Soupy’s On

My favorite family ritual involves guts, slaughter and hangings. When my father told me that he was no longer up to the gruesome task, I decided it was my turn to keep the tradition alive.

I reached my hands down into the box filled with cow intestines. Slowly, carefully, and with firm control over my gag reflex, I withdrew several feet of innards and began turning them inside out, inch by slimy inch. An odor of raw meat mixed with sterile hospital air wafted up to my nostrils. With a good scouring, followed by a soak in clean water, lemons and oranges, these bovine guts would be ready to play their part in a unique annual rite. When you’re in charge—as I was for the first time—you have to take the good with the bad, the finished product with the cow innards.

For the uninitiated, the process of making soppressata may seem more out of the playbook of a mad serial killer than a cookbook of southern Italian cuisine: There are slaughtered pigs, meat grinders, even hangings. Soppressata (or “soupy”) is one of a slew of cured meats that you can find in many gourmet grocery stores. Cousins with salame, prosciutto, mortadella and capicola, soupy nonetheless has a flavor, style, and—especially in Rhode Island—a distinctive tradition.

Growing up as a third-generation Italian in Westerly, I was exposed to soupy-making from an early age. My grandfather, Frank Liguori, ran a small but thriving grocery store on Pierce Street in Westerly for around forty years, selling everything in bulk bins from candy to flour to olives to pasta. (The family’s recipe for Italian ice, a guarded secret, was a huge hit at Misquamicut State Beach in the summertime.) And of course there was soupy, dry-cured and hanging from the ceilings.

A wave of immigrants from Acri in Calabria, Italy, settled in Westerly in the early twentieth century. The town sits atop the remains of a glacier, which left behind a huge natural repository of granite—stock in trade for the Italian emigres, many of whom (including several of my own ancestors) were stone masons. Interestingly, an influx of Sicilians settled in the neighboring town of Pawcatuck, Connecticut, around the same time; the two towns are separated by the Pawcatuck River, just as Sicily and Calabria are separated by the Straits of Messina. Italian traditions are still thriving in these two towns, even after 100 years of modernization.

One Calabrese tradition is making soppressata, a cured meat specific to the region, just as in America it is specific to the northeast, and primarily Westerly. The basic process has not changed since turn-of-the-century Acri, when refrigeration was an unheard-of luxury and nothing was wasted. With pigs, as the adage goes, they would use every part except the squeal. Families made soupy during the winter months, when the outside temperature would be cold enough to keep basement rooms between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimal range for dry-curing. My own family still makes soupy in December or January for this exact reason.

We are hardly the only family in Westerly that prepares our own soppressata. To this day, relatives and friends will bring a soupy by our house, and the discussion will inevitably wind around statements like, “Did you use the coarse pepper or the fine?” “What’s your ratio of salt to meat?” “This is good but a little fatty…maybe too soft.” “Uncle Richard always lets it cure too long!” Every family thinks their soupy is the best. Mine is no exception.

Liguori soupy-making has none of of the trappings of modernity; the process, painstaking and exacting, is equal parts art and science. We mix the pork butts (actually shoulder meat) in old stainless steel tubs on a table put together from assorted parts by my grandfather, fill the stendines (Calabrese for “intestines”) with a hand-operated meat grinder that predates World War I—used by my grandfather and his father before him for this exact purpose—and hang the finished product in a sparse, concrete room with a jury-rigged system of dowels, wires, inverted pie plates and flypaper to keep out rodents and other curious creepy-crawlies. (Thanks to Grandpa Liguori’s ingenuity, we haven’t lost a soupy to the animali in years.) One could easily lift the entire operation out of my grandfather’s cramped basement and move it to a small farm in southern Italy, and nothing would have to change.   

As I do every year, last winter I began gearing up for production time around the Christmas holidays, anticipating that we’d convene in the basement once again sometime in January. With excited anticipation, I called my father one night from my apartment in Manhattan’s East Village: “Dad, when are we making soupy?” The note in his voice barely hid weariness.  “Oh, I don’t know if we’re going to make it this year,” he said. “Grandpa doesn’t feel up to it, and to be honest, neither do I.” My grandfather is ninety-five, troubled by weak knees and poor eyesight; his wife is ninety-three, her own vision more or less destroyed by macular degeneration. My father, still a very active man at sixty-eight, had spent most of the year caring for my mother, who battled fiercely—and successfully—against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The rest of my immediate family was scattered throughout the country, and everyone seemed happy just to have a calm, healthy winter in front of them.


I hold my father in high esteem for many reasons, not least of which is his commitment to family, as well as his unflagging devotion to whatever is on his life’s to-do list. Simply put, he is a guy who gets things done, like his father before him. So even though our family’s situation had changed from years past, his reluctance took me aback. But even at this point in my life I defer to my dad’s judgment, so I let it go.

I couldn’t let it go. I called back a week later. “Dad, we have to make soupy,” I said. “We haven’t missed a year since I can remember.” He responded with the same hesitancy, and finally I simply said, “Okay, I’ll do it myself.” It wasn’t an act of defiance; rather, I just couldn’t live with the idea that this wonderful, special family custom might disappear. I resolved I would enlist anyone who was interested, and together we would craft a batch of soppressata, relying on the knowledge I had gleaned through the years. I suspect my father foresaw getting dragged into the process unwillingly, like a parent helping a child with an overly ambitious science project the night before it’s due. But I promised I would take care of everything, asking only for advice along the way.

My first task was to recruit volunteers. Fortunately, two of my cousins, Rob and Matt, signed up immediately and with enthusiasm. They are second-cousins to me on opposite sides, but in my family, a cousin is a cousin, whether first, second, or fourth-twice-removed. Rob, a sometimes drummer who works with foster children, lives in North Kingstown; Matt, a professional saxophonist, lives near me in Brooklyn. Rob and Matt knew nothing about soupy, other than what their tastebuds told them, but were ecstatic about getting involved. I planned things as much as possible from New York, but as the appointed date drew near, I got some good news from my mom. “Natie wants to help, if you’ll have him,” she said. Natie Ballato, another cousin, stands about five feet, two inches, with a broad white mustache and a profusion of positive energy. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and flew commercially in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. Of course we’d have him—Natie is an experienced soupy-maker, so much so that he’s recently hatched plans to sell his house in southeastern Connecticut, move to Oregon, and start a commercial soppressata operation with his brother.

The following weekend I was back in Westerly, running around town to pick up various ingredients: forty pounds of ground pork butts, one hank of stendines, black pepper, red pepper, paprika and salt. (I couldn’t possibly divulge the ratio of each of these spices, as that would be giving away the family secret. As it is, my grandfather and my father have regular disagreements regarding the amount of salt, which is the controlling factor in the curing process.)

The actual production of soupy looks most like a factory assembly line, but I think that comparison cheapens the process. It’s more akin to a football team running a great series of plays, or perhaps the movements of a ballet troupe. Everything must be done just so, with exact timing and diligence, or else the process breaks down, which leads to ruined meat—something that won’t become evident until the curing process is complete six weeks later. At which point nothing can be done but to throw away the spoilage and pray the rest of the soupys are edible.Soupys hanging to cure

The four of us hand-mixed the meat thoroughly with all of the carefully measured spices, then formed it into softball-sized lumps. With sleeves rolled up and bits of paprika-dyed pork clinging to his forearms, Natie expertly suggested that we store the mixed meat in the bulkhead to keep it cool, and therefore less prone to spoiling. The intestines I had been handling earlier had been turned inside out, soaked and cleaned thoroughly. That ancient meat extruder/grinder sat attached at one end of a table, its wooden crank awaiting Matt’s hand. Natie fed a stendine over the end of the extruder and tied the free end with string. Doing the tying is yeoman’s work; even though our fingers were covered with surgical tape, they would be sliced and raw by the time all was said and done, and yet like every other part of the process, getting it right was crucial.

Matt operated the grinder, feeding soupy balls in, taking care not to run the grinder “dry,” lest air escape into the finished product and cause spoilage. As the crank turned, I guided the meat into the casings, again making sure that no excess air got in. This is perhaps the most delicate part of the system, for if a casing is filled too tightly it will burst. During the extrusion, Natie and I stuck a hatpin into the casings at odd intervals to let any air escape through the one-way membranous skin. Once a soupy had been filled to adequate size, the other end was tied and then cut. The soupys were bound crosswise and lengthwise, and then tied in pairs for hanging purposes. This part was usually left to my grandmother, my mother and my aunts; it may seem a bit sexist, but female fingers seem to be much more dexterous. This year, having no women around, we four did our level best with our clumsy man-hands.


Normally I’m fairly relaxed, falling into my role as one of the bit parts in this ballet, but this year I was extremely wary of screwing up. Still, we only burst a stendine once in a great while, and we didn’t run into any other major problems. We were missing one key ingredient, though, which is the Quality Control Officer, also known as Grandma Liguori. While making soppressata in my family is generally a male-dominated endeavor, nothing can be mixed, filled or hung without my grandmother’s approval. (This is a woman who once locked my father out of the house when he came home two minutes past curfew. She nearly sent his sister out into the night with him for trying to sneak him back in.) While the meat was mixed, she would periodically fry some on the basement stove—it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that having an oven in the cellar was an oddity—and without fail she’d say, “It’s not hot enough.” Once the spice was turned up to the appropriate level, she oversaw the rest of the process, helping, instructing and pointing out when someone had messed up. I really felt her absence.

Natie and I ran quality control this time around, and though we were a ragtag bunch of guys, most of whom have never made soupy before, I’m proud to say that we pulled it off. The finished soupys were hung in Rob’s basement, overhead between his drum kit and computer desk. He dutifully monitored the humidity and temperature, and with the passage of six weeks and a little bit of buona fortuna, we had forty beautiful, delicious soppressata. When we sliced into the first one in celebration, the familiar texture and flavor told us we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do. The addition of red pepper, as well as the coarser grind of meat, is what distinguishes soppressata from salame, its more familiar relative. Ours were firm but tender, with a nice balance of two different kinds of heat from the red and black pepper.

Successfully producing a batch of soupy meant more than just learning new culinary skills for me; in fact, it was mostly about tradition. I’m a bit of an anomaly. My parents were born in the United States, and their parents were all born here as well. With many immigrants, by the time three generations have been raised here, their ethnicity has become a blend. But my forebears all have married other Calabrese, and as a result I am still a full-blooded Italian-American. For me, this fact is very significant—not in a conceited way, but because I’m proud of my heritage. It is that pride—that love of where I come from and the strength of our family bond—that drove me to make soupy last year.

As an adult, I’ve learned many of my family’s culinary secrets. I’ve mastered my mother’s gravy and my grandmother’s braciole, pizza frita and cacciatore. Preparing soupy is by far the most difficult of these, but undeniably the most rewarding. Soupy is the most singular, both in America and the “old country,” and requires the most skill, dedication and patience to create. Prego may have hijacked the marinara market, but you won’t find them turning out soupys anytime soon.

As it turned out, my father didn’t have to lift a finger to help us, but later, when I gave him one of our soupys to taste test, he glowed approvingly. I knew he was proud of me, not only because of the quality of the finished product, but because I had carried on our family’s winter ritual. The other day, I received an email from cousin Rob with a P.S. that simply read, “Start planning on soupy.” I already had. The date’s set. The grinder lies waiting. And this year, I plan on making twice as much.