The Great Venison Sausage Contest: An amateur sweep

The judges moved around the venison like wolves circling a buck. Once in a while, one would move in, snatch a chunk of sausage or jerky, then retreat to sample its flavor.

Judge's taste
Mike Schrage of Duluth, a judge in the News Tribune's Great Venison Sausage Contest, prepares to taste another entry at the newspaper's offices on Wednesday. Nearly 30 entries were received in the contest. (Bob King /

The judges moved around the venison like wolves circling a buck. Once in a while, one would move in, snatch a chunk of sausage or jerky, then retreat to sample its flavor.

That was the scene at the News Tribune on Wednesday, when four venison connoisseurs gathered to judge the Great Venison Sausage Contest.

"Wow," Duluth's Eric Larson said, chewing a chunk of jerky thoughtfully. "Number 13 is solid. Very solid."

Suzanne Hargis of Duluth, another judge, bit off a piece of sample number 11.

"You put it in your mouth. You taste it -- smoky but mild," she said. "Then the flavor just continues."


Among 29 entries, Ron Gittings of Cloquet came out the big winner. Gittings tied for first in the amateur venison sausage division and also took second and third in the same category.

Gittings, a sociology instructor at Fond du Lac College and the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been making his own sausage for three or four years, he said.

His smoked snack sticks, which tied for first with a summer sausage by Gary Bay of Superior, came from a recipe he picked up in Iowa this fall, Gittings said.

"I went to a sausage-making seminar down there in October," he said. "It was one of the funnest days I've ever had in my life."

The spice mixture he used in his snack sticks came from Keith Curley at . Gittings didn't modify it.

His venison was provided by his daughter Leanne, who shot three deer this fall, two within 10 seconds during the firearms season.

Bay and his wife Christine make their venison summer sausage every year.

"That's a family recipe we've had in the family for 30 years or better," Bay said. "We always do our own processing of animals."


Although he didn't want to share the recipe, he had some tips for sausage-makers.

"The main thing is to make sure your spices are fresh," Bay said. "And buy the good stuff."

The Bays make 25-pound batches at a time.

"It's an incredible amount of work to do it," he said. "You have to smoke it for 14 hours."

Gary and Christine each took a buck during bow season this fall in Wisconsin, and both deer came off their own property.

Commercial sausage division

Superior Meats in Superior took first place in the commercial venison sausage division with its venison teriyaki snack sticks. Jerry Atkinson of Oliver submitted the entry.

Superior Meats also took second in the category among four entries with a Landjager Swiss cheese venison snack stick.


"Those are two of our best-sellers," said Mike Cragin, manager of Superior Meats. "The teriyaki, we entered that at a trade show in Madison last year and got an honorable mention."

The shop sells bags of spices for making the two kinds of sausage, Cragin said.

Jerky division

Jay Nelson of Duluth has been making jerky for about a year after being inspired by a brother-in-law. His thin strips of jerky won the jerky division of the contest.

"I tasted it, and I can't stop making it now," said Nelson, 32. "I bring it with me to work and to hunting camp, anywhere you feel like snacking -- if there's any left. Everyone likes it, so it doesn't last long."

He brines the venison then smokes it for two hours over cherry and hickory chips mixed together. He sprinkles a bit of brown sugar on the strips before smoking them.

This division was full of excellent entries, the judges said. Bill Ralidak of Meadowlands took second and Ray Renaud of Duluth third.

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