Anna Gibala was 11 years old when her dad pulled off the highway and told a police officer to shoot a deer in the head.
For context: the deer had just been hit by a car, and the officer, called to the scene of the accident, was preparing to put the animal out of its misery.
After Gibala’s father told the officer how to shoot the deer humanely, he said, “I’ll take it.”
He then put the carcass in the trunk, drove back to the family’s home in Durham, and hung it over the monkey bars in the backyard playset. They ate venison for dinner.
Watching her dad process deer so matter-of-factly is what first sparked Gibala’s interest in butchery. He frequently hunted, always utilizing every cut—and though “it might sound weird,” she says, he would sometimes pick up roadkill if it was fresh.
“I used to sit and watch him in the backyard while he’d clean and skin the venison,” Gibala says. “I’d help with some of the cutting and removing silver skin as a kid. And we were always cooking together.”
Gibala’s father passed away 11 years ago, and since then, she’s been mastering his craft. She went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, got a bachelor’s degree in food systems management from Appalachian State University, and spent the next six years working at a range of wholesale meat retailers and combination butcher-sandwich shops on the West Coast.
Three months ago, Gibala returned to Durham to turn her training into enterprise, opening a handmade sausage and charcuterie business called Moonbelly Meat Co. in January. She hopes to one day open a brick-and-mortar location; for now, she takes orders online and pays a monthly fee to use Redstart Foods owner Matt Northrup’s commercial kitchen in Braggtown. Customers can pick up their Moonbelly orders at the Redstart kitchen, or, if they spend more than $45, Gibala will deliver them to Durham and Chapel Hill locations herself. She’s also working on getting a stand at the Durham Farmers’ Market.
Moonbelly Meat’s menu was initially limited to sausages—breakfast links, smoked andouille, beer brats, Mexican chorizo—but business has picked up over the past few weeks, allowing Gibala to order half hogs instead of isolated pork shoulders. She’s since expanded to offer items that use other parts of the pig, like bacon, smoked ham, pork chops, and Old Bay chicharrones.
Gibala orders all of her pork from Durham’s Firsthand Foods; sourcing good-quality, humanely raised, hormone-free meat is important, she says, for both taste and ethical purposes. Moving forward, she plans to get more experimental with flavors. When she was working at Clove & Hoof in Oakland, California, one of her proudest accomplishments was creating barbecue-chicken-pizza-flavored sausage, modeled after the California Pizza Kitchen dish.
“I don’t think anyone’s really making the weird stuff I want to make,” she says.
Flavoring sausage is tricky because adding acidity can ruin the texture. The key, she says, is to dry out ingredients in a dehydrator, blitz them up in a blender, and work the powder into the raw meat. She’s hoping to make a kimchi-flavored sausage using this method. She also has an idea for a pho sausage, which would include mint, cilantro, warming spices, and chilled cubes of pork broth that partially liquefy when the sausage is cooked—kind of like a soup dumpling but in sausage form.
Beyond its uniquely flavored products, Moonbelly stands out as a woman-owned, Korean-owned business in a male-dominated field. Butchery and meat farming remain majority-male professions, but according to data from the US Department of Labor, women are beginning to enter the industry at higher rates: women now account for almost 25 percent of butchers nationwide, up from 21 percent in 2006; and in North Carolina, at least 30 percent of meat farms involve a female operator—twice the national average.
Moonbelly’s name is a nod to Gibala’s Korean surname, Moon (she was adopted from Seoul as a baby), and its logo—a powder-pink-spotted woman in the moon, long-lashed eyes closed and licking her lips—is an intentional departure from the branding of typical butcher shops, which usually feature crossed cleavers or a black-and-white outline of a pig. Gibala wanted to create an image that was less aggressive and more approachable and inclusive.
“I think as a consumer, your experience going into a butcher shop can oftentimes feel a little bit condescending or intimidating,” Gibala says. “My biggest goal has been ‘How can I make this as welcoming of an environment as possible?’”
Gibala’s emphasis on inclusivity also extends to her product. She recently altered one of her most popular items, a Korean-barbecue-flavored sausage, so that it would be accessible to gluten-free folks: it now contains tamari instead of soy sauce and sriracha in lieu of gochujang (Korean chili paste).
She’s even considering branching out to offer plant-based, Impossible meat–style products for the vegetarian crowd.
“I worked at one place that had [shop] stickers that said, ‘100 percent not vegan,’ and I would love to not do that,” she says. “It makes it feel overly exclusive.”
For now, though, her focus lies on the meat. She gets visibly exhilarated while discussing the technicalities of butchery and seems most in awe of the craft’s potential to be both uniform and endlessly versatile.
Gibala says most people don’t realize that butchered animals have nearly identical anatomical structures, just on different scales.
A certain cut of pork parallels the one you’ll find on a lamb, a cow, or even a deer on the side of the road.
“I find that so fascinating,” she says. “There’s almost a catharsis. When you break it down it’s really all the same, underneath.”
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