The Somewhat-Fake Sausage That Saved Lives

Over the past few years, the popularity of plant-based meat alternatives has been on the rise. Some of the older options, like Tofurkey and Boca burgers, are trying to create items that are clearly not meat, but at least try to mimic some aspects of, say, a hamburger or turkey sandwich. Others, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, are trying to replicate the entire meat-eating experience — taste, texture, and even the appearance — in an effort to replace meat as much as possible. For many consumers, this is a step in the right direction; many, for either health, ecological, or ethical issues, appear to be increasingly interested in the offerings.

But for most of those consumers, fake meat isn’t needed to survive. Even if you have some sort of allergy or another medical aversion to, say, a hamburger, you don’t need to eat a Gardenburger or the like — you can just eat something totally different. (Sounds like a good excuse to eat ice cream for lunch.) Finding yourself a meat alternative isn’t going to be all that important.

But for a Jewish community in the 1500s, fake meat — or, a pork-free version, at least —  was a matter of life or death.

Observant Jews adhere to a set of dietary laws called “kashrut,” or more commonly said, they only eat foods that are kosher. The rules here are long and complicated, but most of them not all that important for our purposes today. The one you have to know, though, is that Jews who keep kosher won’t eat pork products — no ham, bacon, or anything else that comes from a pig. In modern society, that’s also not a big deal — if you follow those rules, you simply don’t buy or eat anything that’s forbidden, and you go on your day as you would otherwise. But in the late 1400s, if you were a Jew living in Portugal, life wasn’t so simple.

In 1478, Spain — Portugal’s Iberian neighbor — instituted what is now known as the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, the Inquisition was an effort to ensure that recent converts (typically from Judaism or Islam) to Catholicism were actually practicing Catholicism, but it quickly became more nefarious. Those accused of heresy were punished in public spectacles known as an  “auto-da-fé,” or “act of faith,” which in extreme cases consisted of burning someone to death while surrounded by cheering onlookers. For those Jews and Muslims who wanted to remain true to their faith, the window to do so was ultimately short-lived; In 1492 and again a decade later, the crown passed edicts requiring that Jews and Muslims either convert to Catholicism or face expulsion. Many practiced their religion in secret instead, at the risk of being executed if caught. 

The Spanish Inquisition spread to Portugal, officially, starting in 1536; targeting, predominantly, Jews. But the persecution of Jews in Portugal began long before that. In the 1490s, many Spanish Jews who had left Spain due to the Inquisition found themselves living in Portugal and in the crosshairs. Like they were in Spain, these Jews were given a choice: convert or leave. Neither option was a good one — they didn’t want to not be Jewish, and they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Many decided to stop running and, instead, observe their faith in secret. But that came with considerable risk. Over the next half-century, violence against Jews increased throughout Portugal. Over three days in 1506, violence broke out in Lisbon, with more than 1,900 people killed on suspicion of being Jews (and therefore heretics). The first auto-da-fé in Portgal took place in 1540, and during the course of the Portuguese Inquisition, more than 30,000 people were subject to an auto-da-fé, with as many as 2,000 of them executed. The danger, if one were caught practicing Judaism, was very real. 

Unfortunately, doing so silently was easier said than done. The problem: sausages. Or, more specifically, a lack of sausages. As the BBC explains, in parts of Portugal, “every home preserved pork sausages to see the family through the winter, hanging them from the rafters in meaty coils. Jews – who did not eat pork – were conspicuous for their missing sausages.” 

The solution: the no-pork sausage. Jews in the city of Mirandela (here’s a map.) developed a recipe, now called “alheira,” a version of which can be seen above (via here). Alheria didn’t have pork in it — it was made mostly of bread and, most likely, chicken, with a cow’s intestine used as a casing (sorry, it’s not a plant-based meat alternative), combined with olive oil and, often paprika, to give the food a reddish hue. The end result was something that looked a lot like a chorizo, which was precisely the point. As the BBC further notes, the point was to develop “a bread sausage that could fool informers and local zealots who denounced them to the Inquisition for not eating pork.” 

We don’t know how many lives this innovation in cylindrical meat saved; that is probably unknowable. But we do know that the alheria was decent enough alternatively, from a culinary perspective: today, you can find bread sausages like them in much of northern Portugal. But one thing is different: modern alheria probably are not kosher. Increasingly, recipes for alheria call for pork.

Bonus fact: Sausages are often considered a German food, but in World War I, the country went through a government-mandated shortage. Why? Zeppelins. Air combat at the time was centered around dirigibles that would take to the sky, and those balloons weren’t made of latex or mylar — they were made of cow intestines. The Guardian explains: “With the guts from more than 250,000 cows needed to produce the bags that held the hydrogen gas in each Zeppelin, the German war machine had to choose between long-range bombing and wurst. It chose the former,” and required butchers to hand over whatever they had. The result: sausages were hard to come by.

From the Archives: The Best-Selling Volkswagen Doesn’t Have Fahrvergnügen: Until recently (as part of an effort to cut carbon emissions), Volkswagon’s biggest seller wasn’t its cars, but — you guessed it — its sausages.