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Sausage and beyond

by Lynn Petrak
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There are a lot of people in the processing industry who claim they’ve written the book on meat. Bruce Aidells really has.

Indeed, Aidells’ name has become synonymous with meat and meat cookery here in the US and around the world. In addition to his byline that appears under nearly a dozen cookbooks and scores of magazine and newspaper articles, he hosts an online cooking show and is a regular guest on a variety of news and food programs. Almost a decade ago he sold the sausage company he started back in 1983 and ultimately began focusing on food writing and other endeavors. Meanwhile, the Aidells brand of artisan sausages changed hands again, after Sara Lee Corp. acquired it this past year for $87 million. The branded products still bear his name and visage.

Aidells’ name will once again grace the “New Releases” section of bookstores and online booksellers with the upcoming release of The Great Meat Cookbook in September. This volume reflects today’s marketplace, in which more meat and poultry products are available and more people consider themselves to be foodies.

“A lot has changed since 1996, when I wrote the last one,” Aidells says, citing some of the newer trends that have moved along from chefs to consumers. “This return to charcuterie, for example, is huge.”

As Aidells notes, the art of salting, curing, smoking and drying meats has become a culinary darling in recent years, especially among professional chefs.

“It’s no accident you are seeing so much charcuterie at the restaurant level. A lot of young chefs have gotten into it,” he reports, adding he’s heard several young chefs talk about their dream of opening their own butcher shop – and some who are actually doing it.

A true pioneer
Aidells was one of those adventurous culinary craftsmen when he started making artisan chicken sausage in his home kitchen in the early 1980s and, later, founded his own sausage company. “It was a nonexistent category that became a major category and now it’s everywhere,’ he says of his line of artisan-flavored chicken sausages.

Interestingly enough, he has seen the culinary art of charcuterie come full circle. “In the old days, the sausages were more pork-based, and when you go into the supermarket anywhere in the country today, you’ll see poultry-based sausages. Now, there is a shift back to pork,” he says.

There has been a similar pendulum swing back to locally made sausages. “People who love sausages search them out, whether at a specialty store or on the menu. And with the growth of farmer’s markets, you’re seeing some of those sausages appearing, along with other things like [locally made] bacon,” Aidells says.

The meat and poultry processing industry is also impacted by the evolving demand for sausage at both the restaurant and retail level, says Aidells. While a few years ago, it seemed major protein conglomerates had shifted the landscape, today’s smaller, regional or family owned processors are distinguishing themselves anew. “As you saw more consolidation, it leaves a little room for smaller guys who are much more able to manipulate their products and businesses,” Aidells points out.

Whether sold at the farmer’s market or by a major national brand, the simple sausage remains trendy and comforting, even in an era when consumers have been watching their food costs. “I started my culinary career in another recessionary time, around 1980. I had a talk with my mentor then and she said that upscale food is a little recession-proof because it’s one of those affordable splurges,” he recalls.

That philosophy is true now, too, Aidells believes. “When you can’t buy a car, you can buy $8 a lb. sausage and not feel like you’re breaking the bank,” he notes.

Today, in the home he shares in with wife Nancy Oakes, a well-known San Francisco chef and restaurateur, Aidells still gets into the grind. “We even have a little sausage kitchen here in the house,” he says, adding he enjoys finding and blending new ingredients. “We have a lot of wild boar here, and my idea was to set up a sausage-making day with my neighbors.”

Even as he savors the art of sausage making, Aidells remains a leading “go-to” expert on charcuterie and salumi. Meanwhile, he’s still in the production and marketing game: his dried cured bacon and applewood artisan ham is sold under the brand Vande Rose.

Later this year, Aidells will spend a lot of time promoting his new cookbook with a nine-city tour and other appearances around the country and in the media. He says he’s looking forward to talking with chefs, consumers and others who are praising their love of meat and cooking meat.

Finally, as he is inspired by where he lives and who he meets, Aidells says that culinary arts and sausage-making has truly become a farm-to-table passion for him and so many people.

Talk with Bruce Aidells for a while, taste some of his foods and read through his recipes and you’ll see why he’s become so much a part of the meat industry and meat cookery: because he first and foremost appreciates it. As he once declared, “I confess... I love meat.”

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