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Smoking with Joe Kennedy

By Suzanne Cope July 16, 2015, Lucky Peach

“Let me show you what we’re doing.” I’m following Joe Kennedy, the man who runs Spar’s European Sausage and Meats in Buffalo, New York, into his back room. On one metal table, a member of his team stuffs and twists wieners made in a German-imported, fifty-year-old emulsifier. Another team member assembles loaves of leberkäse, an emulsified German bologna, to be baked. We peek into the deep closet-width smoker, with racks of sausages and bacon hanging and rotating twenty-four hours a day. And at the stove in the back, Kennedy lifts the top of a large stockpot half-filled with unidentifiable gelatinous pig parts, bobbing in a thin clear broth. Tomorrow, it will be turned into head cheese.

Spar’s sits on an unassuming street in a working-class neighborhood, across from a tattoo parlor and a few doors down from an Ethiopian restaurant. Inside, the air hangs with the sweet, woodsy smell of smoking meat. They have a small number of German sauces and packaged Polish products. You’ll find grandfathers and grandsons pointing to smoked Polish sausages and tubs of house-fermented kraut and sides of double-cooked bacon, speaking in the dense consonants of an Eastern European tongue.

Spar’s was opened in 1989 by Eric Spar, a German immigrant who had apprenticed in Europe as a metzger (butcher). He believed his business would fare well with the ethnic diversity of Buffalo, and he built a strong reputation with the city’s collage of European ethnicities by offering handmade sausages, smoked meats, and other Old World specialties at a time when food artisans were being driven out of business by the availability of cheaper, mass-produced products. What started as a shop of mostly German specialties expanded to include a variety of European goods—made in-house or bought elsewhere—to cater to his diverse customers.

Joe Kennedy had moved to the city as a teenager, in 1981. By the late 1980s, he was working in the kitchen of Buffalo-area restaurants, learning classic French and Italian cooking from some of the city’s best chefs. But after twenty years of keeping late-night hours and playing in a local punk band, Kennedy was looking to change his lifestyle. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, who worked during the day, and was becoming more concerned with his health. When he heard that Eric Spar wanted to retire, he approached him about apprenticing.

“Eric didn’t want just anyone coming in here, taking his baby and not continuing his tradition,” Kennedy said. “He knew I wouldn’t do that.” Kennedy describes his introduction to working for Spar: “On the first day he said, ‘This is how you put the machines together.’ On my second day he said, ‘I have to go out front, I’ll be right back.’ When he got back he found that all the machines were assembled, the meat was cut, and we were all set up to start making sausage.” Kennedy’s work ethic and training impressed Spar, and four months later Kennedy was left in charge while Spar went to Germany for Oktoberfest. He had found someone worthy to continue his work.

Kennedy took over the shop in 2005, with a promise to continue to serve his customers the German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Italian, Polish, and other European specialties that Spar had been making for the neighborhood. And he has. But not long after the handoff, he began moving more of the sourcing from the industrial farms Spar had used toward smaller, local farms: pork from T-Meadow Farm in Lockport, beef from a farm collective of mostly grass-fed cows. The rest of his meat he sources from the best-quality conventionally farmed animals he can find, to keep producing products at prices that won’t alienate Spar’s longtime, mostly aging customers. Yet Kennedy notes that “for every old-school customer we have, we’re gaining five new young people”—many who are willing to pay higher prices for a higher quality product. Kennedy has also been slowly learning to make the products that Spar had once imported or bought elsewhere, in part because of his own evolving values and in part because he saw the quality decrease. Right now they’re working on liverwurst. “Did you know liver is a natural emulsifier?” Kennedy asks. “We shouldn’t be able to slice it—it should be spreadable.” They once bought 50 percent of the products they sold in the shop from various wholesalers; now, that number is down to less than 5 percent.

“Take that,” he points to the head cheese, a gelatinous loaf with knobs of meat suspended in a pork gelatin and striated with ribbons of dark broth. “I started making that a few years ago, and now I have ninety-year-old grandmothers saying it’s the best they ever had. It’s so much better than what we were ordering in. I mean, it’s real food.”

Kennedy offers me a translucent slice of the double-smoked bacon. It tastes like deeply smoky ham, which of course, it is—heated low and slow in a smoker until it reached 170 degrees to ensure that it was fully cooked. While the details are secret (“People have been trying to figure this out for years,” he said), Kennedy will let a few things slip out: “What we do is remove the bulk of the fat so you have a leaner piece of bacon, so lean and so fully cooked that you can shave it and eat it like ham.”

Unsurprisingly, it is his best-selling product, even priced about twice as much as what you’ll find at the supermarket. I ask him why customers pay more. “Because it tastes better,” he said. “It is better—better quality, better technique.” He paused. “And I think it reminds them a bit of home.”

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