affords pedestrians an inviting view of the day’s strudels, loaves of beer bread, and lunch-counter offerings.
You won’t spend $10 on a full meal at Al’s, which is open five days a week, for lunch only. The menu is strictly old-world: chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage rolls, pierogies, halushka (cabbage and dumplings), and, of course, sausages from the market. (Al’s café, like the butcher shop, showcases an under appreciated treasure of America’s diverse regional menu: the eastern European food of northern Ohio. Aside from Al’s, Akron’s highlights include the New Era Cafe, which has been known since 1932 for Friday duck, Saturday goulash, and great strudel every day; and the Kenmore Marketplace, a meat shop, on the site of an old meatpacking plant, where the inventory includes the Balkan sausage called ćevapi and whole heads of brined sour cabbage for making holubtsi—the stuffed cabbage rolls local eaters know as “pigs in a blanket.”)
Al’s is strikingly immaculate. As the lunch hour begins, every red-upholstered chair at the long, U-shaped counter is precisely arranged with its back at the exact same angle. Salt and pepper shakers are positioned in perfect symmetry with spring-loaded metal napkin dispensers. The counter, booths, and tables—even the walls, floor, and ceiling—are spotless. Hot dishes are marshaled in gleaming silver trays behind a glass case where servers take your order and arrange a meal of paradigmatic old-world home cooking on disposable plates.
It’s proletarian food, and ruggedly handsome. Mashed potatoes are creamy and a little bit lumpy—just about perfect in their unadorned state but dramatically improved when they are topped with a ladleful of the robust gravy, which fairly glows with the flavor of good paprika. The only reason not to order mashed potatoes is to concentrate on the magical combination of chewy little nokedli dumplings and al dente bits of cabbage that make up halushka. It is tender, and rich beyond measure. We ask Beth Gray the secret. “Butter, of course. Lots and lots of butter.”
Two kinds of sausage are brought over from the market; they are sold either on a plate and topped with sauerkraut, peppers, and onions and surrounded by side dishes, or stuffed into a roll to make a sandwich. Hungarian sausage delivers a pepper-garlic punch. Slovenian sausage is milder and juicier. Both are so well packed that you hear a spurt when your plastic knife slices through the casing and the smell of spicy pork swirls up in a savory cloud. Al’s sausages are so popular that Gray told us he makes 15 tons during the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day. “The smokehouse never stops, and I never sleep. Barberton celebrates with sausage.”
Al’s Quality Market //