Johnny in the Bag, made by Stehlin’s Meats, Bevis, Ohio.
This past weekend I spoke at the Bockfest Cultural Series at the Woodward Theatre, about the sordid history of some of our Cincinnati Germanic sausages. We are all familiar with our Cincinnati Brat, Mett, and even the Currywurst. But, they all have a bit of a ‘lost in translation’ journey from the product that originated in Germany to the final form we see in Cincinnati. One of the sausages I spoke about is called “Johnny in the Bag.” I had never heard of this sausage until recently and certainly had never tasted it.
I learned about this sausage from an old family story called “The Great Sausage Flight of 1952.” In 1952, Jack Dorsel, the grandson of the founder of Dorsel Pinhead Oats, was living in Dallas, Texas, with his wife Loretta Brosey Dorsel. Now Loretta was my maternal grandmother’s aunt, namesake, and godmother. If you are a fan of goetta, you know that pinhead oats are the key ingredient to this local beloved grain sausage. Apparently Jack complained to all his family back home, how hard it was to find good German sausages in Texas, and that he couldn’t find any as good as the ones in Cincinnati.
So, Jack’s favorite nephew, William and his wife packed up two suitcases full of sausages – 8 pounds of Cincinnati metts, 5 of Cincinnati brats, and three five pound Johnny in the Bag sausages. They boarded a day flight with nothing else, and presented this sausage hoard to their beloved uncle so he’d stop his complaining. Now that’s love! It was such a big deal, the Dallas newspaper photographed Uncle Jack, nephew William and wife with their sausages, documenting this local delicacy.
Jack Dorsel and his Christmas Sausages.
So the scarcity of this strange delicacy fascinated me. I consulted my Dad, my go-to sausage and meat authority, and he knew of Johnny in the Bag. It was something he had seen at the local meat market in his youth, and probably something served at the parties of the Germanic clubs of which my grandfather was a member – the ‘Bund” and Top Notchers in North College Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati. Had I discovered a lost ark of our Germanic sausage world?
On my sausage archaeology quest, I found only one local Germanic meat market still making Johnny in the Bag. That craft-maker of Germanic wursts is Stehlin’s Meats on Colerain Avenue. Apparently Johnny in the Bag was available as early as the 1930s, until fairly recently, at many of the meat markets at Findley Market downtown. Johnny in the Bag, also known as Johnny in the Sack, is a pork blood sausage that’s made with rye meal, and bits of fat or bacon. The pork blood is cooked and reduced with rye meal until it is thick enough to congeal and thicken at room temperature, then it’s pressed into a linen bag the size of a lunchmeat loaf, and allowed to dry, sometimes smoked. It’s typically sliced thin like lunchmeat, or cut thicker and pan fried.
But, in 2010 there was a scare with pork blood cakes being imported from Asia, particularly Taiwan. There was concern that they weren’t being produced safely, and they might be a vessel for pork bred sicknesses. The Los Angeles papers reported the USDA had banned their importation and production in the U.S. They hysteria that popped up discouraged meat markets all over the country, including Cincinnati, to stop making blood sausages, like Johnny in the Bag. Thus the reason for the scarcity of this product locally. But, thankfully for those who enjoy a good blood sausage, Stehlin’s won’t be bullied by hysteria to stop manufacturing this Germanic delicacy.
In Germany there is a long culture of a variety of bloodsausages or blutwurst. Beutelwurst is the ancestor of our Johnny in the Bag, and it hails from North Germany, in the area of Westphalia and Lower Saxony, which also happens to be Goetta Country. Beutel means bag in German. To Westphalians, it is also known by a nickname, Punkerbrot. It is one of the oldest types of sausages in Germany, and was invented out of necessity in a time of meat scarcity. It was typically made right at slaughter time, because the pork blood had to be processed almost immediately or it would coagulate and be useless. Like goetta, the beutelwurst, was about farm economy, and using every part of the pig from tail to snout.
Beutelwurst is a blood sausage that is stuffed into a linen or paper bag, rather than a natural casing, and allowed to dry for several weeks. The blood is mixed with fat, bacon, and with rye flour. Then chopped onions and spice are added – typically marjoram, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, salt and pepper. It is then boiled in the bag and allowed to dry. The Deutsche Lebensmittelbuch or German Food Code 2.232.12 specifies that Westphalian Beutelwurst must contain rye meal. There is also an old Pommeranian/Silesian/Prussian recipe for beutelwurst that contains potatoes.
Although fully cooked and ready to eat, beutelwurst in Germany is typically pan fried and served in a variety of ways. In Saxony, fried slices of Beutelwurst are served with Knipp, a grain sausage cousin of goetta, in a dish called Knipp un Buddelwurst. In Berlin, there’s a dish that mixes fried beutelwurst slices with liverwurst and potatoes and is called Tote Oma, or morbidly, Dead Grandma. Like Knipp, in Germany, beutelwurst is known as Arme-Leute-Essen, or poor man’s food, again, much like our goetta.
Dick, Ron and John Stehlin, owners of Stehlin’s Meats.
Johnny in the Bag was invented in the 1920s or 1930s, by John Stehlin, the founder of Stehlin’s meats. He developed a line of German sausages in a backroom sausage factory behind his meat market in Bevis, a northwestern suburb of Cincinnati off of Interstate 275. His grandparents were poor farmers who had immigrated very early to Cincinnati’s northwest farm country around Green and Crosby townships from Baden, during an economic crisis and famine there. He was probably the one who invented this American term for the German beutelwurst. It became very popular in Cincinnati, and other Germanic meat markets began stealing the name John Stehlin had invented. So, if you have a hankering for a centuries old German blood sausage, you can head over to the northwest side of town and patronize Stehlin’s Meats.