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D.C.’s signature half-smoke sausage is made by a West Baltimore meat processor

For The Baltimore Sun
One of D.C.'s favorite foods actually comes from West Baltimore.

Marylanders are well represented at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, from scientist Benjamin Banneker to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

But there's a Baltimore connection you may never have heard of — half-smoke sausages. The spicy links served at the museum's Sweet Home Cafe are made by Manger's in West Baltimore.

The family operation, officially called Manger Packing Corp., turns out about 20,000 pounds of sausages a week, with half-smokes making up about 9,000 pounds. Considered a signature food of the nation's capital, most of the half-smokes are destined for Washington and one of its most beloved restaurants — Ben's Chili Bowl.

Alvin Manger, 81, is the fourth generation to run the meat processing company founded by his great-grandfather, George Manger, a German immigrant, in the 1860s.

As the guardian of his half-smoke recipe, Manger vaguely describes the sausages as a blend of pork and beef combined with spices mixed on the premises — he doesn't trust outsiders to do it — and stuffed into natural casings.

"They are cured the old-fashioned way, overnight," he said.

The definition of the half-smoke is mysterious, since no one has revealed the exact recipe for the links introduced to D.C. in the 1950s. Many food aficionados have concluded it's a smoked sausage that's half pork and half beef.

Manger will only say, "It's similar to a smoked sausage. No one really knows."

Regardless, it's become a ubiquitous Washington street food.

"Half-smokes seem to truly be a D.C. thing connected to a number of spots, most notably Ben's Chili Bowl," culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, a consultant for Sweet Home Cafe, said in an email. "They are also connected to a variety of African-American notables, including President Obama."

The president discovered it at Ben's during a visit before he was inaugurated in 2009. He got his half-smoke smothered in chili.

Asked for his thoughts on Obama sampling a Manger's half-smoke, Alvin Manger said diplomatically: "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Republican."

But Manger started making half-smokes long before Obama chowed down on them. Ben's Chili Bowl, which opened in 1958, originally used another brand of half-smoke. About 25 years ago, they were in the market for a new purveyor.

"They were looking for a different half-smoke," Manger said. "They wanted to add a few items. I said, 'I can fix that.'"

To this day, Manger makes a special half-smoke for Ben's Chili Bowl. "For Ben's, I reformulate it slightly," he acknowledged.

"He makes a secret recipe blend for us," said Vida Ali, whose father- and mother-in-law, Ben and Virginia Ali, founded the Chili Bowl.

She credits Ben Ali, who died in 2009, with the popularity of the half-smoke sandwich in D.C.

"Half-smokes were first a breakfast food. Then Pop put it in a bun," she said. "It's cool that it caught on here."

(Weenie Beenie, a fast-food chain, also gets a nod for spurring the rise of half-smokes in the D.C. area. It opened its first store selling half-smokes in 1954 in Arlington, Va.)

While a half-smoke covered with Ben's chili is a favorite sandwich at the restaurant, other customers like theirs doused with ketchup or served plain.

"It's so flavorful by itself," said Ali, who is married to Sage Ali, one of Ben and Virginia Ali's three sons, and who works at the family restaurant in a variety of capacities.

Since the new Smithsonian museum and cafe opened Sept. 24, Ben's has seen an influx of visitors. "We're getting a lot of guests who are coming to the museum, and then they come to the Chili Bowl afterward," she said.

A photo of Ben's Chili Bowl hangs in Sweet Home Cafe's 400-seat dining room as a reminder of the African-American-owned restaurant's contribution to the D.C. food scene. The core menu offers Manger's half-smokes.

"It was a natural fit," said Albert Lukas, supervising chef at Restaurant Associates, which operates the cafe with Thompson Hospitality. "It's because of the popularity of Ben's. We're proud to have a sausage that represents the city."

He noted that Manger's half-smokes are also available at restaurants at the American History and Natural History museums.

But you don't have to go to D.C. to find Manger's sausages. In the Baltimore area, they can be found at the three Geresbeck's Food Markets and at Manger's processing plant, 124 S. Franklintown Road.

The plant — which doesn't look like much from the outside but houses state-of-the art equipment inside — is open for retail sales from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Customers who are buying 10-pound boxes of sausages can also stop by from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Joe McQuay, a production manager at Roma Gourmet Sausage in Highlandtown, has sampled Manger's half-smokes. Roma, known for its Natty Boh bratwurst and Old Bay sausage, makes small-batch, fresh products and doesn't sell half-smokes.

"They're not bad. They're good for hors d'oeuvres and tailgating," McQuay said. "I would not feed them to my family. They're a very processed product."

Manger's uses fresh local meat and spices from Jessup-based Elite Spice for its sausages.

Alvin Manger's children, David and Jeff Manger, Sharon Barry and Susan Rhoades, work at the company. They started packaging sausages by the time they were 12.

"It was our morals and values," Barry said. "You go to work."

Manger's grandson, Jordan Manger, who blends the meats for the sausages and the spices at the plant, is leading the way for a sixth generation to run the business.

"I'm the current custodian," Alvin Manger said. "It was passed on to me, and it will go to Jeff and the rest of them."

Manger's has been in its current location since the 1880s. Alvin Manger grew up in the house out front. On a recent Thursday, he walked a visitor down the street to where his grandparents lived.

The once-lively lane was populated by other German butchers, he said. Drovers would bring their hogs to the Gwynns Falls waterway that ran behind the homes, now lined with overgrown weeds and fencing. The neighborhood house of worship at the time, St. John's German Evangelical Lutheran, was called the butchers' church.

"We were typical Germans," said Manger, who now lives in Catonsville with his wife, Carole. "We would make sausages behind the house and go to Lexington Market and other markets and sell them."

They stopped selling at Lexington Market in the 1980s. They discontinued butchering hogs on the property in 1968.

As Manger, an affable guide, gives a tour of the piecemeal plant, he talks about the future.

"We should be building a new sausage operation," he said. "We don't have room here."

The family is thinking about relocating to the suburbs.

"It would have been harder to move a few years ago," Manger said. "But the city is changing."

Wistfully, he added, "It's up to the next generation now."

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