It's oddly comforting, in our low-fat, low-salt era, to see beefy people lined up to buy pork sausage.
Before any major food holiday—but especially Easter, which falls on March 23 this year—devotees of Ostrowski's kielbasa politely form queues that start in the tiny store and wend their way up South Washington Street in Fells Point. Mostly male, blue collar, and middle-aged, these are folks who grew up in East Baltimore and were weaned on the stuff.
Thomas Harlow, a typical Ostrowski's customer, waited about 20 minutes for Polish sausage on the Friday before Christmas. He used his time in line to share his life story with anyone who would listen, while his wife, Patricia, and miniature schnauzer, Heidi Ho, waited in his double-parked truck. Heidi Ho, wearing a festive holiday sweater, barked constantly through the open window—aroused, no doubt, by the heady aroma of garlic that poured out every time someone opened the door.
Harlow, a self-employed mason and amateur musician, lives in Dundalk. A short, stocky man of about 50, he guessed he has been making Ostrowski's runs for about 20 years. This was his second trip in a week to buy sausage for himself, friends, and elderly neighbors. "It's the best," he says with conviction.
Those waiting for their numbers to be called enjoyed a free sample of the aromatic concoction, fresh and warm from the smokehouse and glistening in all its greasy splendor under the shop's lights.
Presiding over this scene was John Ostrowski. Now 60 (and change), Ostrowski was born into the family sausage business and has never worked anywhere else. At one time, he said, his family even lived over the store.
About 40 years ago, he inherited the operation his grandfather started in 1919. Ostrowski may know his sausage, but he's a little fuzzy on details such as dates and sales figures. With some prodding, he will estimate that about 15 percent of his volume comes from Easter sales, and another 10 percent from Christmas, with maybe 7 or 8 percent from Thanksgiving customers.
Throughout the day, Big John (as he's known) moves back and forth between the small, ground-floor sausage factory and the retail store, which sells Polish condiments, maps, and gift items, in addition to sausage. Two women operate the shop, and two male employees help in the sausage factory during the holidays. Their good-natured attacks on one another are constant.
Big John can even joke about an ongoing dispute with his nephew, Victor Ostrowski, who owns a competing sausage business a few blocks away. John Ostrowski didn't mind much, he said, until Victor started selling his sausage in local grocery stores, which confused the public. Many of John Ostrowski's customers have phoned him in recent years to tell him his quality was slipping, he said, after tasting the store-bought kielbasa.
John Ostrowski contacted a lawyer, but he was told that because Victor Ostrowski has a legal right to use the family name, there's no way to stop him. So John Ostrowski relies on word of mouth and declarations on the company website to set the record straight: John Ostrowski's kielbasa can only be bought at his store at 524 S. Washington Street. (Attempts to reach Victor Ostrowski for comment were unsuccessful.)
Big John's crew can make about 300 pounds of sausage in one batch. He uses pork that's 20 percent fat (you need the fat for flavor) and a proprietary blend of herbs and spices—mostly garlic, salt, and pepper. Ostrowski's mild sausage contains white pepper. About two years ago, he introduced the bolder gypsy variety, which contains cracked black pepper and more garlic than the mild.
The sausages are formed in long rings and hung to dry on stainless steel rods supported by sawhorses. Fresh sausages soon go into the fridge, and the rest sit in the smokehouse for three to seven hours. During periods of high demand, they can smoke up to 1,000 pounds of sausage at once. In fact, a few days before Christmas, Ostrowski drove to the store from his Lutherville home at 2 a.m. to turn on the smoker, so he could serve that morning's customers.
"Everyone's got a recipe for sausage, and they all think theirs is the best," says Ostrowski. "But they [customers] come here."
Last Easter, two men drove all night from Georgia to buy from his shop, he says. And it's common for people to drive from Virginia and Pennsylvania for their holiday sausage. The folks at the East Coast's largest Polish-American Festival (held annually at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania) anointed Ostrowski's sausage as the winner of the festival's much-heralded kielbasa cook-off.
Brad Meerholz, 28, is a more recent convert. The Bel Air resident, who works in Fells Point, said he tasted Ostrowski's kielbasa a few months ago and offered some to a friend. That friend liked it so much he served it at his engagement party.
Meerholz, who was waiting in line to procure some of the spicy stuff for himself and that same friend, echoed the opinion of longtime customer Harlow:
"It's the best I've ever had."