For decades, the Pekarski family has made it their business to keep our taste buds happy
Mike turns kielbasa in smoker
John Pekarski making kielbasa
Mike fills the sausage machine with kielbasa meat
Mike fills a natural casing with the pork and beef mix that is kielbasa
John Pekarski, his wife Charlotte and son Michael Pekarski in front of their deli case full of their meats.
Mike Pekarski hangs raw kielbasa on smoking racks
John Pekarski fills casings while son Mike ties up the ends to hang on racks.
Combine ground pork and beef with some spices, stuff it into a hog intestine and then cook it in a smoker. Does that have your taste buds watering? Well, it should because one bite of a well-made kielbasa and all you’ll be thinking about is how darn good it tastes.
Certainly that’s true for the regular customers at Pekarski’s Sausage in South Deerfield. This past Easter, many Polish folks — and plenty more who aren’t Polish — made sure kielbasa was part of the meals served during family gatherings.
So, during the weeks leading up to Easter, the Pekarski family — son Mike and parents John and Charlotte — was kept busy getting ready for the demand, which ranges from 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of kielbasa during Easter alone.
In operation year-round for decades, Pekarski’s sells a wide variety of other smoked products, like sausage, hams, pork chops, bacon and plenty more. As for kielbasa, they boast four types, the regular selling for $6.49 a pound, while others containing cheese and hot cheese go for slightly more and an unsmoked variety sells for a bit less.
“We hear stories about kids that go away to college and when they come home to the area, they make sure their parents stop here for a meal,” said Mike Pekarski. “One thing they always tell their parents is that nothing is as good as what they ate growing up. Someone having an emotional response like that to our product gives you a lot of pride.”
You say kielbasi, I say kielbasa
There are multiple pronunciations for the name of the food and there are even more ways to prepare and eat it. A staple of Polish cuisine, kielbasa is literally the Polish word for sausage. To ask for kielbasa in Poland, however, would be like asking for cheese at a deli in America. There are dozens of varieties, though the one best known in America refers to the smoked Polish sausage and it’s the smoking process that separates kielbasa from other sausages. Still, no two companies produce the same kielbasa.
“You can go to any butcher or any smokehouse and there are that many different tasting kielbasas,” Mike Pekarski said. “The ingredients may be the same, but every place has a different taste.”
The Polish Government actually has standards for each variety. Leave it up to the Poles to have kielbasa specifications, right?
According to the government, smoked Polish sausage was made entirely of pork until 1964, when a second version was introduced that consisted of 80 percent pork and 20 percent beef. Other ingredients, such as salt, pepper, sugar, garlic and marjoram, are also part of the recipe, although marjoram is optional.
In America, major manufacturers use varying recipes. Some use only pork, while others also use beef and turkey. The spices can also vary significantly. So, knowing exactly what goes into the kielbasa you buy is important.
The Pekarski family has been running their business since 1948, when it was a custom slaughterhouse started by T. Walter Sr. and Mary Pekarski. The family continued to operate as a slaughterhouse until the mid-1960s, which is when the business began producing sausage. There were a number of reasons for this switch from slaughtering to producing meat products.
“Guys were going out and getting jobs, there was nobody at home to raise an animal,” John Pekarski said. “Things were cheap at that time and there was no real good living on the farm.”
The government also made things difficult for smaller operations by constantly tightening its rules and regulations. In 1966, Pekarski’s became a full-time sausage shop. It was a part of a wider trend. At one time, nearly every town had a butcher, just as it had many other shops that helped the town thrive. Mike Pekarski said he remembers John and Rudy’s in Sunderland as another local butcher shop. But during that period of change, he said many of those butchers became convenience stores. It was just part of the changing times: people stopped raising their own food and instead started getting it at stores.
After Pekarski’s made the switch in 1966, the family delivered meat for a brief period, but that stopped in the 1970s. Then, in January 1981, the family closed up shop as many of its members were doing other things. The business remained closed for 10 years until Mike Pekarski, along with his parents, decided to give it another shot. There was one major problem. The building was closer to needing demolition than it was to being the home of a business and the family needed capital to buy equipment. That is where a banker named Matt Noska comes into the story. Noska, who has since passed away, was a banker at United Bank and Mike Pekarski said that, because he knew the family, Noska decided to take the risk and grant them a loan.
“Him knowing my mother and father’s integrity, he said, ‘Yeah, you guys can do this.’” Mike Pekarski explained. “We worked hard together to get the business back up and running ... we dusted off an old recipe book, we refurbished our old building, and the gamble paid off because here we are almost 22 years later.”
The perfect meat
Today, you could go to a grocery store and pick up a mass-produced variety of kielbasa, but to do that would be to sell yourself short in the flavor department. Around these parts, it doesn’t get much better than Pekarski’s and Blue Seal (based out of Chicopee). What makes these products superior? Well, while Pekarski won’t spilling all the beans, he did give up a few secrets.
Of course the meat is going to make a difference. The Pekarskis don’t raise any of their own animals, buying all the high-end meat they use, such as Boston boneless butts and choice beef. Unlike some businesses that use trimmings and scraps, the Pekarskis take solid pieces of meat and cut and trim it to make kielbasa.
“If you start with something good, you will finish with something good,” Mike Pekarski said.
Another secret comes in the amount of fat in the kielbasa, which Pekarski said is important to bring out the flavor of the spices used. That being said, too much or too little fat can ruin the product.
“Without fat, you won’t taste anything because the pork fat wakes up the spices,” Pekarski said.
Conversely, too much fat will make the kielbasa greasy and it will shrink down as the fat gets cooked out. Try cooking a mass-produced kielbasa next to a Blue Seal or Pekarski’s and you’ll notice the mass-produced one is much smaller when you go to serve it.
Another important piece to the puzzle of how to make the perfect kielbasa is to use the same exact amount of spices in every batch. Pekarski’s uses a recipe that the family developed right here in western Massachusetts.
“We weigh everything out so there’s consistency in every batch,” Mike Pekarski explained. “Every batch has to be perfect. We use the same amount of meat and the same spices, every time.”
The meat and spices are combined in a giant metal drum that slowly churns it all together to get an even mix. When Pekarski makes the kielbasa, he starts with 200 pounds of ground sausage, mixing it together before transferring it into the machine that pushes it into the casing. The casings are all-natural hog intestines that arrive packed in water and salt solution. The casings must soak in water for about 12 to 24 hours to bring the salt out, and then they are ready to be filled with sausage.
This process begins with pouring the kielbasa mixture into a large drum that looks kind of like a funnel with a spigot at the bottom. The casings, varying in length from 15 to 30 feet, slide onto the spigot (much like you would put a water balloon over a faucet to fill it up), and the operator uses the side of his leg to press a pedal, which slowly releases the sausage through the nozzle and into the casing. Once the kielbasa is long enough (each roughly weighs a pound and a half), a knife is used to cut the casing and the product is placed onto a table, where it piles up. This process continues until the casing is all used up. Then, the operator slides another casing on the machine, and repeats the process over and over again.
Once the sausage is packed, there are still a few steps left before it’s time to smoke the kielbasa. Mike Pekarski and some of the other four full-time workers at the store stand around the large table with the piled kielbasa and tie up their ends. Some operations will use the casing ends as a tie, but Mike Pekarski uses a small string because, he said, if the casing is not tied just right, it can break during the smoking process and ruin the kielbasa. Once the kielbasas are tied off, Mike Pekarski hangs each on a long wooden pole made out of oak. It’s then hung on an enormous rack that will go into the smoker.
Up in smoke
It’s now time to begin the smoking process. The Pekarskis have two new smokers that were built in 2007 and one old smoker built back in the 1960s. There is a pulley system that runs along the top of the ceiling that allows the giant smoking racks to be easily moved into and out of the smokers. These are small rooms, roughly 10 feet deep, 9 feet wide and 16 feet tall. One rack can hold up to 600 pounds of kielbasa at a time. As for the smoking process, Pekarski’s uses hickory, apple wood and rock maple to smoke all their meats, going through between 35 to 38 cords of wood each year. The smoker is kept at between 180 to 185 degrees the entire time the kielbasa is being smoked, which takes about four hours. When the kielbasa comes out, it’s full cooked. One interesting fact is that the weather can affect the smoker — high pressure makes it harder to maintain the heat, while it’s easier for the family to keep a constant temperature on low-pressure days. During the Easter season, Mike Pekarski said they can smoke kielbasa as many as three or four times a week, but generally it’s done a couple of times per week.
If you’ve never had kielbasa, it’s hard to explain the taste. Even Pekarski was at a loss for words when asked. Perhaps the answer to the question of taste is best determined by how far people are willing to travel to get their hands on the perfect kielbasa. Pekarski said local regulars come into the shop all the time, as do people from all over New England. They have even received inquires about shipping the product around the country, including a recent request from Texas. But due to regulations, the family is unable to ship anything. So, if you want it, you have to stop by the South Deerfield shop.
“There are so few businesses like ours in existence,” Pekarski said. “It’s really nice to see someone in their 80s tell us that this place smells like their grandmother’s kitchen. When you touch someone that way, and bring them back to their childhood, that’s really special.”
Hey, the warm weather is upon us and that doesn’t just mean putting away the winter clothes. It’s also time to pull out the grill, and what better way to welcome it back for another season than by tossing on a kielbasa?
Writers note: Due to the recent Easter rush, Pekarski’s was sold out of many things and is still in the process of restocking its shelves. The family will have kielbasa and sausage, but some of the other meats may not be on the shelves for another week.
Staff reporter Jason Butynski covers sports for The Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 256.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.