Every Tuesday morning a refrigerated white truck with an anthropomorphic pig painted on its side pulls up in front of a house on a tree-lined street in a North Shore suburb. A Wisconsin farmer emerges and unloads three to four boxes filled with pork shoulders and bellies butchered from naturally raised pigs. He walks across the lawn and hands them off through the front door before driving on to the city to make his regular deliveries at the likes of North Pond and Frontera Grill.
Inside, a 37-year-old apron-clad stay-at-home dad and furniture maker named Erik prepares his preschool daughter's lunch box in the kitchen. Then he joins his business partner, Ehran, in prepping for the day's bacon curing and sausage stuffing.
Erik and Ehran, also a stay-at-home dad, are the principals of E & P Meats, a budding underground charcuterie business with an e-mail list of more than 200 customers. Once a month they drive into the city and surrounding suburbs to drop off vacuum-sealed packages ordered from a rotating menu of about 15 meats they've stuffed, cured, and smoked entirely on the premises of Erik's handsome home. The deliveries are about half of the 40-60 orders they fill—the other half are collected by customers who show up at the door.
When I visited last month they were rubbing down a few pork bellies with rosemary sprigs and a salt cure and experimenting with a new Italian sausage recipe. On the back porch, alongside the potted rosemary, three smokers issued thin white plumes that filled the neighborhood with a sweet, meaty perfume. Two contained slabs of bacon and the third—a ceramic tile Big Green Egg—held half a dozen of the paprika-and-mustard-rubbed chickens that Erik periodically smokes for favored mothers of his daughter's classmates.
"We end up giving away probably, I don't know, 60 pounds of meat a month or more," says Erik. "Keeps all the neighbors happy if they don't like the smoke smell." They haven't made a profit yet.
Because they sell meats that aren't prepared in a licensed commercial facility, Erik and Ehran are operating outside the law. But some laws, they fervently believe, were made to be broken. "It's one of those things that's kind of overregulated," says Erik. "People have been canning and curing forever. It was invented to preserve food and keep things healthy."
The charcuterie resistance is growing. Professional restaurant chefs without legal licensing or dedicated facilities cure their own meats out of view of the health inspectors all the time. And Erik and Ehran aren't the only ones making and selling outside of those professional kitchens: A former restaurant chef is currently curing two dozen duck breasts in a south-side warehouse; they'll end up on restaurant menus sometime around the holidays. Personal chef Helge Pedersen cures and ages lamb legs for the Norwegian salted meat fennelar, along with guanciale, soppressata, and pancetta, in a dedicated refrigerator in his Humboldt Park apartment and another in a garage space on Western Avenue. He sells them to friends as he hones his craft in anticipation of the day he opens his own retail space.
Laurence Mate is an amateur charcuterie maker downstate who documents his projects on the blog This Little Piggy. To make an end run around the government regulations governing the production and sale of charcuterie, Mate—another furniture maker—had a law student help him figure out how to set up a private club for members, who must register on his Web site in order to make "donations" by the pound for his terrines, sausage, pulled pork, and the spicy Calabrian salami paté nduja. He hasn't been challenged so far. Like Erik and Ehran, he makes no money and does it for the love of the craft. But if he had to cut through all the red tape required to produce and sell his products like a retailer, he says, it wouldn't be worth the effort.
"The regulations are written for industrial food operations," says Mate. "And if you apply them to small-scale local producers, no one's gonna do it. It's legislating local food out of the market. Unfortunately, the health departments don't appreciate that. But that food is actually safer. It's easier for someone on that small scale to move things more quickly and be more careful. Local markets are self-regulating. If there's anything wrong with your products and someone gets sick from it, then you're out of business."
Not surprisingly, the Chicago Department of Public Health disagrees. "That person's comment reminds me of the criticisms leveled at Upton Sinclair and others a century ago who advocated for a safer food supply," e-mailed spokesman Tim Hadac. "True, the local market 'self-regulates'—but it does so sometimes at the expense of consumers' health and even lives. Every year in the U.S. food-borne illness causes an estimated 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. We in public health prefer commonsense, science-based regulation that focuses on prevention of food-borne illness before it occurs."
Of course plenty of those illnesses were borne by regulated food. "The revival of local food economies is being hobbled by a tangle of regulations originally designed to check abuses by the very largest food producers," wrote locavore-in-chief Michael Pollan in his open letter to whoever would be president in the New York Times last fall. "Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities. Food-safety regulations must be made sensitive to scale and marketplace, so that a small producer selling direct off the farm or at a farmers' market is not regulated as onerously as a multinational food manufacturer. This is not because local food won't ever have food-safety problems—it will—only that its problems will be less catastrophic and easier to manage because local food is inherently more traceable and accountable."
When you know who made your food, Erik and Ehran add, you know what you're eating. "A friend came to me and said 'I love your sausages—don't tell me what you put in there,'" recalls Ehran. "I said, 'No, I will tell you. Ask me, and I will tell you, because it's not leftover scraps.'"
"It's no longer scary to know what's in your sausage," says Erik. "It's just pork shoulder and about five spices."
E & P Meats was born a little over two years ago after a wine-fueled soul-searching conversation between Erik and his wife, who produces TV commercials. "We were getting kind of drunk and talking about what we could do so she could quit her job," he says. "And I said, 'Oh, maybe we can make sausage.' So I went the next day and bought the best grinder I could find at the kitchen store."
Guided by Susan Mahnke Peery and Charles G. Reavis's Home Sausage Making, Erik and a friend, Phillip (the p in E & P), began grinding out bangers, brats, and Italian sausages. They hosted parties in Erik's backyard, catered an outside event, and even made a few sales before Phillip's wife was transferred to Michigan, taking him out of the picture.
Enter Ehran, an Israeli-born ex-cinematographer and frequent guest at Erik and Phillip's sausage parties. "I've been cooking all my life," he says. "I think part of me getting to cooking was coming here and not having food as I'm used to—food that is made more at home, by hand."
The pair began studying recipes from a number of published sources along with developing their own—particularly for bacon. Ehran assisted with an informal sausage-making workshop given by a friend who teaches at Kendall College. "All the Jewish people here say, 'Oh, what is an Israeli boy doing making bacon?' says Ehran. "I grew up eating pork.'"
"It took us like six months to get our formulas right," Erik says. Willing guinea pigs tested varieties such as maple and applewood smoked, an unsmoked Irish bacon, and more obscure recipes like a hammy French salt pork commonly used in the lentil dish petit sale. Free samples of paprika-rubbed turkey breast, pistachio-truffle sausage, and sage breakfast links were doled out to friends, neighbors, teachers, and their children's schoolmates. Ehran even flipped a vegetarian acquaintance with their pastrami.
"Having to pay for them was just a natural transition," says Ehran. "They didn't complain."
In May they each took a 15-hour course from their local health department and subsequently received state licensing for food service sanitation—the first step in going legit. That same month they released their first menu, consisting of four bacons, and thus began what has since become known as the monthly ritual of Meat Week.
Near the beginning of each month they release a menu—now usually several bacons, a sausage, and maybe a deli meat—and orders begin popping up in their in-box. Then they spend a frenzied few days putting up the bacon and grinding and stuffing the sausage. "We work like crazy," says Ehran. "Usually we'll go four nights past midnight. The kids are asleep."
As word spread and they began taking on customers outside their immediate circle of friends, the demand began to take a toll on the equipment. A few months ago Erik's Waring sausage grinder, bought at Sur la Table, caught on fire in the midst of processing 40 pounds of meat.
E & P may not yet be profitable, but they do they make enough money to afford some professional equipment upgrades they find on Craigslist, "usually from some giant guy with a beard," says Erik. "And they're always disgruntled. The guy we bought the refrigerator from—I told him what I was doing and he's like, 'Stay small.'"
"I think that once we got the slicer there was no way back," says Ehran. "I also realized that I don't know how I lived without one all my life."
Their recently released holiday menu offers pistachio bacon brittle, cold-smoked Scottish salmon, and a membership in a six-month-long bacon-of-the-month club for $50. But they have yet to delve into the more complicated production of aged hams and long-cured and fermented meats like salamis. They'll need to jump over many more regulatory hurdles to get legal for that, but they're getting ready to start practicing, converting a storage room in Erik's basement into a cedar-lined temperature-and-humidity-controlled curing room.
And they're not planning on being outlaws forever. Early next year Erik will be taking a course on the FDA's food safety management system, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. He'll need to do that as well as submit a plan for approval to inspectors from his city's health department before E & P can open its own dedicated and fully licensed production and retail space. It's a notoriously difficult and expensive process, but something has to be done soon. Their wives are losing patience with the chaos of Meat Week, which keeps getting longer and longer.
"We're definitely looking to move into a place where we can have Meat Week every week," says Ehran.