by Risa Nye
You may be familiar with what Otto von Bismarck probably never said about “laws and sausages.” As our lawmakers in Washington continue to butt heads instead of getting things done, the notion that one loses respect for knowing how both laws and sausages are made had me wondering. I decided to test the accuracy of this maxim for myself, but first I needed to learn more about the other half of the equation. So I paid a visit to Taylor’s Sausages, in the site of the former Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. I’d had a brief conversation with owner Raymond Gee previously, and he suggested I come back when I had time to watch the entire sausage-making process. I was certain that seeing this had to be a more positive experience than what I’d been reading in the news about Congress lately.
The last surviving business from the original Housewives Market, Taylor’s – at 907 Washington St., between 9th and 10th Streets – has a devoted staff and a loyal clientele. Local sports fans flock to Taylor’s for their tailgate parties. Win or lose, business booms on game days. And it’s not just the fans who line up for sausages and ribs — the athletes come to the counter, too: players from the A’s, 49ers, Raiders and Warriors check out Taylor’s many options for the grill. (The most recent celebrity sighting I heard about was the Oakland A’s “Man of Steal,” Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson. Henderson played for Oakland for many years, and holds the season and career records for stolen bases, among other things.) Traditional BBQ occasions — Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day — are among the busiest times for Taylor’s, the staff told me. Customers stock up for holiday cookouts with an array of freshly made, preservative-free sausages: gumbo links, chorizo, andouille, tocino, hot and mild BBQ links, boudin blanc, longanisa, and Italian links (hot or mild versions, in many cases) made from pork, beef, chicken, and turkey. You can also bring home ground breakfast sausage and make your own patties. If you want something made-to-order, they can do that, too.
In addition to the sausages they make every day, Taylor’s also sells ribs, ham hocks and pork bellies – for those who are the kind of DIYers who make their own bacon and pancetta. If you’re interested, the staff can give you instructions for how to cook what they sell.
When I introduced myself to Harold Evans, Jr., a 20-year employee at Taylor’s, he was doing a second grind on the chorizo sausage. The big grinder machine he uses is 70 years old, he said. Still works pretty well, though. After he finished with the grinder, he ushered me into the cold room where the latest batches of sausages, suspended on poles, had been left to cure — a process that usually lasts a day or so.
Evans filled me in about the all-natural casings used at Taylor’s. (Natural casings are made from the sub-mucosa, a layer of the intestine that consists mainly of collagen.) These days, he said, it’s hard to find a good source of natural casings. They are sent off to China to be flushed out and cleaned, then returned for distribution in the U.S. (Some families like to make their own sausages for special holidays, so Taylor’s offers casings for sale, too.) Evans works fast. He says he can make about 100 pounds of sausage in 30 minutes. He has a deft touch, producing a long coil of sausage in no time. He twists the long piece into sausage-size lengths with practiced skill.
Rule No. 1 for cooking sausage, according to Evans: Don’t add salt! Go ahead and use garlic powder and herbs, like sage or thyme, “and other natural stuff,” but no salt. As he says, “You can always add it,” but it’s hard to make it less salty. With no preservatives involved, he also reminds customers to freeze the sausage in case — for some reason — they don’t just go home and grill them immediately.
Jane Yee and Helen Davis are also longtime staffers. Davis, known affectionately as Mama Helen, grew up near the site where she works now, and has fond memories of the vibrant Housewives Market, previous home of Taylor’s and a variety of other businesses. The store has been in its present location since 1999, but Taylor’s has had a presence in Old Oakland since the early ’30s.
The staff knows the customers well. They tell stories about how little kids, barely able to peer into the display cases, come in a few years later with their brand new driver’s licenses, and then, over time, bring in their own little ones. In 20 years behind the counter, they’ve seen generations of sausage lovers come into their own.
Evans claims that no matter where he goes, he gets recognized and greeted by customers from Taylor’s. It’s happened over and over. “I can’t go anywhere,” he says with a smile. The clientele comes from all walks of life: professionals from downtown, local celebrities, neighbors and friends, and folks who just wander into the eclectic collection of businesses that now fill part of the old Swan’s Market space. The day I visited happened to be a Friday, when the streets around Swan’s are closed to traffic for the weekly farmers’ market. It’s a lively, bustling corner of the city.
Jane Yee laughs when she tells me she was working at Taylor’s when she was expecting, and that her “baby” is now 21 years old. She also proudly shows me the San Francisco Chronicle article rating the Bay Area’s best sausage in which Taylor’s boudin blanc blows the judges away, even though they were actually using Italian sausage as a baseline for their rating. By far the most popular item Taylor’s makes, the Cajun-style boudin blanc, is described in the article: “Traditionally made with pork and rice, Taylor’s version skips the organ meats usually found in Louisiana ones. The result is a ‘mildly spiced’ but ‘nicely balanced’ sausage that earned perfect scores from three of our staffers.” Although everyone makes it differently, Mama Helen says, their boudin blanc is a taste of home for folks from Southern states.
With its links to the past, present and future, Taylor’s sets an unmatched community standard for service and quality. And, Yee says with a smile, “Suddenly, sausage is trending.” People are coming around and trying new things these days. But there’s nothing sudden about the success of the business. Generations of loyal customers keep coming back for more of the same.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no debate: what goes on at Taylor’s on Washington Street is vastly easier to understand and appreciate than the way they grind things out in Washington, D.C. And in addition, Mama Helen, Jane and Harold do their jobs with a smile and a kind word for everyone who stops by. In this election year, as the grilling intensifies, your best bet just may be sausage.
907 Washington Street (between 9th and 10th Streets)
Open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.