Boudin by the Bite
One of the defining features ofsouth Louisiana’s distinct Cajun culture is the food. Of course there’s the language, the music, the geography and the shared traditions and heritage, but it’s the food that stands second to none. While the region serves numerous delightfully decadent culinary items (including crawfish, shrimp, oysters, gumbo, jambalaya, andouille and stuffed chickens,) boudin stands out. The sausage, made of cooked pork, rice, onions and seasonings, has become a region-defining food.
Throughout the area known as Acadiana or Cajun Country, of which Lafayette is the hub, you’ll see signs and banners signaling you to stop and grab a link of Hot Boudin. It truly is ubiquitous and people take their boudin seriously. A spirited conversation about the attributes of a particular “link”, or whose boudin reigns supreme, is never too far off. In fact, a good way to start a conversation with a local is to ask them who they think has the best boudin. Before you know it, you’ll be embroiled in a full-fledged analysis. It’s not uncommon to hear of displaced Cajuns filling ice chests with up to 50 pounds of the sausage for the return trip. To begin understanding why such a simple food gets so much attention from the locals, one must venture out, oftentimes into the countryside, to meat markets and corner grocery stores where boudin craftsmen – or as some call them, “boudiniers” – employ generations-old recipes to make a product so versatile that it’s as properly enjoyed as a meal-on-the-go as it is served from silver platters at the finest wedding receptions.
Although the archival record may never reveal the precise origin of Louisiana’s boudin sausage, we do know that it traces its culinary lineage, like the Cajun people trace their ancestry, back to France. The French have a sausage called “boudin blanc” (white boudin) which is similar to Cajun boudin only through its nomenclature – French boudin blanc is a highly perishable sausage made with pork, chicken and/or veal mixed with milk, cognac and spices. While this is certainly good, it bears no resemblance to the link you’ll sink your teeth into in Louisiana.
Similarly, one of the earliest recorded recipes for boudin in the United States bears scant resemblance (thankfully) to our modern incarnation, but it deserves some consideration nonetheless. It was 200 years ago, on their famous journey of discovery, that Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark contracted with a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Charbonneau proved to be one of the least productive men on the journey, but he did provide the crew with their first taste of boudin and the preparation was recorded in the daily journal with a flair befitting the treat: “Thursday, May 9, 1805 … killed one buffaloe … we saved the necessary materials for making what our wrighthand cook Charbono calls the boudin blanc, and immediately set him about preparing them for supper; this white pudding we all esteem one of the greatest delicacies of the forrest …” What follows is an elaborate explanation of how Charbonneau squeezes out a buffalo intestine, stuffs it with meat and kidney suet, “baptizes” it in the Missouri River with “two dips and a flirt,” boils it, and fries it in bear grease.
When the French Acadians (today’s Cajuns) made their way out of Nova Scotia – after having been expelled by the British in 1755 – they adapted their traditions and culture to their new surroundings. Many made their way to the bayous, prairies and backwoods of Louisiana, where life required ingenuity, flexibility and creativity. So, when they set out to make use of a freshly butchered hog, and to make good use of every single part of that animal, it was not much of a stretch for them to add some rice (as filler and flavor) to the “leftover” pork, mix it with the cayenne and seasonings at hand, shove it into the intestines and call it what they had always called such a sausage: “boudin.” Today in places such as St. Martinville, at their La Grande Boucherie des Cajuns (hog butchering) held the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the age old tradition of making boudin (along with all sorts of other pork products) is embraced, and the ritual and community spirit continues to be passed from one generation to the next. In many ways, every time a person takes a bite from a link of boudin they’re celebrating a part of this same tradition.
PONDERING A LINK?
Folklorist Barry Ancelet has observed that people will generally tell you that the best boiled crawfish comes from the most difficult places to find, while the best boudin always seems to be the closest at hand. This makes sense, because for many, boudin is essentially a sort of Cajun fast food: Quickly filling the hunger void at virtually any time of the day or night. However, the most common time to eat a link is in the morning, and many a Cajun refers to a Dr. Pepper and a link of boudin as a “Cajun Breakfast.” This is a curious thing, because the link itself does not contain anything remotely associated with breakfast.
With the question of who has the “best” boudin being such a fertile topic and engendering tremendous passions, how does one go about differentiating one link from another? It’s no easy task and regional variations exist from parish to parish and neighborhood to neighborhood. Boudin connoisseurs tend to focus most of their attention on the following points of distinction:
Wet or Dry
Some links are juicy vessels filled with the requisite ingredients and possessing “wetness.” These wet links are usually of the chunky variety. Don’s Specialty Meats in Carencro is a prime example of just such a link, while at La Grange Supermarket you’ll find a link that is best described as having its own gravy. Others are decidedly dry with the ingredients being bound together mostly by the starch of the rice. For a good example of such a dry link, head out to Romero’s in Scott.
Chunky or Mashed
Depending on the coarseness of the sausage grinder attachment or the number of times the filling is sent through the grinder, a link’s interior may be more or less pulverized. There are those who like to find whole grains of intact rice, chunks of pork with some toothy bite and onion pieces still maintaining some structural integrity. Others prefer the interior of their link to be, essentially, a mashed conglomeration. Both are good methods of producing a tasty link and you’re likely to find all variations throughout the region.
Liver or No Liver
This can be a touchy subject. There are those who point out that pork liver is a key ingredient to a traditional link of Cajun boudin. For many, the liver provides an earthy richness to the link and rounds out all the right flavors. Others are turned off by the thought of a little liver in their sausage. Suffice it to say that done right, and for most that means done in moderation, the inclusion of some pork liver is desirable in an excellent link of boudin.
Spicy or Mild
Cayenne is the heat producer in a link of boudin and it’s relatively easy for more or less of the powerful red powder to be added to a batch during the production phase. Everyone’s pepper pallet is different, so the key is to find a link that is consistent and reliable when it comes to heat tolerance. In order to address people’s different tastes, some boudiniers produce both hot and mild versions. Look to Comeaux’s in Lafayette for just such a choice.
Crisp or Rubbery Casing
Another point of contention comes when one starts talking about the casing itself. While it’s no longer made with the actual intestine of the hog, it’s a natural and fully edible product. Many swear that the proper way to eat a link is with a crisp casing that will snap off in their mouth. The casing, then, will be consumed along with the fillings. Many more approach their link from a different angle, preferring a less crisp casing that is more conducive to squeezing the filling out and into one’s mouth.
More Rice or More Meat
While one’s knee-jerk reaction to the notion of whether a link should have more meat or more rice might be to expect more meat, it’s generally expected and desired that the link will have an almost even ratio of rice to meat, for it’s really the blending of the starchy rice and the meaty pork that produces the distinct flavor of Cajun boudin. That being said, if the ratio is to tip one way or the other, most prefer it to lean towards the pork. However, as one ventures into the western reaches of Acadiana, toward the “rice capital” of Crowley, they are more likely to find the balance tipping heavily in favor of the rice.
Ah, but we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of this porky pleasure. Consider that there are myriad variations worth trying. There is, of course, boudin rouge (red/blood boudin: made with copious quantities of coagulated swine brine,) which is hard to come by these days. There are those who long for the day when they could get a link of blood boudin, but for most it’s a delicacy they’d rather think about someone else eating some other time. Then there are the nouveau fillings being touted at various places: shrimp, crawfish, seafood, chicken and even alligator. Some, particularly transplants from Texas, insist on putting their link on the barbecue or having it smoked. The growing numbers who favor the grilled link swear it’s the tastiest way to prepare the dish. Boudin balls are the filling or “dressing” from the link rounded, breaded and deep-fried. Is it good? Oh yeah! A boudin sandwich is the filling smeared between two pieces of white bread. Boudin party links have even recently come on the scene and Boudinalaya (a twist on Jambalaya) is a budding new variation. You’ll also find boudin being used in omelets and being stuffed into puff pastry dough and baked.
Top 19 Boudin Places – in alphabetical order
While there are a few serviceable wholesalers out there, the best links come from the kitchens or butcher shops that make it in-house. You’re as likely to find a true boudin craftsman in a gas station convenience store with an added kitchen as you are in an established meat market. So, don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, but do ask if they make it themselves.
Bayou Boudin and Cracklin 100 W. Mills Ave., Breaux Bridge
With the ambiance of an historic Cajun cabin, you’re guaranteed to love this cozy little stop. The link holds a filling of mashed meat and pulverized rice, punctuated with crunchy bits of green onion, and it’s not too juicy and not too dry. With medium heat, your taste buds will sing a song of delight. Merle Haggard and Hank Williams Jr. prefer the Bayou Boudin and Cracklin link, so you at least know you’re in good company.
Best Stop 615 Highway 93 N., Scott
Head off the highway and up into the country a little ways for this classic boudin stop. Considered by many to be the top choice, it boasts a whole range of smoked meat products and their cracklin are among the best you’ll ever taste. Very popular and very much worth a stop.
Billeaud’s Meat and Grocery 111 E. Main St., Broussard
This link possesses a truly smooth texture with equal amounts of rice and pork. The owners will tell you that they measure all the ingredients precisely and pride themselves on a consistent product. Without a doubt, Billeaud’s has mastered one of the most perfect and flavorful blends, and the fact that they sell more than 500 pounds a week is a testament to the devotion that the people of Broussard have to this link.
Billy’s Boudin 904 Short Vine, Opelousas
Make sure to order “Billy’s Boudin” when you’re here. They also sell a different recipe called “Ray’s Boudin.” You want Billy’s. With a moist and breakable casing you’re going to find a loose and spicy concoction of chunky pork and rice. A regional twist: In this neck of the woods they’re going to serve your link cut in pieces and with saltine crackers as an accompaniment. For an added twist, go ahead and order your link at the drive-through boudin window.
Bourque’s Supermarket 581 Saizan St., Port Barre
If you make the drive to Port Barre for a link of Bourque’s boudin, you’ll be treated to a fine link and even finer Cajun hospitality. The boudin is mildly hot with lots of long grain rice. The whole place is an homage to “The Boss,” (not the singer but the family’s patriarch) and don’t even think about leaving without trying the jalapeño-sausage-cheese-bread. Talk about good.
Broussard’s Supermarket (aka: NuNu’s) 113 Espasie Dr., Milton
A decidedly “rich” boudin flavor reminiscent of the way locals have been eating boudin for generations. The link’s flavor is enhanced with the use of NuNu’s own secret Cajun seasoning blend and they don’t skimp on it. Milton, by the way, is a great Cajun country town.
Charlie T’s Specialty Meats 530 Berard St., Breaux Bridge
A true “must eat” stop on any boudin run. The smallish link is usually mouth-watering, moist and juicy with meaty bits of pork and crisp bits of green onion. It has a mild heat component. An additional attraction is that seeking out Charlie T’s boudin will bring you to the heart of historic Breaux Bridge and if you time a visit to coincide with the Crawfish Festival, your taste buds will really thank you.
Chop’s Specialty Meats 1019 Albertson Pkwy., Broussard
At this spotless, full-service, specialty meat shop you’ll get intense boudin flavor in every bite of their deliciously satisfying and meaty link. The meat is pulverized and tightly packed inside a perfectly crisp casing. Don’t expect this medium/hot link to last very long; you’ll gobble it down in no time at all. Chop’s is also a great place to pick up a bag of cracklin to munch on as you drive to your next boudin stop.
Comeaux’s 2807 Kaliste Saloom Rd., Lafayette
It’d be easy to drive right by this Exxon station because nothing about its outward appearance suggests the wondrous boudin that you’ll find inside. In addition to the hot pork boudin with a comminuted filling that packs a porky punch with every bite, this is where you’ll find alligator, crawfish, shrimp or seafood boudin; and, get this, they even make a “no spice” boudin, catering to the customers who have medical conditions that don’t allow them to enjoy spicy foods.
Don’s Specialty Meats 104 Louisiana Hwy 726, Carencro
Truly an institution when it comes to excellent boudin, words cannot adequately describe the porkiness you’ll experience with a link of Don’s boudin. However, make certain to try the beef jerky and don’t miss the cracklin, they’re both “must eats.” Plus, on Saturday mornings you can get a truly sublime pork chop sandwich (eat it in the parking lot like a local,) but watch out for the bone between the two slices of white bread. Don’s also has a new location in Scott.
Earl’s Food Center 510 Verot School Rd., Lafayette
A small grocery store that will sell you a link from the meat case in the back. You can expect it to be medium/hot, dry-ish, with aromatic pork flavors and superb undertones of rice and spice. It is likely to have more rice than meat, but the permutation is close to even.
Gautreaux’s 231 Austria Rd., Duson
With a well-bodied juiciness to it, this link will please but not overpower. You’ll know you’re eating rice and you’ll know you’re eating pork and you’ll be happy about both. As an added bonus, the cracklin are delicious and you can pick up a pack of out-of-this-world-good alligator patties, too.
Hebert’s Specialty Meats 8212 Maurice Ave., Maurice
Hebert’s is as famous for their stuffed chickens as for their boudin. It’s a hot and scrumptious link with plenty of swine flavor and a hint of black pepper.
JD’s Market and Deli 7778 Johnston St., Maurice
Eat it there or take it away. With a tremendous amount of delicious pork, you’ll love this well-colored link. It’s spiced medium, and to many it’s the epitome of a link of Cajun boudin. The little store also fries up some of the crunchiest, meatiest and freshest cracklin this side of the Mississippi River.
Legnon’s Boucherie 410 Jefferson Terrace, New Iberia
Legnon’s has been a tradition in New Iberia for over a generation. Now, in a new building, they continue to produce a quality link filled with finely minced meat and rice, possessing a medium heat. Legnon’s uses lean meat and you won’t find this to be fatty at all. Locals call New Iberia “the Berry” and they call Legnon’s boudin “excellent.”
Menard’s 429 S Bullard St., Opelousas
Menard’s bright yellow building may not look like much from the outside, but inside you’ll find them grinding loads of fresh pork for their truly sumptuous boudin. With a dry and dense texture, this hot and spicy link is certain to release a meaty zip in every bite. They’re also locally famous for their soft-serve ice cream.
Mowata Store 29017 Crowley/Eunice Hwy, Mowata
The Mowata Store is the only thing around here, so you won’t miss it. The link is also one of the largest you’ll find, so you won’t miss it, either. Full grains of tender rice are mixed in a rich concoction of chunky pork meat, fat, crisp green onions and other ingredients. Unique gravy envelopes all the components. Yummy!
Shawn’s Cajun Meats 2832 Verot School Rd., Lafayette
Shawn’s is a newcomer to the boudin marketplace and is making a name for itself by doing things a little differently. There may be some rice in the link, but you’ll have to search for it. Clearly the boudin craftsman who developed this recipe has intentionally chosen to eschew the rice. While it resembles “pork roast in a casing,” it’s also delicious. Shawn’s also makes one of the few chicken boudins around and it’s a delight. Add to all of this the other wonderful, homemade soups, sauces and gumbos in Shawn’s freezer case, and you’ll understand why this is a great stop.
T Boy’s Slaughterhouse 2228 Pine Point Rd., Ville Platte (ed note: the address may be Ville Platte, but it’s actually in Mamou)
T Boy knows a thing or two about Cajun cookin’ and he even has his own spice blend to help you out in your humble kitchen. As far as the boudin goes, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a more consistently good link. Oh, and he makes the largest boudin balls around, guaranteed. Since Mamou is a hub for Cajun music, make sure to spend a little time at Fred’s Lounge, famous for their live performances.
Bob Carriker is a history professor at the University of Louisiana Lafayette who has also developed a fascination for Louisiana culture, especially boudin. He and a colleague operate a boudin-related website under the names Dr. C and Coach T – The Linksters: www.boudinlink.com)