A Swine in Winter
While our cover story celebrates the festivity in Louisiana dining as suggested by chefs from around the state, there were times when food preparation was less joyful and had more to do with survival.
What I remember most about experiencing a boucherie as a kid was a feeling of nausea. It was early on a cold December Saturday morning and this city boy was awakened at my grandmother’s Avoyelles Parish house to go witness a winter ritual – a boucherie, at which several families joined together to make food products from a freshly slaughtered pig.
Culturally and anthropologically, it was a rich experience, but I knew noting about either of those things as I watched the pig’s carcass being lifted over a fire. Nearby were piles of swine innards; organs, fat, the head, tail and feet. Blood dripped into a bowl. All would be made into something. The joke was that every part of the pig was used except the squeal, but for me, laughing did not come easily that morning.
My cousin Judy has a way of finding perspective about rural life of yore. As we move toward the season of the boucherie later in the year, I am reminded about something she recently told me that, in retrospect, rings true: “It was disgusting,” she said. She was not criticizing the purpose of the boucherie but the act itself, at least as seen from the perspective of a kid for whom the chore of getting meat for supper simply meant going to the grocery store. “These were poor people and they worked hard,” Judy said. “They needed to prepare food for the winter.”
So it was that the women, many physically worn beyond their years, funneled meat though a grinder into a sausage casing. Some men stood over a cauldron that was sizzling with boiling oil into which fatty strips of pigskin would be dropped to make cracklins. Once boiled and salted, samples would be passed around. Hot cracklings on a cold morning were good for the spirit if not the heart. Another crew would stir the matter from the pig’s head into a pot while adding seasoning and gelatin, all of which would be stuffed into a bag and hung from a line to thicken into hog’s head cheese. At another spot the blood was made into one of the more daring of the items, boudin rouge, or blood sausage. Nearby, men with big knives chopped the meat into different cuts.
Boucheries are still held, and I hope they always will be. Now they are no longer a matter of survival but indeed a part of the culture. For all their rich imagery though, let it not be forgotten that they were rugged, sometimes squeamish work.
An offshoot of the boucherie is the pig roast, which is often part of the fundraising at church fairs and festivals There is a fiery glow along bayous and in churchyards as a hog carcass, fastened to a frame over a fire, gradually turns a crispy brown.
Tickets are sold for a roast pig dinner to be served the next morning including a serving of classic Louisiana “dirty rice” made with organ meats and seasonings. Those wanting a quick crunch might find cracklins available in small bags at a nearby table. For these occasions the objective is charity not survival. Sustenance comes in many ways.
Correction: In the May/June issue, the plantation Ernest Gaines grew up on was listed in the table of contents, subhead and caption as being located in Eunice. It should have read New Roads. We regret the error.