Growing up, I loved going to the deli, an errand my mother and I usually completed after church on Sunday mornings. My hometown had not one but two German delis at the time, though my family’s allegiance laid with Lutz’s Pork Store. It suddenly closed a couple years ago, causing my family a level of sorrow most people would reserve for, well, people. From childhood until I left for college, a weekly trip to Lutz’s included a circus of sights and smells: fresh-baked rolls; a massive, white, old-school deli case full of a rainbow of salads; unpronounceable spiced sausages hanging from metal rods overhead; the mechanical, oddly soothing hum of the slicer. Near Christmas or Easter, when the employees in the back of the shop were glazing the spiral hams by hand with blowtorches, the candied, spiced pork smell was beyond heavenly.
As I got older, more interesting aspects of the deli would distract me—I ended up going to senior prom with one of the young butchers, a story for another day—but until my hormones grabbed the wheel, I was there for one thing and one thing only: the liverwurst, baby. Liverwurst—a soft, almost spreadable sausage flavored by pork and/or veal liver—is maybe the oddest meat for a kid to like, but I was an odd kid. (This is the understatement of the century.) It exists in some form in many European countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Germany, where my mom’s side of the family is from. Because the older butchers who worked at the shop had known my grandmother, and then my mother, and then me, I was paid special attention and was always asked whether I wanted a slice of something “to taste.” With a few exceptions every now and then for the housemade bologna, I asked for liverwurst, always handed to me on a single sheet of diamond-edged wax deli paper.
Because my family ate liverwurst sandwiches regularly, I didn’t know it was considered a B-side deli meat. On my first day of my college job at Al’s Deli, the boss asked me what sandwich I’d like him to make me for lunch. “Braunschweiger and mustard on rye?” I asked. You could have heard a pin drop before the boss informed me that in his many decades of employing students, I was the very first employee to ever order a Braunschweiger sandwich. I guess normal people go for turkey, or something?
My fellow liverwurst aficionados will stop me right there, because Braunschweiger is not exactly liverwurst. It’s a smoked cousin to liverwurst, usually with the inclusion of bacon, but it was similar enough to quell my cravings. The liverwurst I grew up on, though, was unsmoked, deeply rich and irony, with a bit of peppery spice and a smooth, even texture. I completely understand why this sounds unappealing, and that’s before we even mention its pale pinkish-gray color. Google liverwurst and the featured dictionary excerpt describes it as “a seasoned meat paste in the form of a sausage containing cooked liver.” Unless you grew up with this, you’re not likely running off to join Team Liverwurst.
But here’s why you should. Unctuous is liverwurst’s defining adjective, for me. It’s essentially a poor man’s pâté, or a very, very poor man’s foie gras. It has that same iron-heavy liver flavor, but with a smooth, even texture that dances a perfect pas de deux with crusty rolls or dry bread. When my mom made my liverwurst sandwiches, she’d use the hard rolls we bought from Lutz’s, which we called Kaiser rolls. They were soft on the inside but expectedly hard on the inside, their crust flaking off into shards that scraped the top of my mouth. But with a finger-wide stack of liverwurst in the middle, oh man.
I still love liver-related delicacies and can appreciate the textural intrigue of a country pate, or the seared, ethically questionable luxury of foie gras. But honestly, give me liverwurst any day over these fancier liver creations. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it around the town where I now live, but so far haven’t found a deli that stocks it. Italian meats like prosciutto and mortadella and finocchiona weren’t behind mainstream deli counters decades ago, and now my grocery store offers approximately 14 types of soppressata. I’m not complaining, but when’s liverwurst going to see its day in the spotlight?