The ancient art of sausage making

by Brian Clarey

photos by Kyle Rhines

Before Yankees with U-Hauls, before I-95 unfurled like a blacktop ribbon down the Eastern Seaboard, before the Dust Bowl choked off the nation’s breadbasket, before the carpetbaggers, before the Industrial Revolution and even before the Revolutionary War, there was the Great Wagon Road.

The trail wound from Philadelphia to Georgia, skirting the Chesapeake, cutting through the Shenandoah Valley and traversing a generous flank of the North Carolina frontier. It started out as a series of trails made by foraging animals and the Native Americans who tracked them, a living map of seasonal migration patterns in North America.

Then came the Europeans who used it to explore and then settle the South. Eventually it was mapped by Thomas Jefferson’s father in 1754.

By then the road had widened to accommodate covered wagons and pack animals, and the trail the American Indians called the ‘“Ancient Warrior’s Path’” became an artery for the first great inland migration in the nation’s history, ushering vast numbers into the wilderness from the northern cities which were already becoming congested.

George Neese, a German farmer in southeastern Pennsylvania, picked up the Great Wagon Road just outside of Philadelphia in 1769. Like many others on the trail he sought the freedom of the frontier, chased the promise of ample farmlands and nature’s bounty. He traveled about 400 miles in a covered wagon with his family, sharing the road with Conestogas as big as city busses, oxen pulling carts, families on foot. They moved about five miles a day, crossing rivers, fighting sickness and hunger, marching through forests that teemed with bandits and wild animals. They made it to Guilford County inside a few months and George Neese, 25 years old, took hold of the land.

‘“He was a cattle and hog trader,’” says Tom Neese, 71, George’s great, great grandson who’s sitting in his simple office on family land. ‘“Like all farmers, he was basically self-sufficient.’”

A working farm in the 1700s was a self-contained organism, with greens from the garden and meat from the barn, a smithy for metalwork and horseshoes, a canning cellar and smokehouse to store bounty from previous seasons. In a year when the hogs were good he’d have extra meat that he’d barter in a trade house he built on the property.

In the days before the Frigidaire, all fresh foods had a tight shelf life and people learned techniques to make perishable foodstuffs last throughout the winter. They made cheese from milk and wine from grapes. Meat was smoked or cured to prevent harmful bacteria from setting in. And the task of food preservation had been elevated to an art.

George Neese’s people were hog farmers, and when slaughtering time came whatever meat they couldn’t immediately use they turned to sausage.

If there were no such thing as sausage and someone described it to you ‘— what it is, the basic ingredients, how it’s made ‘— you might recoil in horror. As it is, the sausage has been an enduring part of human culture, going back to ancient Egypt and China in the days when the pig was first domesticated. Barnyard pork on the hoof meant surplus meat come slaughtering time and people learned to salt it and seal it in the animal’s internal organs to make it last. The art of sausage making was a natural progression borne of necessity.

Today sausage is a nearly empirical item on the global menu. Bratwurst, kielbasa, chorizo, bangers, salami, scrapple, bologna, head cheese, andouille, boudin, haggis, derma, knockwurst, lap cheong, Jimmy Dean, the hot dog ‘— there could be a million kinds of sausage available on the world market, nobody knows for sure. They make over 1,200 kinds of sausage in Germany alone.

The study of cuisine is the study of history, of geography and sociology. And sausage is an excellent archaeological barometer. You can tell a lot about a people from the way they grind and stuff their meat.

Fresh sausage, the delicacy in its most basic form, is very much like seasoned hamburger meat ‘— raw, pink, packaged without a casing and ready for the skillet.

In the old days the cold weather, the icehouse and controlled output of product were the only hedges against spoilage. But sausage technology has come a long way in the last hundred years. Refrigeration, automation, pig-raising technology and chemical preservatives brought the ancient dish into the modern world.

Sausage-making falls under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture. The federal body dictates the content; regulates the production, storage, distribution and labeling; inspects the plants and product regularly and generally insures that sausage is wholly fit for human consumption.

In compliance with federal regulations, the Neese modern factories are sanitary and carefully maintained, though the product is essentially the same today as it was when George Neese set up his trade house on the family farm.

‘“We still use the five prime cuts,’” Tom says, ‘“ham, loins, shoulder, bellies and jowls. From that standpoint we’re still whole-hog, but we can’t say it [on our labels] any more because if for any reason a piece gets left out it’s not true anymore.’”

They also removed the phrase ‘“Pure pork’” from their labels.

‘“[The USDA] started to look at the word ‘pure’ about 50 years ago,’” Tom says. ‘“Who knows if something is pure? There’s other things in there besides pork.’”

What they don’t use, and never have, are nitrates, nitrites, MSG or any other chemical preservative.

‘“You look at the big producers,’” Tom says. ‘“They make it by a totally different process than we do. They look at us as being antiquated.’”

There’s an old saying: If you like sausage, don’t go to the sausage factory because you might never want to eat it again. But years ago the Guilford County Neese plant was open to schoolchildren and other groups for tours and lessons. Now because of strict governance the plants are on lockdown, and also to maintain secrecy about the recipes, spice blends and unique equipment they use.

‘“Years ago we had competitors go through the plant,’” he says. ‘“Not anymore.’”

The company has grown throughout the years to encompass an array of commercial goods like hams and ribs and an entire line of consumer goods sold in refrigerator cases throughout the region. The fresh sausage comes in three varieties: regular, hot and extra sage. They make scrapple, a Pennsylvania dish meant to be sliced and pan-fried until crispy, liver pudding, invented in the ’20s by JT Neese’s wife Miss Annie, and liver mush which is the same thing but without the cornmeal binder. They make souse, which is a North Carolina cousin to head cheese, a cold cut of pork suspended in aspic with vegetables and spices, and also C-Loaf, another southern delicacy.

‘“The C-Loaf used to be called ‘Chitlin Loaf,”” Tom remembers, ‘“and the meat was 100 percent chitlins.’”

Chitlins, or chitterlings, are a pig’s small intestines, fastidiously cleaned and served in a variety of ways ‘— fried, boiled, sautéed or pressed into a loaf. They have been enjoyed by Southerners for generations.

‘“I used to know a caterer who served chitlins at every event,’” Tom says. ‘“He called it ‘wrinkle steak.””

The Neese country sausage recipe, a closely guarded family secret, relies on the basics: good, fresh meat; spices as were locally available; careful butchering and grinding and particular attention to safe handling of the product. In this day and age a bad batch of sausage can get you a lawsuit. In the old days it could unleash a plague.

‘“They only made sausage in the winter,’” Tom Neese says from his office. ‘“They only killed hogs in the winter. There was no refrigeration of any kind except the icehouse. Back then Buffalo Creek froze in the winter. They’d salvage the ice and keep it all winter long.

‘“The creek doesn’t freeze anymore. That will change,’” Tom says with the self-assurance of a man who knows the ways of the land. ‘“All weather is cyclical.’”

They’re not real big on titles here at the Neese’s Country Sausage plant on the very edge of Greensboro’s southeastern city limits, but Tom is sitting in the president’s chair, dressed in the manner of a gentleman farmer: clean bluejeans and a plaid shirt suitable for work.

‘“I don’t know if I got to go on the product line or not,’” he says.

From this seat he controls the Neese sausage empire, built on the family sausage recipe his great grandfather carried with him down the Great Wagon Road, a kingdom that now stretches across the heartlands of Virginia and the Carolinas.

And while George Neese had the foresight to leave Berks County for greener pastures, credit his great-grandson, JT Neese, with the business acumen.

JT Neese, Tom Neese’s grandfather, grew up on the family farm in Guilford County and in frigid, hog-killing weather he would sell sausage in town and door to door.

‘“He drove to town in a covered wagon and peddled it,’” Tom says from his office, ‘“every other day.’”

The sight of JT Neese in his prairie schooner raising the dust on rural backroads became a common one in turn-of-the-century Guilford County. And the fresh sausage, ground and seasoned and sold by the brick, earned a name for itself. By 1917, JT Neese had ceased the hog business and gone into small-batch sausage production full time.

JT’s son, Thomas Rice Neese Sr., ushered the business into the refrigeration age. He died young, just 36, and his brother W. Homer Neese, with whom he had partnered in 1930, took the company reins. Another brother, Robert Ford Neese, took over in the ’80s. Their portraits hang in the small waiting area at the plant on Alamance Church Road where Tom, son of Thomas Rice, spends his workdays.

The thin parcel of land stretches back for a few acres, with a squat brick building sitting at midpoint, one of several facilities spread across the state. Fronting the property to the street is an old brick house, the home Tom Neese grew up in.

‘“Construction started on that house in 1932,’” he remembers. And when his parents brought him home from the hospital he says the house was heated only by a potbelly stove. They finished building in the early ’40s.

‘“I can remember the day they insulated the house,’” he says.

In his tiny office Tom keeps his memories on the bookshelves ‘— a bound genealogical record of the family, scrapbooks and clippings, photos of employees and pictures of the Neese delivery trucks throughout the years.

The trucks have become something of a kitschy trademark ‘— the company still handles the product through every stage, from production to distribution, and all Neese products are delivered by Neese drivers. Today the sausage makes it to the shelves in signature green vehicles with a decal of the antiquated logo lacquered to the side, a modern incarnation of the old refrigerated trucks they adopted in the early ’50s. Before that they used panel trucks that looked like roadsters, which succeeded the Dodge screened trucks of the ’20s and ’30s. Before that they used the same kind of covered wagons that brought George Neese to North Carolina. In between they used what they could.

The Snappy Lunch diner, located in Mt. Airy and made famous by the ‘“Andy Griffith Show,’” has been serving Neese’s products since the ’30s.

‘“The first sausage they delivered to Snappy’s was delivered in the trunk of a 1941 Buick,’” Tom remembers.

‘“Wow,’” says his daughter Andrea Neese sitting to his left. ‘“We’ve had that account for sixty years.’”

Andrea and her brother Tommy, two of Tom’s four children, are the fourth generation of Neeses to take part in the family business.

‘“The other two were smarter than us,’” Andrea jokes.

Her induction into sausage making came when a supervisor position became open at the harvest plant in Burlington ‘— ‘harvest plant’ is meatpacking lingo for ‘slaughterhouse,’ and Andrea, graduate of Grimsley High and mother of two, familiarized herself with every aspect of turning live pigs into dead meat.

‘“She did every job on that harvest floor,’” Tom says proudly. Now she works at the home office here in Greensboro.

Her brother Tommy started out driving a route and quickly became ensconced in the family business.

‘“I made him go to [our relay station in] Charlotte and work for an extremely demanding supervisor, a man named Mr. Louis Cox,’” Tom Sr. says. He rose through the ranks and became a branch manager in Charlotte and then did the same at another relay station in Goldsboro. He’s still involved in the distribution end of the business but he now works in the same building as his father and his big sister.

‘“We strangle each other every day,’” Andrea says.

‘“She’s not telling the truth,’” her father interjects. ‘“They worked out a good working relationship years ago.’”

It was the same when Tom came into the company in the ’60s and forged a partnership with his Uncle Bob.

‘“We had an agreement,’” Tom remembers. ‘“All our disagreements were behind closed doors.’”

Tom Sr. had worked in the plant while he was a student at Greensboro Senior High but as a young adult spent his working life at the accounting firm of Lybrand, Ross Brothers and Montgomery before a stint in the Army, some time at UNC where he earned his MBA and a stretch at Burlington Industries before coming back to the sausage business at 34.

Now, nearly 40 years in, he’s in his rightful place at the head of the family business, the next generation by his side.

The Neese family, you might say, was built on pork, and Tom Neese has an appropriate respect for the noble hog.

‘“You know how smart hogs are?’” he asks. ‘“You know why they roll around in the mud? They don’t have any sweat glands; they’re cooling off. You know you can teach a hog to go to the bathroom in the same place every time?’”

The hog has also been a longtime source of humor and common ground for the family.

On the wall of Tom’s narrow office hangs a caricature-style portrait of himself clad in overalls and holding a butcher knife while chasing a pig across the farm. The likeness was a gift from his brother John, and it’s an inside joke of sorts. In the image, Tom is holding the butcher knife backwards, with the sharpened edge towards his face.

‘“He said if I ever caught that pig I’d never be able to skin it.’”

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