Marin Uncovered: Hands-on holiday ritual

A Swedish sausage-making tradition that dates back 100 years

by Joanne Williams

On a chilly Sunday morning two weeks before Christmas, the Magnuson family swept into Larkspur from all over the West—Auburn, Danville, Sonoma and Seattle—50 people of all ages (including twins due next year) gathered for the annual tribute to their Swedish ancestors: making sausage.

This holiday ritual is hands-on for sure. On the deck, in front of the covered pool and a towering redwood family of three huge trees, a copper caldron sat on its handmade pedestal waiting for the eight hands that would soon smash together ground pork (60 percent from a family member’s organic farm in Auburn), bowls of chopped (not grated) onions and organic ground beef (40 percent). Standing over the big round pot was Herb Magnuson, dean of the family, whose sausage-making tradition started 75 years ago. His job was to add the black pepper, a shake at a time.

“I think it should have salt as well, but some people don’t agree,” Magnuson said with another shake of pepper. “There’s a disagreement on the original recipe, which came down from my Swedish great-grandmother. It goes back at least 100 years.”

The Magnuson family ventured from Sweden during a potato famine, first to Minnesota, then Seattle, then California, making their fortune in lumber, paint and trade with Asia.

The day-long ritual continued as people came and went, plunging their hands into the mix, notwithstanding a crisis: A crucial ingredient, the sausage casings, had been left behind in Danville. “It’s OK, my wife went back for them, they’ll be here in two hours,” said self-appointed “vice-meister” Dave DeVoe, married to a Magnuson. DeVoe rescued the copper pot from the Ghirardelli chocolate factory years back.

“Paid a hundred bucks for it,” he said. “They had another one I should have bought. Held melted chocolate. You see it’s round, there are no seams for the meat to get caught in.”

Family members started coming by the car-full, unloading delicacies for lunch—crab dip, spinach dip, hummus, Swedish bread, ham, potato salad, cakes and cookies. “We’re going to have lunch before we start stuffing the sausage. Anyway the casings aren’t here yet,” Magnuson said.

After the sausage is stuffed into casings with the help of a gadget made for the purpose, it gets tied off in two-foot lengths with a toothpick. Then it hangs in a room-temperature environment for the two weeks before Christmas day, when it’s sliced and boiled or fried for breakfast. “Sometimes there’s mold on the casings,” Magnuson pointed out, “and we wash that off before cooking it.”

By Christmas morning the hanging sausages have shrunk by a third, but with 50 to 75 pounds for the clan, there’s plenty for New Year’s day and till next year.

And the sausage is no stranger to international travel. Magnuson’s son Eric carried sausage to Venice, Italy, for a family vacation last year. And once, a very moldy link arrived to the Galapagos Islands, where a cousin enjoyed the rarity several weeks past the holiday.

The day didn’t end with the stuffing business. Santa paid a visit to the children, the gang sang carols and moved on to Eric Magnuson’s house in Larkspur for clam chowder. And if you’re in Larkspur, note the yogurt shop on Magnolia called Mags—Herb’s son, Elliott, is the owner. Herb lives at The Redwoods retirement community in Mill Valley, and is soon off to Squaw Valley. The family skis together, too.

Link up with Joanne at [email protected]

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