If the only kielbasa you've ever had was from Hickory Farms, you've never had kielbasa.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Broadway Market on Monday afternoon, where eight homemade and commercial sausage makers plated their best stuff before a panel of 11 judges as they competed for the title of Buffalo's Best Kielbasa.
Keith and Mark Bednarz of Hamburg have been making kielbasa their whole lives, taught by their Polish-immigrant grandparents, whose recipes they still use. It's still a family affair.
"All of my brothers get together and we gang up on it," Keith said.
This wasn't their first rodeo – they've won first and third places in the past – but it was the first year they've entered their maple smoked sausage in the non-traditional category. They made maple syrup from trees tapped in their own backyard, a hobby they started dabbling in a few years ago. They made 120 pounds total and smoked 70 pounds of it.
Jeff Suszczynski had a brave submission for the non-traditional category: vegetarian kielbasa. If any of the judges noticed it wasn't the real thing, none of them seemed to say anything.
Since becoming a vegetarian, the taste of real Polish sausage is one of the things Suszczynski has missed the most. So, about two years ago, he started working on a non-meat substitute using authentic Polish recipes and ingredients such as tomato paste, great northern beans and vegetarian broth. Unable to use the animal-sourced casing, he forms the links by hand.
The grandson of a commercial sausage maker, he hopes to take the recipe to market soon.
It was David and Michael Pruski's first time in the contest. The brothers have a lifetime of fond memories making sausage with their dad, who passed away this year, and entered the contest in his memory.
"We're doing this for him," David said.
Michael Martinez of Lakeview felt the need to explain why he is qualified to make Polish sausage with such a non-Polish name as Martinez.
"My father's mother was from Poland. Her name was Gastol, which means 'born of the table'," he said, adding that his mother was also Polish, with the surname Prewiega.
He said the hardest part is getting the fire right for the smoke. People don't realize that the weather dictates how your fire will behave, he said.
"Not anybody can just start stuffing casings with meat," he said. "There's a science to it."
He should know, he won last year's non-traditional category with a three-to-one pork over lamb sausage with sweet peppers.
Roy Bakos of Buffalo Distilling Co. brought some of the distillery's limited-batch Krupnik for judges to sip between samples.
"It's a good palate cleanser," he said.
Judges sampled a dozen kinds of traditional fresh, smoked, holiday and non-traditional sausages. Judging criteria used a scale from one to 10 in terms of taste and texture. Some were sweet, some were spicy; some were crumbly, some retained their shape.
"Each one is different. It's going to be hard to choose a winner," said Tim Herzog of Flying Bison Brewing Co., one of the event's 11 celebrity judges, which included Fillmore District Council Member David A. Franczyk who sponsors the event, and myself.
But in the end, choose winners we did. Buffalo's Best Kielbasa was awarded to Michael Martinez, the Polish guy with the non-Polish name. He received a gift basket and Buffalo's ultimate bragging rights.
The other winners
- Polish Villa II, commercial smoked
- Mark and Keith Bednarz, non-traditional homemade
- Dash's Market, commercial fresh
- Mark and Keith Bednarz, fresh homemade
- Michael Martinez, smoked homemade
- Polish Villa II, the people's choice