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“I started at my dad’s store at age 12 in the butchering room in the basement, working with the fresh poultry that came in wood crates,” Neff says. Just before his 20th birthday, he joined the Army, and three years later found himself in Detroit starting meat-cutting school. “The day of the old time meat cutter is gone—I’m lucky that when I got out of the service I had the opportunity to work for Farmer Jack’s and their meat market—I served a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman meat cutter,” Neff says.
“You learn the animal’s anatomy for beef, pork, lamb and poultry," he continues. "Then once you know exactly every membrane of the animal, the rest comes with experience. It’s a dying art. They’re not really training people to start with a whole animal anymore.”
While working in local butcher shops in Northern Michigan, Brian began a side business at home with a state-licensed kitchen, making sausages with people’s wild game and building his loyal hunter fan base. But after his fourth heart attack, worried about the strain on his heart from the hours he kept and from hefting the animals, he gave it all up, locked up the smoker and sold much of his equipment.
But, as it turned out, making sausage was his miracle. “People retire and don’t do anything, and they get unhealthy,” he says. After quitting sausage-making, he became increasingly listless and, he is poignantly honest about this, became deeply depressed.
“In ’92 the doctor said to go back and do sausages,” he says, eyes filled with tears. “It all came rushing back. I had had a
knife in my hand for so many years, I used to work beside another fella, and we were like two fine-tuned pianos—you’re
not ever going to lose something you’re really good at.”
Sausage-making gave him back his sparkle. “When hunters call to say they’re on their way home from their hunt, and they’ll be here that morning—it makes me feel like I’m with the living.”
But there’s even a small following of folks who don’t hunt that come around the Neff homestead at Christmastime for his one and only Swedish potato sausage. The recipe, which became famous in Charlevoix during the Neff Quality Foods days, was Neff’s grandmother Rebecca Walgren’s. She was a Swedish immigrant and a professional cook for Albert Loeb, acting president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. She traveled with the Loebs back and forth from their home in Chicago to their elaborate Charlevoix estate, Castle Farms. Loeb built the castle in 1918 as a model farm, where he could showcase
prize-winning livestock and the newest farm equipment sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Rebecca’s husband,
Gustav Walgren, was the family’s valet and chauffeur.
If you’d like it made into sausage or are interested in Neff’s bulk pork Italian or breakfast sausage, potato sausage and brats, call Neff’s Gourmet Sausages, 231-347-6409.