Smokin’

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At Otto’s Sausage Kitchen, Business Has Been Smoking for 95 Years

STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
IMAGES BY AARON LEE

Standing in the white-tiled back room of Southeast Portland’s Otto’s Sausage Kitchen, sisters Heidi and Christie Eichentopf stare at the ancient Buffalo Chopper’s massive blade. Along with the old-school meat hopper and smokehouses blackened by eight decades of alder smoke, it’s horror-movie gruesome.

“We tried to convince Grimm to film an episode here,” Christie says. The producers didn’t take the bait. But it’s hard to believe that Otto’s Sausage Kitchen would have had the time to interrupt its production of more than 40 types of sausage — 166,400 old-fashioned hot dogs last year alone — for a television show, anyway.

German roots

 

Otto’s Sausage Kitchen is named after its founder and the current owners’ grandfather, Otto Eichentopf. Otto was born in Germany’s Thuringia region in 1889 and, as a teenager, took a job as a butcher on a ship. With $100 in gold coins in his pocket, Otto jumped ship in New York in 1911 and moved to Canada, where he again plied his butcher skills at a large farm. When Selma, Otto’s girlfriend and soon-to-be bride, emigrated from Germany to Aberdeen, Washington, he followed and opened the first Otto’s Meat Market.

Otto and Selma’s daughter died unexpectedly at four years old. To escape the memory of the death, the couple and their toddler son, Edwin, moved first to Lebanon, Oregon, then settled in Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood. To Otto, the trees and hills of Woodstock must have felt like home. In 1922, he opened Otto’s Meat Market once again, this time on Woodstock Boulevard.

The sausage business was good enough that, in 1936, as the Great Depression was in full force, Otto teamed up with a Swedish couple to build the Moreland Heights Market a few blocks up the street at SE 42nd and Woodstock. Otto constructed side-by-side smokehouses and a roomy kitchen at the store’s rear, and the Swedish couple managed the grocery store that occupied the front.

Although Otto forbade Edwin from speaking German, the whole family continued to speak German sausage. Otto made fresh and smoked sausages, frankfurters, bratwurst, bockwurst, and more. And he was through moving around. He joined the local Chamber of Commerce, coached soccer teams, and became a Mason. Even anti-German threats — after Otto’s death, the family found letters from “the Committee” warning Otto to take his “Nazi” business elsewhere — weren’t enough to shake Otto’s commitment to his new life.

During World War II, Otto’s son, Edwin, married Eleanor, a nurse, and was drafted into the Army, where he served in Europe. When Edwin returned, Otto retired, and Edwin took over Otto’s Meat Market, eventually recruiting his own children into the sausage business. In 1983, Edwin’s son, Edwin Jr. — called Jerry — and his wife, Gretchen, assumed management. They boosted the business to the next level by renaming Otto’s Meat Market as Otto’s Sausage Kitchen, and expanding it into the entire building.

Today, two generations of Eichentopfs run Otto’s Sausage Kitchen. Jerry and Gretchen’s daughters Heidi, Christie, and Bereka, make regular appearances in the kitchen and behind the counters. Each daughter prepared for other careers in college — but all ended up in the family sausage business.

A neighborhood anchor

At seven each morning, a member of Otto’s staff goes to the basement to build each two-story smokehouse’s fire. Otto always used alder to smoke his meats, favoring its long-lasting, mellow heat, and his family continues the tradition, using alder from their family farm. The kitchen, walled in white tile, holds a massive rack attached to an overhead rail so that sausages can be made, hung on the rack, then pulled directly to the side-by-side smokehouses on the ground floor. A peek into a smokehouse shows orange embers in the basement firebox, which lets out the rich aroma of wood smoke.

A few hours later, Christie parks her cherubic toddler daughter in a highchair to decimate a breakfast waffle, while Bereka makes potato salad nearby. Christie, who, with her father, Jerry, is responsible for making sausage, retreats to the kitchen and pulls bins of coriander and fresh garlic from the spice room’s shelves.

At the front of the house, a statue of a pig standing on its hind legs, carving a ham, lords over the meat counter. A mounted elk head dominates the wall over the fresh sausages. (“A customer gave it to us,” says Heidi. “He said his wife didn’t want it in the house anymore.”) Lining the east and south walls are cases of sausage — and lots of it — along with house-made corned beef, pastrami, liverwurst (which is seeing a resurgence in popularity, adds Heidi), dry cured ham, and more.

Of the more than 40 types of sausage offered, many recipes remain unchanged from Otto’s day. Just as in the 1920s, the Eichentropfs don’t use preservatives, fillers, or lactose starters in their fresh sausages. Pork, beef, and chicken come from Carlton Farms.

But not everything is as it was in the original Otto’s Meat Market. For instance, the bockwurst no longer contains veal. The family added chicken sausages — one with Granny Smith apples from Washington is especially popular. Customers encouraged Otto’s to make Thuringer Rostbratwurst from Otto’s home region and British bangers. One regular even brought in a special spice mixture from South Africa so Otto’s could add boerewors to its offerings.

A few hours spent at Otto’s shows what a neighborhood fixture it is. One of the day’s first customers asks to see photos from Bereka’s wedding the week before and ribs her for being back to work so soon. Christie says they give away 2,000 grilled hot dogs in a little over an hour at the annual Woodstock neighborhood festival. One woman even stipulated in her will that 1,000 of Otto’s old-fashioned hot dogs be served at her funeral.

Angela Sanders writes about food, people, and history from Portland, Oregon, and is also the author of mystery novels under her name and the pen name Clover Tate. www.angelasanders.com

The Eichentopf family is quick to offer recipes and tips for grilling, but they know where to draw the line. “Sometimes people ask for vegan sausages,” Bereka says. She and Heidi laugh.

Sauerkraut Soup

Ingredients

1 Otto’s ham hock, cut in half
8 cups sauerkraut
6 cups sauerkraut juice
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and cubed

Recipe

Put the ham hock, sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice, and Hungarian paprika into a large stockpot. Make sure the ham hock is covered in liquid. You may need more sauerkraut juice or a little water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a rolling simmer and cook about an hour or until the meat falls off the bone of the ham hock. Add sauerkraut juice or water as needed to keep the ham hock covered. When the ham hock is cooked, remove it from the pot and separate the meat from the bone. Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces. Add the meat and the diced potatoes back into the sauerkraut soup. Let cook for another 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft.  Remove from heat and serve. Makes 8–10 servings.


Angela Sanders writes about food, people, and history from Portland, Oregon, and is also the author of mystery novels under her name and the pen name Clover Tate. www.angelamsanders.com

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