I didn’t understand why people were lined up to pay $5 for two pieces of ham on white bread. It was my first ever trip to the Apple & Pork Festival in Clinton, Illinois, and I was surprised to see dozens of adults passing up brats and ribs and tenderloins for a plain Jane ham sandwich. Just when I was about to write off the palates of Central Illinois, I passed a wooden shack with a tiny sign: “Ham House.” The door was hanging open and through plumes of smoke I could see shelves of string-tied, sliced hams. Now I understood the draw: real, fresh smoked ham. A man bearing a ham appeared, rearranged his products in the shack, and latched the door shut. He saw me snapping a few photos and asked, “get what you need?” I said yes and turned around to get in line for a sandwich.
The line moved with remarkable speed and my sandwich was equally remarkable. The meat was smoky, tender, juicy, and most importantly, hammy. I felt satisfied, both by my meal, and by the little secret I now shared with these Midwesterners: the Apple and Pork Festival is all about the quiet pleasure of humble country food.
The ham sandwich might be the crown jewel of the festival, but there were many other gems to be had. I washed down apple fritters with an apple cider float and wished I’d had room for a grilled pork tenderloin sandwich. There was a token craft tent, live music, a few historical displays, and a field full of tchotchkes for sale, but the Apple and Pork Festival is focused around the grub. Other delicacies on offer included barbecue sandwiches, ribs, pigs-with-wings, brats, pork rinds, pork burgers, and ham and bean soup (another crowd favorite). For apple lovers, there were apple-caramel sundaes, taffy apples, fried apples, apple cake, apple pie, and apple danish. It was awesome.
High on the glories of apple and pork, I wanted a home-cooked meal that would represent those fatty-savory and fruity-sweet flavors. I dug out this old Serious Eats recipe for cider-braised sausages with sage and it hit the perfect notes (plus, I got to use some of the fresh cider I nabbed at the fair). The sausages are browned in oil and then finished by simmering in cider. The cider cooks down into a sweet glaze flavored by onions, sage, and the sausage juices. As I scraped my plate clean of every last drop of sauce, it occurred to me that this pork and apple dish might just be good enough to merit its own shack at next year’s festival.
pork sausages braised in apple cider
adapted from Serious Eats
You’ll want to cook a side of something starchy to soak up the cider sauce. I made mashed potatoes, but the cheddar polenta recipe suggested by Serious Eats would be delicious, too.
1.5 lbs mild italian sausage links (about 5 or 6 sausages)
2 medium yellow onions, cut into 1-inch wedges
2 cups fresh apple cider
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 fresh sage leaves
salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add sausage links and cook on one side until well browned. Turn once and brown the other side.
Add onions and toss to coat with oil. Allow to soften for two to three minutes.
Add cider and sage leaves to sausages and onions. Gently scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen browned bits. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a rapid simmer. Allow mixture to rapidly simmer for about 30 minutes, or until cider is reduced to a glaze that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve sausages topped with onions and pan sauce.