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the USDA approved basement..

It was about a year ago that I met David Pearlstein. He had a charcuterie blog back then, and was making some very decent looking (and tasting) product in his basement. He came over, we shared some of our cured meat (he makes the best duck proscuitto I have ever tasted) and chatted for a while about salty pig bits. Back then there was no mention of his great plans afoot.

About 6 months ago I checked his blog and saw a post on how he was converting his small home garage into a fully inspected, USDA approved meat processing facility, with the view to make awesome fresh sausage from local sustainable meats. Frankly, this didn’t surprise me much. David has spent more than a decade making fresh sausage, so it only seemed natural for him to make a business out of it. What did surprise me however was that he was going to do it legally from his garage. At the time I remember thinking that it will never work. That he would never get USDA approval for something like this. I mean, everything you hear about the USDA is that they are there to support big (BIG) business and giggle with a non-approving look at small artisan businesses.

Thankfully David’s experience wasn’t the case at all. In fact he was quite open about just how well received he was from the USDA, and their small business department.

So, to cut a long story short over the course of a year he converted a small garage in an old house which sits in a residential district of Seattle in to a fully approved, licensed meat processing facility so that he can make and sell sausage legally to individuals and businesses.

Imagine my surprise when friend and writer Matthew Amster Burton emailed me a few weeks ago now and said “hey, wanna take some photo’s of a guy’s sausage?” (I can say with some certainty that wasn’t the exact phrase Matthew used..). He was writing a story on David’s operation for Mint.com’s blog, and wanted some photos done for the article. Small world I thought! Matthew had no idea that I knew David, or that I had planned on taking some photos of David and his meat (ahem) anyhow.

One rainy morning we met David over at his “meat processing facility” for Matthew to get the rest of his story and for me to take the shots. David wasn’t doing full on production that morning, more packing up a crap-ton (technical term) of sausage he had made the day before. Whilst Matthew and David chatted away (with Matthew’s handy recorder going) I squeezed around and took pictures of all the meaty goodness. Then David set to work.

When you deal with a lot of sausage, you know what makes a tasty one, and what doesn’t (OK this post is going to be full of double entendre’s). The first thing to notice is the thickness. They should be decently full, but not bursting (OK.. I will stop..). The second most important thing is fat ratio and separation. You can tell a bad sausage when the fat isn’t clearly defined in the sausage, and looks more smeared around. This is going to cook up badly, taste greasy and mealy. Too little fat and the sausage is dry and bland. Too much and it is heavy and greasy. Finally you have seasoning and salt – which really you can only tell by cooking up the sucker. David’s work is impressive. You can tell he has been at this game for a while. Great form, perfect fat ratio and separation. These were going to be a joy to photograph. Secretly I was hoping to take a stash home with me…

As David cut, divided, vacuum sealed and labeled I ran around and took pictures of everything he was doing. The space was tight, but that lends for some far more intimate shots to be honest. It was a fun couple of hours to watch David work and chat. Anyhow, I thought it might be fun to share these pictures, and my approach to taking these shots:

1) when you don’t know what the lighting is going to be, pack your lights. This room was incredibly bright, given the overhead florescents. Normally these are the devils spawn for photographers, but somehow because a lot of this room was white, they gave a great clean crisp light that was quite a joy to photograph in. I was surprised.

2) when taking shots of people working or talking (or both at the same time… David!) take lots of shots. Hold that finger down on the trigger. Mouth shapes look incredibly odd when talking. Interrupt the person you are shooting (if they are talking) with something funny and down right stupid, to get a raw emotional smile or laugh. Make it unexpected. Don’t do it too much to piss the person off however…

3) In a bright environment I tend to deliberately underexpose my images a touch when shooting. I can always kick up the exposure a bit in post production, but having to recover blown out highlights is a bitch.

4) In a small space with someone working, work fast and light and don’t get in the way. Whilst I took a lot of gear, I had it all in the car and just grabbed what I needed, then headed back in. I wasn’t going to drag gear in there that I didn’t need and have people working trip over the stuff.

5) Tight spaces cry out for wide angles. Work with the distortion and flare it gives, it can yield fun images. Remember to always try and keep a good mid-ground element to set the composition, and have the background and foreground tell a story too. Most of these shots were taken with either a 20mm prime, or 50mm prime.

6) Take lots of shots. You can never have too many. Be selective however in the onesĀ  you keep. The pictures have to tell a story. Ditch those that don’t.

So how do they taste? Well you know how I was secretly hoping to get some to take home? It happened. I took quite a bit home actually. The sausages I tried were awesome. Easily some of the best you can buy here in Seattle. The sweet Italian had great flavor without being too sweet (which is my problem with most sweet Italian sausage). The bratwurst has a great boozy taste. Because of the decent fat ratio in his product the skins brown up beautifully and give that perfect snap when you bite in to them (the sign of a good sausage).

You can get more information on David and his sausage business “Link Labs” here: http://linklabartisanmeats.com/

To read Matthew Amster Burton’s article about David and how his business came about check here: http://www.mint.com/blog/goals/sausage-garage-startup-05172011/

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11 Responses to “the USDA approved basement..”

  1. Les says:

    Pretty amazing stuff here! I think my wife would kill me if we coverted our garage into a meat shop!

  2. Sydney says:

    This is awesome! We live on the other side of the Puget Sound from Seattle, and might just have to poke over to visit one day!! Thanks for sharing. Great article and awesome pictures!

  3. What a great story about sausage and the USDA with what seems to be a happy ending. Thanks for sharing your process too!

  4. Maggie says:

    Fantastic post — thanks for the tips on photography and identifying good sausages. I’m going to be contacting David to order some Link Lab products. I’m all about supporting small artisinal producers.

  5. Melissa says:

    A wonderful and inspirational story.

  6. Brooke says:

    Great shots, Matt! Thanks for the photog tips, too. I’m always glad to hear about local entrepreneurs!

  7. Laurie says:

    Is there another room, because i can’t see a stuffer in the pictures? Sweet set up though. I am thinking off doing something similar if we move to a larger house…

  8. Susan says:

    Matt:

    You never cease to amaze me with your vast variety of subjects. Love the photo tips. Keep ‘em coming. And yes, I will be having sausage for dinner tonight.

  9. A french follower there, leaving in uk . Food lover. Feel really back home when I get my sandwich baguette aux rillettes du Mans, or saucissons beurre.

    I’ve been squatting your blog since few days now and I have learnt so much !
    Did a food photography shoot for the first time in a cookery school and took on board your advice. Bought a fixed 50mm which I am thrilled with.
    Thanks for sharing all your knowledge.

  10. Very interesting concept! He is definitely very passionate about the craft.

    I discovered your blog because I just finished my last secret stash of Spanish murcilla from a recent trip to Spain. I googled a recipe for Spanish chorizos and such, which led me here. I need to google some of the required ingredients (and possible order some online) but I’m so thrilled at the thought that I can actually make those at home!

  11. Hi Matt, it’s such a pleasure to find your blog. I love the detail, I CRAVE the detail that you pack into your posts. I strive for it myself, but with a young baby, I find less time to research things as I would like. I would love to make a commercial kitchen under my house. It’s a two year goal of mine. I’m heading over to this remarkable sausage maker’s site to see how he managed it… and how much it cost!