Thursday, February 17, 2011
On an average Monday afternoon, you can find Butch Francis up to his arms in boneless pork shoulder. The 67-year-old former truck driver uses Catering Magik’s Marina kitchen to chop, season, double-grind and stuff the Canadian pork he gets from Pacific Meats in Watsonville – “The consistency and quality is incredible,” he says – to craft his one-of-a-kind Cowboy Sausage.
His mise en place looks like a professional chef laid it out. Spices, cutting board, knife and a large plastic vat for mixing are neatly lined up on the countertop. As Francis begins chopping up the marbled meat into small chunks, he tells less-professional stories of how he likes to mess with all the folks that come by to sample his five types of sausage at the local farmers markets – he often jokes around with his customers, referring to his product as “road kill,” breaking out in a high-pitched giggle. The Cowboy Sausage slogan sums up his irreverent approach nicely: “Men are not pigs! Pigs are gentle, sensitive and intelligent animals. And very tasty… in Cowboy Sausage.”
Francis’ contagious laugh and mile-a-minute dialogue initially convinces people to sample his creations, but it’s his recipes – which he’s been refining for eight years – that keeps them coming back. After a year and half in business, he has developed an Italian mild, Italian hot, Italian sweet, breakfast sausage and the blazing XXX-rated hot sausage, which each go for $7.50 a pound.
Each flavor has unexpected personality: the Italian sweet has a hint of raw brown sugar and the breakfast sausage boasts a wonderful union of ginger, nutmeg, thyme and cayenne. Even the spiciest version retains surprising complexity.
“People have told me that [the XXX-rated] doesn’t scorch the inside of the mouth,” Francis says. “You can still taste all the ingredients because everything is well-balanced.”
The road to sausage stardom began around a decade ago, when Francis learned how to make the tubular treat with his 90-year-old, Italian-born father-in-law. He’d tinker with the recipe every couple of weeks, making around 400 pounds of sausage per year and giving 350 pounds of it away to friends.
Francis – who looks like a dusty version of Santa Claus – didn’t set out to become the Sausage Cowboy: Like many in recent economic times, he was forced to reinvent himself after losing his job with a transportation company in 2009.
“I really didn’t have the ingredients down, but when I got laid-off, some of my friends came over and said, ‘Hey stupid, why don’t you go to the farmers market?’” Francis says.
In the early days, Francis’ wife Tonie was very critical of his version of her dad’s specialty, but eventually his own take won her over.
“He shouldn’t change one thing about his sausage,” Tonie says.
Francis didn’t stop with sausage: Two years ago, he had the idea to recreate his 30-year-old Deer Camp chili recipe he used to cook in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
“You can’t find white-tail venison around here,” he says. “So, one thing led to another and my wife suggested I use my Italian sausage.”
Soon after cooking his first batch, Francis took the chili to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Chili Cook-Off and was awarded first place for the People’s Choice Award and Most Tasted.
The 20-ingredient chili includes Hahn Pinot Noir, balsamic vinegar aged 18 years and Carmel Valley Brewing Company Blonde Ale – which recently replaced Heineken. The rest of the 17 different ingredients are strictly proprietary. Now Francis sells it too, at $6 for 12 ounces and $8 for 16 ounces.
These days, Cowboy Sausage has become a favorite at Monterey, Salinas and MPC farmers markets, and some have taken to calling Francis “the sausage king of Salinas.” Francis says he couldn’t do it without his partner in sausage crime, 15-year-old Kelvin Hoover. The duo met while they were neighbors and the Monterey High sophomore immediately knew he wanted to be a part of the culinary venture after sampling Francis’ pork concoctions.
“I work for the chili,” Hoover jokes.
Francis’ product has also charmed local restaurants like Gino’s Fine Italian in Salinas and Monterey Cookhouse.
“He came in and told me he has the best sausage around,” says Cookhouse owner Linda Cantrell. “He was right.”
On Feb. 1, Cantrell invited Francis and his sausage to be a part of her Tasty Tuesday featuring five Cowboy Sausage specials.
That night I started with a cup of the lentil sausage soup ($4.50). The lentils were simmered with mild Italian sausage, onions, carrots and celery. The sausage added a complex spice to the vegetable broth I didn’t see coming.
For a main course I ordered the lasagna ($13.95), with Italian sausage slow-cooked in homemade marinara, layered with pasta, ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. For both acts, Francis’ goods gave GM Bill Susalla a chance to showcase his own home-style gastronomic talents in a way that less dynamic sausage could not.
Near the front bar, Hoover gave out samples while Francis, in his signature cowboy hat, kneeled by tables and teased laughing patrons.
“We please and abuse the living s*** out of our customers,” Francis says. “And they keep coming back for more.”
COWBOY SAUSAGE is available Tuesdays at Monterey Bay Farmers Market, Saturdays at Old Town Salinas Farmers Market and Thursdays at MPC Farmers Market. Order online at www.cowboysausage.com.