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Wednesday, August 11, 1999
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald

Expert Kielbasi Makers Leave this Novice in Awe
Staff Writer

SHENANDOAH -- It's nothing for Mark Kowalonek to effortlessly churn out ring after ring of that popular Schuylkill County staple - kielbasi.

But for the average person, the experience can be frustrating and messy.

Trust me. Out of 10 tries, I'm lucky if I did two right.

"It's not round," Kowalonek said, looking over one ring I made.

The Shenandoah native of Polish descent whose family started Kowalonek's Kielbasy Shop in 1911 has been on the job since he was 13. At 42, Kowalonek is an artisan of sausage making.

Working in the "kilbo" business isn't just about making rings, I discovered working alongside Kowalonek and his staff at the Main and Laurel streets shop recently.

Kowalonek started his day at 6 a.m., driving from his home in Nesquehoning to Vernalis Restaurant, Shenandoah, where at 6:30 he ordered a meatless breakfast: three pieces of toast with strawberry jelly and coffee with milk and sugar.

When I arrived at 7, he had me help him carry in a PC-sized metal contraption - a hot-dog linker to string up kielbasi hot-dogs he called "grillers."

The machine, which cost $4,995, was bought on a 30-day-trial basis from Linker Machines, Rockaway, N.J.

Walking in, I thought about how legendary this one-story building - part kielbasi works, part store - is locally. At Christmas and Easter, lines go out the door and down the block.

"It's first come, first serve," said Kowalonek, whose business, which employs four full- and two part-timers, is one of 13 butcher shops in Schuylkill County that make kielbasi on site.

With him that day were production manager David J. Krusinsky, Frackville; cashier Ann M. Kowalonek, Shenandoah, the owner's mother; and production assistants Nicholas A. Palina, Frackville, Cheryl Kostowskie, Shenandoah, and Stephan Kowalonek, a cousin of Mark's from Frackville.

Also working alongside his son as he does every day was Kowalonek's father, Paul, who previously owned and managed the store.

They stayed busy all day, creating what amounts to a ton and a half of pork a week, approximately 1,000 rings of kielbasi.

Kowalonek and I washed our hands with antibacterial soap, put on white aprons and got our hands sticky in a giant steel vat filled with ground up beef and pork.

To survive in this business, Kowalonek said he has to make kielbasi that has the traditional flavor the people of the coal region grew up with.

We talked about this while we made kielbasi loaves, by scooping 3-pound gobs of the meat out of a vat, then sculpting them with our hands.

"Obviously, you can't do everything," he said about matching the traditional flavor. "But the trick is to get as close as you can. You use the same garlic that you used. You use the same salt from the same suppliers. Consistency is the key."

Kowalonek then opened a walk-in refrigerator and rolled out a 55-gallon plastic barrel already filled with rings of kielbasi.

He and I hung ring after ring, 400 in all, on a 4-foot-long rack, which was then rolled into a closet-sized machine to be smoked with hickory chips.

At 9 a.m., the store opened and the first customer in the door was Ronald J. Rader, Frackville, an aide to state Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-29, who was picking six rings - three smoked, three fresh - for people who had experienced Kowalonek's fare during a recent visit.

It doesn't matter how much you know about smoking kielbasi and about its flavor, if you don't know how to make it. Around 10, I got my first lesson from the man who spends most of his day in a corner working at a ring-making machine.

"I keep asking him to get me a window," said Krusinsky, who has been working there 11 years, starting when he was a Shenandoah Valley High School student.

There is no view, Kowalonek said. "Unless you want to see the back of a compressor."

Krusinsky loaded 100 pounds of raw kilbo into a giant steel tub. With his knee, he pushed a lever to activate a hydraulic piston. The piston pushed the meat out of a tube and into a wet white translucent casing made of pig intestine.

Krusinsky did it with lightning speed, then stapled the two ends of a ring together by inserting them into another machine.

When I tried, I wasn't making rings. I was filling casings until they were as big as some African snakes. Sometimes, when I'd hold the casing too tight, it would break and I was just making a mess.

The trick to doing it is to control the flow of the meat into the casing, Kowalonek said.

"It takes practice," Krusinsky said. "If you sat here and did a whole hundred pounds, by the time you got the whole hundred pounds done, you wouldn't be quick at it, but you'd get the hang of it."

At 11:30 a.m., the work crew was treated to fresh baked ziti for lunch, made by Elizabeth "Mimi" Kiskeravage, Stephan Kowalonek's grandmother, who lives a few doors up.

Mark Kowalonek and his staff chose to eat in the sausage room, although the smell of raw meat was heavy.

There, he talked about his youth, growing up in Shenandoah and playing for the Shenandoah Valley football team.

He graduated from high school in 1974 and earned a B.A. from Villanova University in 1978. He worked at other management jobs before he took over the store in the early 1980s.

Looking to the future, Kowalonek is trying to come up with new products to please his kielbasi lovers.

Helping him are his customers, including Mabel J. Yurkonis, 65, of Frackville.

"Mabel is one of the first people who gets to test stuff," Kowalonek said. "She tested our next product which is coming out, kielbasi burgers."

"You heat them over charcoal," Yurkonis said. "You brown them. Put them on a bun, with lettuce, tomatoes, what have you. Maybe some catsup or mayonnaise on it. Whatever you want. They're very good."

Kowalonek's father, who managed the business from 1948 until his son took over, said he's proud of his son and knows why he is a success as a manager.

"He likes to work hard," he said.

The younger Kowalonek also likes to work for himself.

According to his father, Mark always says "Why should I put in 60 hours for someone else when I could do it for myself?"

(Reporter Steve Pytak has been trying out various jobs around the county this year.) ?

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