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Time to make the soupy

Westerly — Four Italian-American men gathered around a kitchen island here Sunday morning, forming an assembly line of sorts, mimicking the same motions made by their fathers and mothers, and their fathers and mothers before them.

They smashed seasoned pork meat, filled and tied it into sausages and hung it in the cellar.

As the men concentrated on their tasks, they talked and laughed about the time one of their fathers got a hernia from hand cranking the meat.

Every year, the Toscano family, like many other Westerly families, dedicates a day in December or January to making an Italian cured meat called Sopressata, better known as soupy.

"It's not unlike Christmas Eve traditions," said Louie Toscano. "It allows everyone to be together."

Louie Toscano, 69, took over as the head of the family soupy making shortly after his father passed away in 1996. Before retiring last year, he worked as a kindergarten teacher for 31 years so the the soupy making was always scheduled on the three-day weekend that includes Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Joining Louie in his kitchen Sunday were his brother Frank Toscano, his cousin Peter Stenhouse and his nephew Kevin Christina.

"I watched my grandmother and father make it as a child," said Louie. "My grandmother taught my father and he taught me — well not teach, more like 'watch and see.'"  

Louie's home on John Street was his mother's childhood home and has seen 70 years of soupy making. The process of making soupy, however, has not always stayed the same.

Stenhouse said he used to hand crank ground pork shoulder meat with a sausage stuffer as his father did. In recent years, Louie has acquired a commerical sausage stuffer and now Stenhouse smashes the meat into the machine from the top. The machine speeds up the process, filling up one sausage casing per minute. 

Louie said they get their meat from Westerly Packaging Co., where he he saw multiple families on Sunday morning waiting to pick up their orders.

He said most families have the meat ground ahead of time and mixed with spices such as red and black pepper, paprika and a lot of salt. He added that some families also add wine or tomato sauce or make it really spicy. The casings they use are artificial, but there are also casings made of pig intestines.

"Each family has their own recipe," Louie said.

"Ours is the best in town," Frank quickly remarked. "And in the world!"

Louie held onto the casings as the machine stuffed them, making sure no air entered the casing, which ruins the sausage. Frank waited until Louie was done filling the casing to close the end with a zip tie. Christina tied string to the casings so they could hang in the cellar. Once hung, the meat cures for about seven weeks under the right conditions— cold, dry but slightly humid.

From start to finish, the process is a "labor of love," said Louie.

Frank said some of his best memories growing up were watching his father with Peter's father and grandfather in the kitchen making soupy and having a good time.

On Sunday, the men had planned to make 100 pounds of soupy, or 80 sticks. The meat, raw or cured, can be cooked in a variety of ways and is central to making Frittata, an egg-based Italian dish traditionally eaten on Easter morning. That said, soupy is common in every family function and daily life.

"I can't go a day without soupy," said Christina.


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