About a year ago, Francis, 66, followed his grandkids to Salinas, after growing up and living in upstate New York. Recently, he started a new business by turning to what he really did, and loved, best — making chili. For years, friends had been raving about "Butch's World Famous Deer Camp Chili," which Francis often made for fellow hunters at a lodge in Robinwood Park in Sebattis, N.Y. There, in the heart of the Adirondacks, hunting club members chowed down on Francis' concoction, based on a 90-year-old family recipe made with 20 ingredients, including white-tail deer. They loved it when he'd slop it onto two butter-slathered, giant-sized English muffins on a bed of angel hair pasta and topped with a couple of fried eggs and cheddar cheese.
When Francis and Tonie, his wife of 46 years, moved to Salinas, he hauled out that old recipe and replaced the venison with his homemade Italian sausage, a product he'd honed over eight years. He also added 18-year-old balsamic vinegar, pinot noir (Francis prefers Hahn) and Heineken beer. He refuses to reveal his secret ingredient, though — something that adds a hint of sweetness.
But for Francis, it's all about the sausage. For each batch, he buys 18 pounds of high-quality, Canadian boneless pork shoulder from Pacific Meats in Watsonville. "I won't buy American meat. Let me tell you, the USDA isn't doing its job," he warns. Compared to its American counterpart, the quality and consistency of the Canadian pork, he says, "is like night and day."
He crafts three types of sausage: breakfast, seasoned with ginger, thyme, nutmeg and sage; and mild, hot and XXX-rated Italian with garlic, basil, fennel and cayenne. He cuts the meat and mixes in the seasonings by hand — no fillers or preservatives in sight. Then, he stuffs it all into natural hog casings, sometimes using a hand crank. Francis says his product is healthful and low in fat. (He recommends sauteing it in olive oil because the sausage renders so little fat.) "The product speaks for itself," he says.
Francis eventually set up a slick Web site and began making personal appearances at local restaurants, wearing his cowboy hat and hauling around an ice chest on wheels full of sausage. Monterey Cookhouse, Paluca Trattoria on Fisherman's Wharf and Gino's in Salinas (with more pending) now feature Cowboy Sausage on their menus.
"He's an adorable character with a product that fits into what we're all about — fresh, local and homemade," said Cookhouse owner Linda Cantrell. "He's living his passion. I think he'll be famous some day."
Despite his New York roots, Francis looks every inch the cowboy, with a grizzled face softened by a white beard, and startling blue eyes peeking from underneath a well-worn cowboy hat. He makes the rounds to four local farmers markets — including three in Salinas and the Tuesday Old Monterey Marketplace on Alvarado Street. There, Francis and his friend and business-savvy sidekick, 15-year-old Kelvin Hoover, offer sample sausage rounds on toothpicks. "Kelvin looks out for me," Francis says. "He says he's the co-CEO of Cowboy Sausage."
While Kelvin keeps the operation running smoothly, visitors get a side of Francis' cowboy charm and offbeat humor. "Ever try roadkill?" he sometimes asks, handing over a sample. If you're in uniform, you'll get a handshake and a sincere thank you for serving your country, and a free pound of sausage. If you're a woman, you'll likely get a kiss on the hand. Francis' old-fashioned cowboy code also includes such gallant gestures as standing up when someone enters the room or returns to the table, and relinquishing his seat to anyone looking for one. His conversation is politely peppered with "please" and "thank you." And if you're not careful, he may just invite you over to dinner.
He drives a Chevy van, and riding shotgun is Rudy, a 9-year-old, half-blind, diabetic vizsla — a Hungarian sporting dog. "He goes everywhere with me," he says. "He's got 19 different yodels — some make you think his shorts are on too tight."
Francis' sense of humor has become something of a business practice. "I love putting smiles on people's faces," he says. Sometimes that New York attitude comes through, especially with his regulars. His answering machine says, "I'm out on the range foraging for things to make my sausage with!" At the farmers market, someone asks Francis how he is, and he replies, "Well, I woke up this morning, and I wasn't dead." And a sign posted at his booth reads: Men are not pigs! Pigs are gentle, and sensitive, intelligent animals.
"I like to keep it humble," he says.
Francis' chili and fresh sausage can be shipped overnight via Express Mail from his Cowboy Sausage Web site (www.cowboysausage.com). Sausage goes for $7.50 per pound, and chili is $6 to $8, for 12 and 16 ounces, respectively.
The Cowboy's Own Thick and Zesty Pasta Sauce
2 lbs. medium-hot Cowboy Sausage links
1½ T. Italian seasoning
1 T. sweet basil
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
½ tsp. cumin powder
½ tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
½ T. red pepper flakes
1 6 oz. can tomato paste (Italian style)
3 28-oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes
10-12 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 lb. pasta of your choice
¼ cup olive oil (optional)
1 cup dry red wine (optional)
Steps: In a medium-hot saute pan, brown sausage with enough olive oil to coat bottom of pan. (Do not overcook; sausage will finish cooking in sauce). While sausage is browning, peel and chop 10-12 garlic cloves. Take about half the garlic and sauté with the sausage until light golden color, then add the rest of the garlic and continue sauteing.
Add yer small chopped onion and sauté with the last of the garlic. Then open three large cans of plum tomatoes (use your boat motor to grind up) and the can of Italian tomato paste, and add to the sauté pan. Add herbs and spices. Simmer on low for 3Ð4 hours. Remember to stir about every 15-20 minutes so sauce will not stick to bottom of pan.
Optional: Add olive oil and ½ cup red wine during cooking (keep ½ cup of wine aside for da chef).
Cook pasta of your choice (I like shells or penne). Ladle sauce on top of past. Serve with grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese. Serves about four or so with some sauce left over for bread dippin'. Yum-yum. Don't forget to drink your wine and a get a refill when ya feel the need!