To many people it’s a bit mysterious. Meat appears in a wrapper at the store. However, those of us who live in agricultural areas are close to sources producing locally raised meat.
Vandal Brand Meats at the University of Idaho is one of four U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facilities locally. Others are Northwest Specialty Meats in Clarkston, Idaho Sausage in Grangeville and Washington State University Meats.
There are a lot of students who go to the UI for four years and never hear of Vandal Meats, says Katie Robertson, an assistant student manager at the facility.
This is because the university does not allow Vandal Meats to advertise. It does not want it to compete with local businesses, explains Fred Hisaw, also a student assistant manager.
On a Tuesday afternoon Hisaw was preparing one of their more popular products, Chipotle Shakin’ Bacon Sausage, a national award-winning blend invented by UI students. Shakin’ Bacon refers to using leftover bacon in the sausage. They make about 300 pounds a year and could sell more, Hisaw says, but the lab has one paid employee and is otherwise run by students who have classes to attend. Vandal Brand sausage is one of the products that will be served Friday night at the fourth annual Wine and Cheese Tasting at the UI.
In a chilly 50-degree room, dressed in a white frock, knee-high rubber boots and hair net, Hisaw stands over a large silver machine called a steel vacuum tumbler. It’s filled with de-boned pork shoulders and brine. He explains how a vacuum pulls the meat’s muscle fibers apart, allowing the brine to get in between the muscle. The pigs who provided the shoulders often come from campus farms at UI, WSU or other local sources.
After being tumbled with seasonings, the 80-pound batch is ground coarsely and then again, finely. Then it goes into a vacuum stuffer where Hisaw fits sheep casings over a tiny spout to make sausage links.
“Sheep casings are a little more tender than pork casing. It doesn’t have quite the snap when you’re biting it,” he says.
After the links are formed and twisted by hand, they are hung on racks for a trip to the smokehouse to cook for a couple hours. Then they will be ready for sale in a store on the west end of campus off Perimeter Drive.
Over the past 20 years, Vandal Brand Meats has transitioned from bulk processing to single-item products, including gyro meat, chorizo, bratwurst, bologna, and jerky. Also for sale, one finds traditional cuts of beef, pork and lamb individually and in bundles. Hisaw says he guesses that half their customers are from the university community and the other half are the general public.
Some parts of the year are busier than others, Robertson says. After county fairs, they slaughter animals for private individuals. At Christmas they sell about 300 hams.
Working at Vandal Brand Meats Hisaw and Robertson have learned how to process meat from humanely killing the animal to packaging it on the shelf.
“It’s not something a lot of people know how to do,” Robertson says.
If You Go
What: Fourth annual Wine and Cheese Tasting, sponsored by the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: UI Student Union Building Ballroom
Admission: $16 for one or $30 for two, available by calling (208) 885-7984 or at the door.
Cost for admission includes a keepsake wine glass, five tastings, Idaho cheese and Vandal Brand sausage. The event includes silent and live auctions.