Does the thought of setting a few extra places at your dinner table send you into a panic?
Then you’d better sit down: Every year, one community near Forest Grove, Oregon, opens its doors to thousands of people for a veritable feast.
For more than 80 years, tiny Verboort has mashed, sliced, stuffed and served tradition at its annual Sausage and Sauerkraut Dinner. Held the first Saturday in November, the event is an expression of the community’s Catholic faith, immigrant heritage and farming roots.
The dinner started off as a celebration of a good harvest, said Lawrence Verboort, whose Dutch ancestors (one of whom, a Catholic priest, is the community’s namesake) settled in this quiet corner of the Willamette Valley in 1875 and helped found Visitation Catholic Church. The parish hosts the dinner as a benefit.
“We're doing God's work to help support our parish and keep our school going, which has been going for 100 and some years,” Verboort said.
Eventually, the parish wanted to distinguish itself from other church dinners, which tended to serve chicken or slow-roasted beef, according to Verboort.
“Everybody was doing the same thing. So that's when the sausage was introduced,” he said.
The community’s first sausage dinner took place in 1934. Volunteers made 198 pounds of sausage and served 150 guests.
Fast forward to today. Volunteers now make from scratch 15 tons of sausage, about 400 gallons of applesauce and 62 barrels of sauerkraut. On the day of the dinner, they serve about 8,000 meals — that doesn’t include day-of bulk sausage and sauerkraut sales.
Pulling off this one-day event takes months of preparation, with Mother Nature blowing the starting whistle.
“You have to wait for your cabbage to get ripe,” Verboort explained. “Cabbage is grown and picked usually in the latter part of the summer. So we have to gauge that we can get at least six to seven weeks of curing or fermenting of the cabbage so that we can get it just right for the day of the dinner.”
The dinner’s star components — sauerkraut, applesauce and sausage — are made over three weekends, starting with applesauce usually in late August, sauerkraut in mid-September and sausage the weekend before the dinner. Raw ingredients are sourced locally (Parkdale for the Gravenstein apples; Sauvie Island for the cabbage; a parishioner for the meat).
On applesauce weekend, the parish dining room and kitchen fill with the sound of ripe apples dropping into buckets and the warm smell of cinnamon. During sauerkraut day, cabbage heads squeak as they’re moved from the back of a truck, whapped with a machete into quarters and then shredded. When it comes time to make the sausage, volunteers in white coats and hairnets head to a production kitchen built on-site specifically for the dinner. There they grind 30,000 pounds of meat, season it and extrude it into casings. The plump, fleshy ropes are then smoked for eight hours.
Then, after months of preparation, it’s dinner time.
On the day of the feast, lines of people snake around the church grounds. Some lines lead to the bulk sausage and sauerkraut sales, which open at 9 a.m.; others to the ticket and dinner lines. Cars begin to queue for the drive-through dinners. There’s a craft fair and a beer garden to help pass the time. The parish school choir sings from the steps. Everything happens under the canopy of towering giant sequoias that grow on the property.
“We start selling tickets for dinner at 10 o'clock in the morning. Then we start serving at 11,” Verboort said. “Then we sell tickets until 8 o'clock that night.”
Inside the dining hall and kitchen, a well-greased machine hums along. Kids and adults alike help out with everything from serving coffee and setting the long communal tables to filling plates and bringing them — brimming — to hungry diners.
“They'll bring you a plate with your meal on it, which will be potatoes, gravy. We have our five-ingredient salad, our applesauce. We have green beans, which also are locally grown,” Verboort explained. “Then you get your sausage and your sauerkraut. You get a roll, and then at the end, when you're all finished, you get your choice of apple pie or lemon meringue pie.” (Note to belt: Servings of sausage and sauerkraut are unlimited.)
And the community spirit that fuels the making of the dinner spills into the brightly lit dining hall, where diners are seated with family, friends — and friends to be.
“You get sat down with somebody you don't know. A lot of people sit there and they chat. They meet somebody new, and they chat and they talk about things and have good times,” Verboort said. “Nobody should be too shy.”
It’s a meal that — year after year — binds a community, fills bellies and feeds the soul.
The Verboort Sausage and Sauerkraut Dinner happens the first Saturday of November.