John Ostrowski, a renowned Southeast Baltimore sausage maker who refused to sell his product to supermarkets for wider distribution, died of complications from Alzheimer's disease Wednesday at Somerford Place Assisted Living in Columbia. The Lutherville resident was 72.
"As soon as you step through the front door of 524 S. Washington St., it hits you: the spicy, smoky, garlicky and altogether unmistakable smell of tradition," said a 2005 Baltimore Sun article about Mr. Ostrowski and his family business, Ostrowski's Famous Polish Sausage.
For more than 90 years, he and his father and grandfather before him worked out of a light-colored brick rowhouse on a Fells Point street, where a Sun food writer said they practiced "carnivorous magic. Customers returned year after year for his kielbasa and other pork products."
"He thought of the 500 block of S. Washington St. as his block. The rest of us were just on it," said John Reusing, who purchased the sausage-making business late last year after Mr. Ostrowski told family members he was no longer up to the task of working. Mr. Reusing, who also owns the neighboring Bad Decisions bar, said the sausage-making business would continue.
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Ostrowski was raised above the family-owned business. He attended Holy Rosary School and was a graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School, where he played football. He also played football at Baltimore Junior College and was a member of a semi-professional football team in Scranton, Pa.
"He wanted to play professional football so bad," said his wife, the former Joan Gregory. "It wasn't until later in his life that he realized he wasn't as good as he thought he was."
In the mid-1960s, after giving up on a sports career, he returned to the family business and worked alongside his father, Victor, and mother, Jennie. Using his family's recipe, he ground, seasoned and hand-shaped the links.
He hung a banner across the shop's facade stating that his product was not sold at area supermarkets. It was not to be confused with other brands that used his family's name. "There is nothing like the real thing, Baby," the sign read.
"With his thumb and fingers applying just the right pressure, he guides the meat as it flows into the intestine," The 2005 Sun article said. "Not enough pressure and he'd lose control. Too much and he'd rip the casing."
The story described the sausage maker as having a shaved "Mr. Clean head and thick, muscular forearms." The story also described his years around sharp knives and "unforgiving" grinders. He lost a fingertip on one occasion and had a scar along his palm.
Mr. Ostrowski was famous for his kielbasa, a traditional garlic sausage.
"The mixer's paddles turn and churn, the pungent aroma of the now-tussled [garlic] cloves permeates the room as quickly as their assertive flavor settles into the marbled meat," the article said.
Family members said the Ostrowski shop was at its busiest at Easter.
"The line begins forming at Ostrowski's Polish Home Made Sausage in Fells Point before the doors are unlocked at 8:30 a.m.," said a 2001 Sun article. "In the days before Easter, the normally orderly Washington Street can be cluttered like a closet — cars double-parked, others jockeying for parking, people milling on the sidewalk."
The article said that many customers would later place the kielbasa, bread, and butter shaped like a lamb in a basket and then take it to churches such as Holy Rosary in Fells Point, where a priest would bless it. The sausage was a staple of breaking the Lenten and Holy Week fast.
"After Mass, you can eat meat," Mr. Ostrowski said in the 2001 article. "It's time to start eating again!"
He told a Sun reporter that he sold 20,000 pounds of sausage, smoked and fresh, by the time he closed his doors on Holy Saturday.
"Polish people used to be concentrated in this area," he said. "Now the kids have grown up, moved out of the city, had kids of their own. A lot of them are retrieving their traditions and are trying to get their kids into it."
His wife said that Mr. Ostrowski kept the business open despite not being able to work there because of his health.
"His customers loved him and he liked nothing better than laughing with them," his wife said. "But as his health changed, he said to me one day about work, 'Do I have to go?'"
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. April 25 at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church, 400 S. Chester St.
In addition to his wife of 46 years, survivors include a daughter, Jennifer O. Whetzel of Mission, Kan.; two sisters, Carolyn Devlin of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Alfreda Degheri of Clearwater, Fla; and a step-grandson. A son, Christopher J. Ostrowski, died in 1995.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun