MACHIAS, Maine — Joe Parisi keeps secrets.
Step into his Machias home, pass through the breezeway — where imported Italian groceries are displayed floor to ceiling — walk through the kitchen — where a bottle of red wine is always on the table — and head down into the basement.
There, built into a corner with a single high window, among knives and grinders and stainless steel tables, is where the secrets are kept. The immaculate prep room is a sausage factory where 89-year-old Parisi handmakes six different kinds of sausage.
Grinding the high-quality pork butts isn’t the secret. Neither is the funneling of the meat into the natural casings, or the refrigerators full of garlic cloves and huge wheels of cheese.
Ahhhhh — of course — the secret is the spice combination. It’s a recipe Parisi’s father brought from the village of Vita, near Palermo, Italy, when he came to America more than 100 years ago. The combination could include salt, any one of three kinds of pepper, fennel, or sage, but Parisi isn’t about to share.
Now, customers line up daily at Parisi’s back door to buy his handmade sausage, authentic Italian pasta and ingredients, as well as imported cheeses, local breads, hand-mixed and marinated olives, and a wide variety of other meats.
Parisi is a bantam-sized man with a quick wit, a face-encompassing smile and eyes that twinkle.
He may walk slowly and his hands may be gnarled with decades of overuse, but no one should mistake his demeanor for weakness. He carries totes full of meat up and down the stairs, rolls barrels of wine by himself, and keeps up with a three-quarter-acre garden in his backyard.
The art of sausage making is labor intensive and time consuming. It also can be secretive.
“My father brought the sausage recipes with him from Italy, but he just made it for the family,” Parisi said as he began to make sweet sausage early one morning.
“But you have to go now,” he told two visitors as he prepared to weigh and measure his spice combination. “I don’t mean to be rude, but the recipe is none of your business.”
That frankness is the New Jersey coming out in Parisi. He was born and raised on a 275-acre vegetable farm in Vineland. In 1943, Parisi enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving on the USS Ingraham.
“I served in the South Pacific and on May 3, 1945, we were hit by kamikazes,” Parisi said. “Fifteen killed, 30 wounded.”
He paused in the conversation, choosing to focus on mixing the sausage rather than difficult memories.
After the war, Parisi became a lineman for a New Jersey power company but returned to the farm after his father died.
“It really was all I knew,” he said. “You just couldn’t take me off the farm.”
To augment the farming income, Parisi opened Land And Sea Farm Market in Carls Corner, N.J.
“When I opened the deli, I continued making the sausage I had watched my father make,” Parisi said. The deli employed 14 people and was open 362 days a year.
“If you have a deli in New Jersey, you have to have homemade sausage.”
Even when he retired from the deli in 1978, Parisi couldn’t leave farming and sausage-making behind. He followed his sister to central Maine and established a farm in Brooks where he raised 30 head of cattle for another 15 years.
“But then I met my wife, Jacquelyn, and she got a job here in Machias at the Down East Community Hospital,” he said. “She gave me an ultimatum and here I am.”
He continues to make sausage in Washington County from his Maine-certified prep room, and is now a solid fixture in the local food chain.
“People from out of state who come here for the summer will stop by at the end of the season to pick up dozens of pounds to take home for the winter,” he said. If a traveler should stop and ask, Machias shopkeepers often refer them to the Parisi’s small ranch house on West Street. His sausage has even been recommended to customers by a local competing butcher.
Parisi makes breakfast, hot, sweet, cheese and garlic, and parsley sausages, sausage with spinach and sausage with wine. Hunters will bring him their bear, venison or moose meat to be made into custom sausage.
“Many people have asked me to make kielbasa and other types but I stick to what I know,” he said.
Parisi’s process is simple and traditional: he grinds the pork butts — using 75-year-old equipment — spreads the meat on the table and hand blends the spices, turning and massaging the pork into sausage, and then funneling it into the casings by hand-cranking the arm on a vintage sausage-stuffer.
He stopped to return to his breezeway market to wait on a customer and, heading back to his work, smiled and said the customer had brought him a bucket of fresh clams for dinner.
Parisi makes the sausage in 25-pound batches — often repeating the process four times in a single day. He works alone, his stereo tuned to talk radio, with his hands telling him whether the salt has been absorbed into the meat, making it ready to encase. When he cuts off a section of the sausage, his measurement is exact: 2½ pounds on the nose.
Even without preservatives, Parisi said his sausage will last seven to eight days in the refrigerator.
“But I also sell it frozen,” he said. His hand-made sausage sells for $4.80 a pound.
“I don’t feel like I’m carrying on a tradition,” Parisi said. “It just is what I did. What happens, happens.”
Joe’s Sausage is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday if his flag is out. He suggests customers call ahead on weekends for better service. The number is 255-0054 and his shop is located on West Street, which connects Water and Court Streets in Machias.