This should not be the golden age of weird pickled impulse food.
The Cult of Nutrition approves of neither the produ~ction nor distribution of such semi-edible items as brine-suspended Polish sausages, hard-boiled eggs, pigs' feet and pigs' ankles (these are better known as "pork hocks").
Yet business is good down at Max Jungbauer's garage, Arizona's only backyard sausage-, egg-, hock- and foot-pickling plant. Just as it's been good for the last forty years. Last year, Mike and Rosalie Walsh and their small staff turned out approximately 35 miles of pickled sausage, approximately five inches at a time. "It gets into big numbers," says Mike, husband of Rosalie and son-in-law of the late Max himself. "Often when we're working, we wonder who is eating all these pieces of pickled sausage."
And what about the pigs' feet, Mike and Rosalie? Who eats that stuff? Mike: "They're an acquired taste."
Rosalie: "That's a euphemism for most people wouldn't even think of puttin' 'em in their mouth." These two apparently have been waiting around for someone to ask them these ery questions.
Rosalie: "The pork hocks are more appealing."
Mike: "When you look at a pig's foot, there's just nothing much to chew on."
Rosalie: "We're always amazed at the kind of people who have acquired a taste for pigs' feet and pork hocks. It's often the most genteel, refined people." Mike: "People ask how it tastes, and I have to say, `Great,' because we sell so many."
THE NERVE CENTER of Max's Food Processing is the enclosed back porch of a small home in the very heart of downtown Phoenix. This is the office where Mike and Rosalie have set up a couple of desks, some filing cabinets and a desktop computer. An Arizona state map is tacked to one wall, opposite the window air conditioner. This is also the home in which Rosalie was raised. Her brother still lives in the front of the house, along with another long-time boarder. There is a clothesline along the side of the house, a hose and a sprinkler in the front yard.
The entire production facility--Pickled Sausage Central--is located in what was the Jungbauer family garage. Key work areas include the pickling room, the storage room and a large walk-in refrigerator. The company's primary pickled products are processed on a rotating schedule. Some days it's sausage, some days it's eggs. A health inspector visits every workday the staff is handling meat. The pickling room is painted white. The floor is gray and the ceiling is low. A large metallic table dominates the center of the room. Flat gray tubs rest along one wall. It is here that the pickling occurs. Unlike the old days, all of the sausage and meat products are bought, precooked, from other suppliers. The eggs come from the local Hickman's egg farm.
The Walshes won't say too much about the actual pickling process itself, other than to explain that the ingredients that are used to "cure" the products are different from the liquid in which the links, hocks and hooves will later sit. The ingredients and methods used with such great success in Max Jungbauer's reconditioned garage are--and will remain--a trade secret. We do know that once the sausages are cured and packed in gallon and half-gallon jars, they are suspended in a mysterious medium of vinegar, five or six red chiles, some pepper, a bay leaf and garlic. Rosalie does not comfortably part with this vague recipe. Mike concludes the nuts-and-bolts discussion by saying that none of Max's products contains anything funny. "In the sausage, there's n~o cereal, no additives, no artificial coloring," he says, explaining th~at most pickled meat products will turn a bit gray (from their rosy pink hue when fresh) after a few months in the jar, and that~ some out-of-state competitors have been known to add coloring to their stuff to make it appear fresh even if it's not. "After three or four months, our sausages go pale, but not stale," Mike says. "It's a built-in expiration date."
Rarely do Max's sausages sit around long enough to get gray, Mike says. But it's also apparently rare for a store or bar to completely sell out every jar, regardless of the product's coloration. "If you see one or two of anything left in a jar, they won't sell," Mike says. "Even if they were made yesterday."
MAX JUNGBAUER emigrated from Munich, Germany, in 1922 and went to work for the Tovrea meat-packing company in Phoenix. Sausage-making became his specialty. By 1948 he had saved enough money to open a place of his own. Max and his wife, Irene, opened a small cafe in downtown Phoenix (on the block on which the Valley Bank Center now stands), and later moved to East Madison, near the produce houses just north of the Southern Pacific rail yards. The produce workers provided a solid lunch crowd, as well as a steady supply of thirsty beer drinkers. "In the cafe we served complete dinners, breakfasts and lunches," recalls Irene, now age 83. "Coffee was a nickel, and a complete dinner of roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, salad and dessert was a quarter."
Draft beer was the fare on the bar side. When Max grew dissatisfied with the quality of bar snacks he was buying from California suppliers, his sausage-pickling company was born. "The sausage people that serviced the bars brought in pickled sausage from Oakland, I believe it was," Irene says. "The sausage that was shipped in was mostly cheap sausage. It stuck to your teeth. He knew he could make a better pickled sausage than that.
"As soon as he got a gallon in the bar, every bar wanted it. We could go out two evenings a week and sell forty gallons."
A family friend built a crude refrigerator in the garage behind the family home--the walk-in was crude but sturdy; it operates today essentially unchanged from its original design--and Irene began to concentrate on sausage-pickling. Meanwhile, Max ran the bar and cafe and practiced his marketing skills in local beer bars. (In the prehistoric days before convenience stores, beer bars were among the very few places where working people could go to cut a thirst.) "He was a very jolly fellow, a good salesman," says Rosalie of her father, who died in 1963 at age 61. "He liked beer drinking and singing, a very jolly fellow." Before too long, the Jungbauers were supplying sausage snacks to most of the city's taverns.
From the start, Max's Food Processing was a family operation. "I had a little Coke box they put me on, to help pack the sausages," Rosalie says. "I didn't like it, because I didn't like smelling lik~e a pickle. Now that it's our business, our livelihood, I don't even smell it."
Max sold his business on Madison in the Fifties. His sign still is fastened above the entrance of the building that housed the bar and cafe, which sits directly south of the Civic Plaza. "MOTHER RAN THE business by herself from 1948 to 1978," Rosalie says. "She did all the work herself. A working mother, which was very unusual. She was a country girl, with two years of high school and I think two years of business school. It's amazing what she did."
Although sausage remained the company's main line, Max and Irene experimented with other products. They tried dill pickles for a while and fooled around with eggs for a few years, too. And by the mid-Seventies, Irene was just beginning to try her luck with various other pig parts. After thirty years of running the show, she also was getting ready to retire. Rosalie had moved away and trained to become a registered nurse. She also had married Mike Walsh, a personnel-management specialist with a master's degree from the University of California-Irvine. The Walshes had two young boys and were making a life for themselves on the West Coast when something called them back to the Jungbauer garage. "When mother decided she wanted to sell the business in 1978, Mike said, `Why don't we buy your mother's business?'" Rosalie says. "I just about fell over, because we were established in California." But Mike liked the idea of running his own business, and, he says, "there was something about letting it go out of the family." At first Irene was wary of the Walshes' inexperience. "Mother's concern was that Dad was a meat man, and Mike wasn't," Rosalie says. For a while, Irene missed pickling. "I did at first," she says. "It was very hard for me, but I was 72, I think, when I gave it up."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
IN THE DECADE since Mike and Rosalie Walsh have had control of the Max Jungbauer's legacy, product diversification has become a fact of life. In addition to the pickling operation, the couple distributes the Tillamook line of jerky and beef sticks throughout Arizona. Max's also does custom packaging. For example, the company produces sealed-in-plastic packages of fancy peppers for the Scottsdale Princess resort. And the bar-snack business has undergone tremendous change since the late Seventies, Mike Walsh says. Pickled-egg and bottled-sausage sales apparently are tied to the economy. "These products are basically for blue-collar workers and construction workers," Mike says, adding that Max's saw a sizable dip in sales when the state's copper industry took a dive in the early Eighties. Mike also believes that the Arizona State Lottery has taken a bite out of the company's bottom line. "The lottery has an effect on a person's discretionary income," he says. "It's a matter of how much money people have to spend on things that are nonessential.
"Our business has shifted more to convenience stores, where people can buy a six-pack, a Slim-Jim or whatever, then go home."
Still, overhead is low. And demand continues to be high for Max's specialty items. Mike says pork hocks and pigs' feet sell well in Phoenix's black and Hispanic neighborhoods. They are sold by the gallon, and the company typically will sell 75,000 individual pig's feet in a year, Mike says. Pickled eggs, he says, sell in mostly unpredictable waves. The company moves about 1,000 dozen a year. "It's cyclical but steady," Mike says. "If you're getting close to Easter, people want to eat pickled eggs, and there are certain times when all of a sudden pickled eggs are real popular. It's like all of a sudden a bell went off and everybody has to have a pickled egg."
But it is the short sausages, pickled in the same secret formula devised by the original Max, that remain the company's hottest item. The label on each jar that leaves the company's garage carries an old logo, something done for the Jungbauers years ago and recently revived by Rosalie. It's a caricature of a pig. He's wearing a crown, a royal cape and carrying a staff. It is a regal hog. "We're happy with it," Rosalie Walsh says of the family business. "It's something we can be proud of.