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Pride of McKinleyville 

A reunion with the king and queen of sausage

click to enlarge Photo by Joseph Byrd
  • Photo by Joseph Byrd

In 1990, two years after we moved to McKinleyville, a deli opened across from Cal's Unocal station. Cal's wife Ann had alerted us. "They make their own sausage!" So we were almost their first customers. And there were indeed sausages, fascinating ones like a Northern Italian-style with fennel, garlic and red wine, Moroccan lamb sausage, Swedish potato sausage, liver sausage with pistachios and mushrooms, dry salami, slabs of smoked bacon. And the best hot dogs we'd had since L.A.

The name was less creative: "Central Plaza Meat and Deli." A higher level of imagination was behind the counter, staffed by attractive blondes, none of them so pretty as co-owner Laura Lawson. Her husband, Roger, a casually handsome man, had risen through the ranks of meat cutters (E&O Market in Blue Lake, Ray's, and the high-end Fifth and L Market). He was charming, garrulous, ambitious and loved to experiment, so Beni and I were willing subjects for the multitude of things he tried -- most, to be sure, destined to go nowhere -- as he honed his charcuterie to what they could sell. (Lamb sausage, alas, was too radical for McKinleyville.)

After a year, they began shrink-wrapping and selling to local markets. One significant equipment investment, long before commodity producers tried it, was a 500-pound "tumbler," a magical vacuum-sealed machine that tumbled meat in a marinade for 12 hours or more, turning dry turkey breasts succulent and tender. They bought an industrial "smoker," and began producing boneless hams that were tender and flavorful, marketing their products at regional food fairs, under the name "Humboldt Sausage Works."

I loved that name -- it credited our rural locale, at the same time providing a kind of funky romance, like "Iron Works" and "Skunk Works".

The Lawsons were the hardest-working couple we'd ever known -- and the food industry is grueling, demanding work, most often cruelly unprofitable. (Remember this the next time someone says, "You should bottle and sell this," or "You ought to start a restaurant.")

They routinely put in 14-hour days, Roger supervising production and dealing with both suppliers and customers (and he is really good at it, a key to their success), Laura keeping books, payroll and the immaculate provenance and testing records required by the USDA -- there was an inspector on the premises almost constantly. (You didn't know that? Yep, if you are handling anything that can harbor bacteria, you are under constant surveillance. This is the problem with country hams hanging in smokehouses, or sausages preserved in caves. You are free to make them. You just can't sell them.)

Humboldt Sausage Works products were so good they began to impress gourmands in Sonoma and the Bay Area, gaining a niche beyond local markets. And gradually they evolved from a deli into a manufacturer. Roger learned how to make pancetta, the sweet, rolled, Italian-style bacon, which we hadn't cooked with for a decade. Their charcuterie, initially including andouille (Cajun sausage), linguiça, knackwurst and bratwurst, expanded to chicken sausages, with imaginative combinations: Cajun, apples and Gouda, California sausage with tomato and basil, Southwest sausage, whiskey fennel sausage.

The deli was another story. After two years, the low-volume traffic from McKinleyville -- which was not only a graveyard for good restaurants but had traditionally supported some of the worst ones in the county -- made the retail operation expendable, and the space was surrendered to storage for the ever-expanding processing operations.

And once it became clear we were never going to get the intimate little deli back, all we could do was support and pray for a local business to make good outside of Humboldt County. Because, sadly, the community seldom supports anything really good. It has to survive elsewhere.

After a few years, Roger and Laura decided to relocate. Their new plant was to be in Shasta Lake, just north of Redding, where access to the I-5 corridor would cut their distribution costs by half.

Building a moderate-sized factory is a huge investment in money and time, but by January 2003, they had moved in -- literally, since they couldn't afford to rent, much less buy a house. They had built two small rooms and a private bathroom into the plant, and for the next four years, they lived in the new facility, giving new meaning to the concept of working at home. And a reminder of the dedication it takes to succeed in a corporate food market that is brutal on new ideas.

We finally visited Premiere Meats' factory in late October, on a Friday afternoon. The 27 employees had gone home, all processing done for the week, and we donned smocks, caps and booties to trek through the vast high-ceilinged rooms, varying in temperature from warm (four industrial smokers, their protruding gauges and buttons evoking Victorian millworks) to freezing (stacked pallet upon pallet of products, waiting to be loaded into one of the company's four trucks).

Ultimately, what we saw had little to do with food, really. It was all about flawless hygiene. We entered each new chamber greeted by disinfectant sprays aimed at our feet. Listeria are the enemy in "ready to eat" meat production. E. coli run a distant second, as they are easy to avoid with intelligent precautions. Listeria, however, are everywhere. Look at your shoes: If you've been outside today, they are covered with listeria. Anywhere there is grass or undergrowth, listeria are profuse.

Listeria are incredibly hardy bacteria, thriving in temperatures ranging from below Arctic to Death Valley. Furthermore, their deadliness ranges from listeriosis, a rare but lethal food-borne infection, to their ability to spread to the nervous system and cause meningitis. (By comparison, salmonella has a less than 1 percent mortality rate.) FDA inspectors test regularly for listeria, but Premiere Meats tests all the time. After all, anything that has touched the ground can contaminate: not just shoes, but forklifts, for example. So the factory resembles a hospital operating room more than a supermarket meat department.

Premiere is a modern meat production facility, but they are not, in my view, "commodity" food producers. For one thing, they are close to their sources -- they know the people they buy from, mostly from the northern Central Valley. They have a good relationship with the Painted Hills cooperative in Oregon, the best source of tender, flavorful beef in Humboldt County (available at Murphy's Market). And they are enthusiastic supporters of small, independent sausage-makers (like Willowside Meats in Sonoma, whose duck and French-style sausages are the best we've ever tasted). After all, that's how they began, making good local sausage.

Next year, Roger and Laura will spend three months in Italy, where they've cultivated a relationship with the European charcuterie giant A.G. Ferrari. Roger is going to apprentice himself to them, in a cultural exchange that might mean he will be able to make real, great, prosciutto (the air-dried Italian ham).

He also might learn how to fulfill the requirements for crafting the kind of spectacular Italian charcuterie that requires isolation, cool weather and high humidity.

Where do you suppose they could find such a locale?

E-mail Joseph Byrd at [email protected]

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Joseph Byrd

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