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Old neighbors link up for sausage fest

by: Carole Archer, Original neighbor Joi Raihala of Vancouver, center, has been attending the annual holiday sausage party since 1977. Son Brett Burmeister, left, and “honorary son” Tomas Cernansky, originally of Slovakia, make the sausage in a 1920s press that the Burmeisters inherited from a great aunt and uncle in 1979.

'Traditions you don't plan. They just happen,' says Jan Burmeister.

On Saturday night, Nov. 25, tradition happened again at the home of Bruce and Jan Burmeister. Their home on Jenne Road, which started life as a barn, was filled with 68 people anywhere from 2 to 6-feet tall, and anywhere from 2 months to 90 years old, along with two antagonist Chihuahuas and a mellow dog of indeterminate breed named Doorock who licks up spills for a living.

It was a good night to be a floor-licking dog, because the Burmeisters were making sausage.

They make Potatiskorv, Swedish potato sausage. It is a nod to Jan's family tree. They also make bratwurst, Polish sausage and venison sausage. But don't go looking for some deep-seated need to reclaim ethnic roots.

This tradition began in the 1970s in suburban Gresham, an accident of mortgage, when four families bought houses in the same neighborhood at Southeast 162nd Avenue and Mill Street and became lifelong friends. These days they call themselves the 'core group.'

'Houses were $13,000 on an FHA loan,' remembers Ken Thrasher. His wife Marta played bunco with Jan Burmeister. Dick and Mary Jo Kaufman and Don and Linda Belshaw were neighbors as well. Just for something to do, they got a notion to make their own sausage.

The first party

'We had the first sausage party at Jan and Bruce's because they were the first ones to add on to their house,' remembers Thrasher. 'Jan Burmeister rounded up a recipe. They got a big funnel from Schuck's Auto Parts, the kind for changing oil, nailed it to the kitchen counter, and used a wooden dowel to poke the sausage mixture down the funnel and into the sausage casings.

It was such a hoot they decided to do it again. And that's how traditions, and sausages, are made.

Thirty years ago the Burmeisters moved to their present home and the party followed. Now second and third generations come to decorate cookies, eat lefse oozing cinnamon, sugar and butter, and yes, sausage. They serve it up with a spread of salads and potato dishes brought by the guests. You can't have too much potato starch at a Swedish party.

'We gotta be the luckiest people in the world to have this many people come, work their heads off, bring their own food and come back,' says Jan Burmeister, a retired sixth-grade teacher from Pleasant Valley. 'The part about it that warms my heart is that these people who were children come back and bring their children.'

How it begins

Sausage making begins about 3 p.m. and people start piling into the house. Bruce Burmeister, a retired shop and drafting teacher from Grant High School, inherited an antique press that is a lot classier than the Schuck's funnel pressing sausage into the casings. Son, Brett, 35, supervises the job, but there are always plenty of people willing to help. The Burmeisters' other two children, Heidi Sutton, 38, and Heath, 40, are there with their children.

'This next generation needs to know, because pretty soon we'll be blubbering in the corner,' Jan says.

She starts baking the sausage early in the afternoon, reheating it just before the meal. And then comes daughter Heidi Sutton's favorite part. Well, everybody's favorite part, really.

Just before the meal the whole crowd circles the laden table to sing a blessing to the tune 'Edelweiss.'

Jan Burmeister pauses to remind the crowd that there are two new sets of newlyweds. Others remember a friend, a regular at the party, who died at Thanksgiving.

'This will be the first time,' Jan says, 'that I don't get to kid her when she leaves the party about checking her purse. She and I had the same silver pattern.'

And then they sing the words and there are not many dry eyes in the house.

'Bless our friends, bless our food,

Come, oh Lord, and be with us.

May our hearts glow with peace,

Come with your love and surround us.

Friendship and love, may it bloom and grow,

Bloom and grow forever.

Bless our friends, bless our food,

Come, oh Lord, and be with us.

Amen.'

Jan and Bruce post the words on the walls so no one can plead ignorance. And not long ago the 'core group' gave the Burmeisters the words in framed calligraphy.

Guests have come from Washington and California. Many families bring three generations.

It is not a party to miss. 'You have to do it. You can't miss it. It's part of the Christmas season,' said Linda Nutter of Port Angeles, Wash.

Matt Kaufman of Bend, second generation, has brought all his children. He will treasure the funny stories of the old neighborhood, his dad setting a bush on fire in a misbegotten attempt at extermination; Bruce Burmeister carrying a discarded jungle gym across the roof. And nearly every guest spends part of the evening thumbing through the party scrapbooks watching everybody grow older.

'My sister's old boyfriends,' Kaufman says with relish. 'They're all in here.'

After the clean up the group gathers at the piano and an organ to sing Christmas carols. 'It sounds a little too Currier and Ives, or Norman Rockwell, but it's real and it's a hoot,' said Heidi Sutton.

Swedish Potatiskorv Recipe

5 pounds of ground beef

3 pounds of ground pork

10 pounds of potatoes

1 pound of onions

A heaping teaspoon of pepper

1 tablespoon of allspice

1/2 cup of salt

Peel potatoes and onions. The Burmeisters use old-fashioned hand grinders for potatoes. They have a food processor, but they say that wouldn't be 'any fun.' The children love to do crank the hand grinders. The pieces of potato and onion should be a little smaller than pea-sized. 'Then you get in there with your hands and mix it up,' says Bruce Burmeister.

The sausage press they use appears in the replica Sears Roebuck catalog as a lard press. Burmeister inherited his. One person cranks while another pushes down on the mixture to keep up the pressure. The sausage casings are purchased from White's Meats in Gresham.

Most recipes call for baking the sausage at 375 degrees for an hour. Jan Burmeister says it is important to prick the casing with a fork to keep the sausage from splitting.