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Not-So-Exotic Culture This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     Spain, with its bullfights and stone towers.France, the country of love. England, boaster of Big Ben and the Royal Family.Italy, home to glorious cathedrals older than the United States. Most peopledream of a trip to Europe, a month or two traversing the countries, learning thelanguages, taking in the sites and cultures. So did I. But sometimes, a driveacross the flat plains of Kansas is the only traveling necessary to encounter oneof the most diverse cultures of all: American culture.

Every year withoutfail, my family journeys through the scenic land of hawks perched on power linesand towering grain elevators to my grandparents' farm in Humboldt, Kansas. Thetown remains unknown to most, and for good reason. Nothing ever happens there,except for one day in January. My family doubles the town's population as we rollinto the outskirts, feeling something like pioneers in motorized covered wagons,endeavoring to try something no one else has before. Saddle up the old SUV andthrow some old clothes in the trunk, because Sausage-Making Weekend hasarrived.

As we roll up the gravel driveway on Saturday morning, I have toresist the temptation to laugh. Very few in this world have the good fortune toparticipate in a family sausage-making extravaganza. In fact, as far as I cantell, my family is the only one.

My Italian heritage created this quirkytradition, but beyond its beginnings, our practices are far from ethnic. We donot don extravagant costumes from the mother country or dance around in circleschanting foreign words, yet we display the richest American culturepossible.

Saturday morning begins with three jobs and more than 30 peoplerunning from house to shop to garage and back again multiple times. A group offive sits at my grandma's kitchen table, entrusted with the most sought-afterjob: cleaning the garlic. By the end, we all deeply regret the fact that asMurrills, we have to put at least twice as much garlic into the sausage spices asother humans. Plus, heaven forbid we buy precleaned garlic! Our family sticks totradition, and back in Italy, a family gave thanks for coming across a bulb ofgarlic. No, no straying from Ye Olde Italia at our house. Instead, we cut ourfingers raw and squeeze those garlic cloves until the juice invades our wounds.The smell overwhelms the room. My nose smells nothing but garlic for daysafterward.

Second only to the fumes of garlic, the majestic gut cleaningunfolds in the utility room. Exactly as it sounds, four people semi-sanitize thehundreds of pig intestines used for sausage casings. Those emit a distinct, mustyodor found nowhere else on the planet. After that disgusting job, those bravesoldiers earn the respect of all present. They can usually be excused fromworking for the rest of the day.

The last job of the morning, performed inthe shop just 20 feet from my grandparents' house, is boning the meat. Again, nopre-boned meat for us. We will never stoop to that level (until I am in charge).Instead, 12 people spend two hours cutting and slicing and chucking the meat intobins, which will weigh on average 525 pounds.

All the while, buzzingmerrily in the background is polka music. Yes, polka music. No folk songs fromdays gone by or Italian opera sung by Pavarotti, but polka music by Joe Napote.Once in awhile, above the din of knives and conversation, protests of the musicselection burst forth that no one heeds. Uncle Mike sometimes becomes so bold asto switch to Led Zeppelin, but that only lasts one minute before the "moreexperienced" generation attempts to "fix" the tape player. I havedanced to a polka song once in my 17 years, and my greatest ambition is never tosuffer through it again.

The boning complete, the guts and garlic cleaned,the grinding begins. Far from taking the endeavor seriously, peals of laughterecho in the tiny shop as bits of raw meat shoot from the grinder and around theroom. (I had crusted beef on my jeans for the rest of the day.) Blessedparticipants shove their hands into the freezing meat to mix thespices.

The grinder devours the meat a second time after the mixing inchunks of 75 to 100 pounds, and then it must be stuffed into the casings. Tostuff the sausage, we have what cannot even be called machines that requireturning a handle and many minutes to complete one link. Uncle Mark, impatient andirritated with the time-consuming device, decides to try his hand at modernizingthe process. Among gales of laughter and murmurs of, "What in the world areyou doing, Mark?" he hooks up the battery-powered drill to the turningmechanism. As the drill motors away, the ground meat shoots out of the end andinto the casing like a hungry kid into Mom's kitchen, and everyone hails UncleMark, King of the Sausage World. The glory lasts until the battery dies. Marktries an electric drill, but aborts this as a fire hazard when the drill beginsto smoke. Our beautiful, magnificent moment in the sun comes to a close, but theidea of bringing technology to Sausage-Making Weekend will forever dwell in ourbrains.

We make no claim to orthodoxy, no effort to maintain customs, noattempt to flaunt the Italian blood coursing through our veins. Instead of a12-hour plane ride to Sicily, we make a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Humboldt. Noscenery, no dancing, no rapid vocalizations or extravagant accents. But what wedo have is an atmosphere filled with family, love and sausage, and the ability toenjoy even the most whimsical traditions. We have American culture.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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