The meat of the matter
by Rikki King '10 | © Washington State University
Dan Snyder can remember when local grocery stores would only buy one case of Cougar Brand Smokies at a time. Now, it’s unusual for them to buy fewer than three or four. And when they run out, the Washington State University Meats Lab manager’s phone starts ringing.
The meats lab building is tucked into the parking lot behind the Lewis Alumni Centre. It is primarily a teaching facility, used for animal science classes and agriculture industry professionals to learn how to evaluate live animals and grade and process animal carcasses. It’s also home to one of the most popular meat products on the Palouse.
The German-style smoked sausages were invented 35 years ago to solve a dilemma of what to do with the extra beef and pork trimmings. They have developed a small, but loyal following.
At Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe the Smokies have been offered alongside Cougar Gold Cheese for nearly 20 years. “They sell faster than Dan can make them sometimes,” says Creamery Manager Russ Salvadalena ’77. During a four-hour game-day shift, the shop can move up to 200 pounds of them.
At about $6 a pack, some customers will take home 10 to 15 packs at a time, knowing that the next time they stop by, the supply might be out. The wait for another batch can be anywhere between a week and a month, depending on the time and resources available at the meats lab.
Snyder, a soft-spoken man who displays his vintage knife collection on an office wall, has been at the Meats Lab for 24 years. He inherited the Smokies recipe with the job. Other than the beef and pork, he wouldn’t divulge the ingredients, which were determined long ago by former meats lab employees including manager Duncan R. Dunn ’68. Snyder would only say they are smoked with hickory or liquid smoke and that his sausage-making philosophy is simple: Use good meat, ensure a good product, and sales will stay up.
The meat is local, primarily pork from the WSU Swine Center and beef from the Cattle Feeding Lab. The process starts in the USDA-inspected “harvest room.” While the pork is processed sooner, the beef carcasses are aged in the cooler for up to 14 days, which tenderizes the meat as the muscle fibers break down. “As far as aging, cutting, and wrapping, it’s all done the same way today that it was done 50 years ago,” Snyder says.
But there have been changes. Because of strict “zero-tolerance” USDA guidelines, the lab has more stringent rules for cleaning and sanitizing, Snyder says. Everything in the room gets “washed and foamed and cleaned and scrubbed and rinsed” before it’s ready for another day.
Across the hall in the processing room, which doubles as a classroom, the carcasses are cut and wrapped, and the sausage is made. In an adjacent cooler, many dozens of plump Smokies hang, awaiting their delicious fate.
The Smokies are only one of the lab’s meaty endeavors, Snyder says. Besides teaching and offering extension courses, the lab sells lamb, whole and half sides of beef and pork, salami, a breakfast-style sausage, bacon, and hams to people who call or stop by.
In our quest for details about the Smokies, we tracked down a few former students. Matthew Deebach ’95, ’96 worked at the meats lab for about three years. Now a teacher at Tonasket High School, he offers a meats unit where students make their own sausage. He has sampled a lot of Smokies in his day. They are the Rolls-Royce of sausages, he says. “It’s the quality ingredients that go into that product that makes it heads and tails above everything else.” He didn’t have many details to offer, though.
Rod Cool ’87, ’92 MS worked at the lab from 1985 to 1988. He remembers Dunn as an “awesome guy” whose grandfather was Adam Duncan Dunn ’02, the WSU Regent for whom Duncan-Dunn Hall is named. Cool now teaches at Chelan High School and does butchering for family and friends. His favorite experience at the lab was quality control—pan-frying sausages as they finished, making sure they turned out right. That would never fly anymore, he says with a laugh.
Though Cool was part of the operation, Dunn never let him see the recipe.
What we do know is that the lab tweaked the ingredients a few years ago, taking out a few, but everything is still weighed to ensure the right ratio of spices to 100 pounds of meat, Snyder says. A sausage that was too spicy or too mild wouldn’t be a proper Cougar Smoky. “They do have a good spice to them,” he says.
Lab employee Tina Tate ’10 did at least give one clue: “The mix that we use has a little bit of sugar in it,” she says, adding that it helps pull out the other flavors.
Next, the Smokies are moved into the lab’s small industrial smokehouse, where they are both cooked and smoked for three to four hours. The links are then hung in a cooler overnight before being cut, vacuum-sealed into their packaging, labeled, and sent on their way to one of the local grocery stores or Ferdinand’s.
If you’re lucky, you may find a pack when you stop by. Regular customers always notice when the Cougar Smokies are missing from Ferdinand’s cooler, says Salvadalena. There’s not much he can do for their disappointment.
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