CLANCY — It’s a famous saying in politics: Learning about the legislative process is like finding out how sausage gets made. That expression was the inspiration behind an event this weekend, where Montana lawmakers from both parties got together away from the State Capitol to make some sausage – literally.
More than a dozen legislators, some freshmen and some veterans, came to Creekside Meadows, an event center near Clancy, for the third “How the Sausage Gets Made” event.
“Jon Bennion on the board of the Mansfield Center reached out a few weeks ago, after the election, and mentioned that they were going to be getting freshmen legislators together to make some sausage,” said first-term Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula. “I wasn't sure if he was being serious or not about actually making sausage.”
He was serious: The lawmakers got a hands-on course in preparing Italian and breakfast sausages. Old Salt Co-Op provided 50 pounds of meat – 80% aged beef from the Mannix Family Ranch in Helmville, and 20% pork fat from Lazy RY Hogs in Deer Lodge.
Lawmakers helped with every step of the process: grinding the meat, cutting fresh herbs, mixing in spices and stuffing the casings. Afterwards, Bennion cooked up some of the sausage for those taking part to taste test.
“Anybody who knows me knows I'm a terrible cook, so this was a good opportunity for me to get in on the ground level of making something great,” said freshman Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell. “And I have to tell you, this recipe was tremendous – I think even I could make it work.”
Bennion, a former Republican political candidate and deputy state attorney general, started the event in 2019, with a few lawmakers making sausage in his kitchen as a way to encourage civility and relationship-building. He came up with suggestions for parallels between the process and passing legislation, from the importance of preparation to the need for working together to the benefits of “keeping cool.”
“You've probably heard the expression, ‘You never want to see laws being made; you never want to see sausage being made,’” said Bennion. “I think that's 100% inaccurate. I think there's a great way to make sausage, and there's a great way to legislate as well. Marrying those two together and talking about how they have similarities is just something that's kind of a team building effort.”
Before, during and after the actual sausage-making, the event gave lawmakers lots of chances to interact.
“There's a lot of legislators that, just in the course of our day-to-day work, I don't get to talk to for more than 30 seconds or a minute,” Karlen said. “So getting to spend the morning together was great, because I got to learn more about what we're all working on and what sort of priorities we have, and really find a lot of common ground in a sort of relaxed and fun setting.”
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘People are hard to hate up close; move in,’” said Sprunger. “Every opportunity we can take to spend time together to remind ourselves of the common interests we have as Montanans, I think those are opportunities for success.”
The event’s now grown beyond Bennion’s house. COVID prevented it in 2021 and 2022, but it returned this year with additional support from the Mansfield Center.
“We need more grassroots civility – certainly we're not going to start seeing it from Congress on down; we've got to see it from the ground up,” Bennion said. “So that's what this event is about: doing an exercise in grassroots civility that we hope is not just a Montana tradition, but that this can be something that we see in communities around the country.”
Of course, the lawmakers came away with more than just their new connections: Everyone who took part in the event took home about two to three pounds of the real sausage they helped make.