We arrive in a windowless white room at the far end of the building filled with several large stainless-steel machines, prep tables and the cauldron where Axel once heated his vegetable juice. One of the prep tables is crowded with bread tins filled with uncooked loaves of Fleischkäse—a goopy pink purée of meat and cheese, which, when finished, will resemble a meatloaf of sorts.
He enters a walk-in cooler and returns lugging a five-gallon steel container of the sort one finds at a dairy.
“What’s that?” I ask.
Axel begins feeding ingredients into the sausage-mixing machine’s doughnut-shaped trough. First in are leftover cold cuts from the front display case. He then fishes out ten pounds of raw livers from a bag containing twice that amount and slips them into the trough. He pulls a large steaming colander filled with boiled pigskins from the kettle and pours the pale gelatinous mass (used to help bind the ingredients) into the trough. He sprinkles in a bowl of cubed lard as the machine spins and shreds its contents. Axel runs his machine at a lower, quieter speed out of deference to his neighbors, many of whom are less than thrilled to live next door to Sweeney Todd. Moments later, the mixture is a porridge the color of sun-dried tomatoes.
Axel tilts the bucket of blood into the trough until it is filled nearly to the rim. The vibrant, swirling red mass continues to churn; the aroma is earthy and sweet, like ripe compost. With a look of resignation, he adds the flavor enhancers sodium nitrate and monosodium glutamate, which quickly turn the mix a brighter red. “I tried stripping the MSG and food coloring from the sausages, but they weren’t very popular,” he says. “Claudia Schiffer without the makeup doesn’t sell.”
The mixture ready, Axel uses a pitcher, and later a squeegee, to scoop it into a white tub. “You can taste it if you’d like,” he offers, and then dips his finger in the batter and puts it in his mouth. I decline. “We sell more Blutwurst than anything else,” Axel tells me. “We’re known for it.” A favorite Düsseldorf breakfast, Himmel und Ähd (Heaven and Earth), consists of pan-fried blood sausage topped with mashed potatoes, applesauce and fried onions.
Axel unfolds 15 feet of a cow’s slippery intestinal membrane atop a prep table and then pours the sausage mixture into the funnel of a machine that pushes the mush through a tapered nozzle with the help of a foot pedal. He fills up two feet of gut at a time, twists it in the middle like a clown tying a balloon, then brings the two ends together and fastens the membrane with a heat-sealing machine, so the sausage forms a classic ring with two links. He plunks the sausage into the outsize kettle to cook. Axel works with a repetitive exactitude that borders on automated precision: pedal, squirt, twist, seal, plop. Next.
Axel ties up the last ring of sausage and tosses it into the kettle, then sets about disinfecting the kitchen with spray foam. He pauses in front of the sausage trough. “If you start thinking about it, there has been a lot of death in this machine,” he says. “Feelings like that aren’t really allowed here. If I allowed myself to turn the switch on and see everything at once, I might as well put a gun to my head. But it still pains me when I see a very small liver, because I know that it came from a baby animal.” Axel’s eyes grow red and watery. “You can say this is ridiculous—a butcher who cries at the sight of a liver.” He then paraphrases the writer Paulo Coelho’s line: “When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change.”
With the last trace of blood hosed down the drain, Axel’s mood lightens. He puts on a cloth apron, reaches into the cooler and pulls out carrots, potatoes, cabbages and several packages of tofu for today’s casserole. We sharpen our knives and attack the carrots first.