Dan Robert has spent his life working with meat. His great-grandfather got into the meat processing business, and his family owned meat processing plants in Baton Rouge and Thibodaux while he grew up. Now they farm sugarcane and have some cattle. Robert studied meat science at LSU and the University of Missouri and spent 25 years working for the USDA in meat inspection, grading and certification. He started the Meat Lab at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where he teaches courses on meat processing, including one on wild game processing that will take place Wednesday, Sept. 23. At the lab, he also makes sausages and other meat products, which will be offered at a market he’s starting at the museum on Saturday, Oct. 3.
Gambit: How big is the meat industry in Louisiana?
Dan Robert: The cattle industry is pretty heavy in Louisiana. It’s a cow cash state. They sell the calves when they’re 500 pounds, that’s when they take them to the stockyards. As far as the meat industry, it’s nothing like it used to be. At one time, we had over 150 state and federally inspected meat processing plants. Now, numbers are way down. We have big boys, like Manda (Fine Meats) and Savoie’s (Sausage and Food Products) and Thompson Packers, but as far as smaller guys, our numbers are way down. There are smaller slaughterhouses — Eunice Superette; Kirk Martin in Lafayette; in Kentwood, you have Cutrer Slaughterhouse. About 20 years ago, a lot of these plants started going out, for a lot of different reasons.
Consumers today demand quality. It’s almost at the point that they don’t care what they have to pay for it. That’s in the beef and pork sectors. We are seeing a lot of niche markets, like grass-fed beef products — for health aspects — and bacon. They’re bacon crazy right now. It’s all about quality and flavors.
Gambit: What are you doing with Meat Lab?
R: About twice a year I will do a basic sausage class or a basic meat science class. That’s what I prefer people to take (to start). That class is just basics: Why do we use nitrates or nitrites. What is a sausage stuffer? What sausage casings are available?
Then I get into specialized classes. The biggest class of the year is the boudin class. The second largest class is hog’s head cheese. If you get down to it, hog’s head cheese is more popular in New Orleans than boudin is. Boudin is popular here, but for the most part it was never made here. That’s a southwest Louisiana thing — you have to get around Lafayette and Breaux Bridge.
When you layer flavors, then you’ve got something. If you eat a piece of sausage and the cayenne blows you away or the garlic blows you away, that’s garbage; that’s not what we’re aiming at. You can’t take a handful of cayenne pepper and call something Cajun. That’s not it. You’ve ruined it. It’s the slow heat. Never let one spice overpower another. When you taste my andouille, I want you to taste the pork first. Then the smoke and seasoning and slow heat in the back of your throat.
(At the meat lab) I make andouille weekly. I make 300 different products, and I know how to make about 600. The first Saturday in October, we’re starting Meat Lab sales every other Saturday. Some things I will have all of the time — smoked sausage, andouille, tasso, hog’s head cheese and boudin. But there are going to be a lot of other items depending on what I am doing in the Meat Lab. Like liverwurst. Two things I pride myself on are my hot dogs and my liverwurst. I can nail you on them. But you may have backwurst or mettwurst or blutwurst or landjager. It’s whatever I am doing back there and to give people an idea of variety of flavors, like German products and Polish products.
Gambit: What will you teach in the wild game class?
R: I’ll teach how to do home butchering, so you don’t have to take (deer) to a processor.
This is the way I was raised: If an animal has to give its life to sustain our life, we need to give that animal the utmost respect. That’s utilizing every bit of the carcass that’s possible. We’re a wasteful society. We throw away a lot of the food we raise. That’s sad.
In this class, I show different options you can do with your deer meat. I do a venison bacon. It’s surprising how good that is. I do venison gyros. We do be-bops, an extruded product to put on the grill. And we do Cajun burritos — you use ground meat.
With a deer carcass, you don’t have a lot, like a beef carcass. You have your loin, or hunters call it backstraps. That is cooked fresh, grilled or however you want to cook it. Then you have your legs, which you can make roasts, cube steaks, or get stew meat out of it. You can get some roasts out of the neck, depending on size of deer and how much damage was done. But for the rest of the carcass, here in Louisiana, people like to bone it out and grind it. They love their sausage products. They love smoked sausage, andouille, or just ground venison. This class is going to show you a lot of different options you can do with ground product. And we have spokesman from Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to talk about new regulations and numbers – wild deer and hog numbers. — WILL COVIELLO