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Life's a Grind: For Volga Germans, its not Christmas Without Sausage on the Table

Obra, Joan. "Life's a Grind: For Volga Germans, its not Christmas Without Sausage on the Table." Fresno Bee, 20 December 2006.


Mike Ohlberg of Fresno loads up a rack with sausage at Renna's Meat Market. His grandfather, Dennis Ohlberg, was a longtime sausage maker.
It's almost Christmas, and Volga German sausage makers are hustling to fill their orders.

Dennis Ohlberg works the sausage stuffer in the Edison Social Club, gathering casings filled with ground meat and spices. Halfway across town, his grandson, Mike Ohlberg, hangs sausages from metal beams in Renna's Meat Market. And in Kerman, Helmuth Family Sausage churns out 200 to 300 pounds of sausage a day.

It's the busiest time of year for these men. The sausages — a blend of pork, beef, salt, pepper and garlic — may be everyday food, but they are essential to the Volga German Christmas table.

Volga Germans are part of a larger group of Germans from Russia, whose descendants number about 100,000 in the central San Joaquin Valley. That's the figure offered by David Foth, a volunteer with the local chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia.

Come Christmas, Foth explains, many Volga German families will cook the sausage, then slice and serve it alongside traditional dishes such as kuchen, or coffeecake.

"A lot of people like to barbecue it," says Jeff Helmuth of Helmuth Family Sausage. "Some customers, they have their own smoker at home, and they'll go and smoke it. Some like to cook it in a beer bath."

And others, including Helmuth, simply like to bake it in a pan with a little water. However it's cooked, it typically is served for Christmas dinner — or even Christmas breakfast.

The making of Volga German sausage is a centuries-old tradition that landed in Central California as a result of wars and changing politics. It was more widespread in the first half of the 20th century, when home cooks brought it here.

With maps and a chronology, Foth explains how Volga Germans (and their sausage) came to the Valley.

After the Seven Years War, a Europe-wide feud for control of colonial lands in the mid-18th century, some Germans looked for peace and a better economy.

Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia, encouraged immigrants to move to her land. According to her 1763 Manifesto, the newcomers would receive communal property, control their schools and churches, and have exemptions from military service and taxes. In most cases, they also would have religious freedom.

During the next five years, about 25,000 Germans headed to Russia, building farms and towns along the lower Volga River. It was here that the Volga German sausage evolved. Families experimented with ingredient amounts. They toyed with the fineness of the ground meat. And then there was the question of whether to smoke it or keep it fresh.

"Farmers there did sausage because they had no refrigeration," Dennis Ohlberg says. To preserve it longer, some smoked the meat.

Over time, the Volga German sausage became a unique product, Ohlberg says.

"When you go to Germany," he says, "the spices are different."

In 1871, politics shifted again. Russian emperor Alexander II revoked Catherine the Great's Manifesto, prompting a migration of Volga Germans and other Germans who had settled in what is now the southern and western Ukraine.

Within a few years, Volga Germans headed to South America and the midwestern United States.

In 1887, Volga German families arrived in Fresno. More followed, and a Germantown (also called "Roosiantown") evolved in southwest Fresno.

New German immigrants would head to Germantown to find work in industries such as construction and fruit packing, Foth says. After saving money, these Germans eventually bought farms, planting grapes and cotton and raising dairy cows.

On these farms, the Volga Germans took up their sausage tradition. In the historical society's museum, Foth points to a turn-of-the-century meat grinder and sausage stuffer. Such tools were common on family farms, he says.

Shops that sold the sausage also sprang up in Germantown. The longest-lasting one was Ohlberg's Food Center, launched by Alex Ohlberg in 1928.

Ohlberg grew up in the Kukkus village along the Volga River, says Dennis Ohlberg, his son. The elder Ohlberg's sausage carried the flavors of the old world.

"He started selling sausage as an item in the grocery market," Dennis Ohlberg says. Soon, it became a signature product. "It was our calling card."

The sausage maintained the business as the neighborhood changed. By the mid-1950s, Germantown declined as residents dispersed throughout the Valley, Foth says.

Ohlberg uses the same hand-cranked sausage stuffer that his grandfather did. The sausage is unique to Volga Germans, part of a larger group of Germans from Russia. Today, the signature meat is made primarily by older Volga German descendants.
In the early 1960s, Ohlberg's Food Center moved near First Street and Olive Avenue. By the 1970s, "our sausage kept us going when all the rest of the meat went down," Dennis Ohlberg says. And when he closed the shop in the late 1990s, the shelves carried few groceries — but the sausage was still in demand.

Luckily for the Valley's Volga Germans, Helmuth Family Sausage launched in Kerman before Ohlberg's closed.

This week is the busiest time of the year, Helmuth says. Families will order 20 to 30 pounds of fresh sausage at a time.

"We do it the old-fashioned way," Helmuth says. "We use fresh beef, pork, salt, pepper and garlic."

"It's pretty much all handmade," he adds. "The stuffing of sausage is done by hand. There's machinery out there, but to me that kind of loses something."

Mike Ohlberg agrees. For the past five years, he has been making his family's sausage for Renna's Meat Market at First Street and Ashlan Avenue.

He uses the same, hand-cranked sausage stuffer that his grandfather did. The smoker, which lightly infuses some of the meat with alder and maple flavor, also comes from Ohlberg's Food Center. Just in December alone, he'll stuff 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of sausage by hand.

And at the Edison Social Club last week, about 25 aging members gathered in the kitchen to make about 2,600 pounds of Volga German and Italian sausage, says Jim Fleming, the club's treasurer. These men, many in their 70s and 80s, did everything from scratch. They butchered and ground the meat, spiced it, stuffed it (under Dennis Ohlberg's watchful eye) and packaged it.

It all was pre-sold, with the money going to activities such as polka dances and bingo games.

The sausage, both fresh, right, and smoked, is put out for sale at Renna's Meat Market in Fresno.
With fewer younger folks learning the craft, the future of the Valley's handmade Volga German sausage rests with these old-timers or in shops such as Renna's and Helmuth Family Sausage.

"A lot of the people that work with our organization are older, and there's been kind of a reluctance in these later generations to get involved," Fleming says. "It's all volunteer work. I'm not overly optimistic that it's going to continue on. We're going to continue on as long as we're physically able to do it."

The reporter can be reached at jobra@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6365.

To order:

Renna's Meat Market: First Street and Ashlan Avenue, (559) 221-1350

Helmuth Family Sausage: 651 S. Madera Ave., Kerman, (559) 846-8728

 

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