The Funeral and the Festival

originally published in Dime Entertainment Magazine

The point at which a hog goes from a dead animal to meat is when the butcher splits its breast bone with a mallet and a hatchet. He or she hops onto the table where the hog rests, straddling the carcass. A series metallic thunks, a tug on the legs on either side, and the creature splits open to resemble the vertically-oriented sides of pork (or beef, or lamb) that hang in meat lockers.

The head has yet to be removed. The intestinal tract that had been happily digesting minutes before remains in place. We’re still hours from barbecued ribs, but the crucial transubstantiation is complete.

These are the lessons one learns from attending a boucherie. A boucherie is a Cajun cultural artifact, a celebration of abundance in a place where scarcity is the norm. The community comes together to share in the sacrifice of a hog, with each family receiving and preparing a portion of meat. Acadian specialties like boudin and head cheese arose from the need to use every part of the animal, both for economic reasons and to honor the loss of life.

 

I attended my first boucherie as a guest of the Meraux Foundation, a charitable organization promoting and preserving the culture of St. Bernard Parish. As the finale of Slow Food USA‘s Slow Fish conference, the boucherie was intended to serve as a sideshow to some fascinating and delicious seafood cookery. The slaughter, breakdown and preparation of a whole hog, however, has a magnetism that’s hard to compete with.

The Foundation opened up Docville Farm, a 130-acre historic farm between the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, to the Slow Food attendees and Lache Pas Boucherie. Lache Pas (Cajun for “don’t let go”) is a collective of Cajuns and Creoles led by Toby Rodriguez. Lache Pas has been almost singularly responsible for the revival and preservation of the boucherie, appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in 2011 and orchestrating numerous boucheries across the Gulf South.

sun cane

daybreak through the sugarcane near Docville Farm’s entrance

Soon after sunrise, the crowd gathered around the trailer which had transported the hog to Docville Farm. Rodriguez had just spent a few minutes alone with the hog, offering him a last meal of fresh grains. The boucherie crew arranged themselves at the trailer’s entrance as Rodriguez drew his pistol. Paul Deville, a friend of Lache Pas, said the Lord’s Prayer, and a gunshot ended the hog’s life.

 

The crew sprung into action in the hushed silence, holding the hog’s flopping body as Rodriguez slit its throat. The hot blood flowed into a mixing bowl and was whisked with salt to prevent coagulation; the blood is a feature ingredient in boudin noir. Once the hog had been bled, Rodriguez called for “about six or eight” strong hands to load the carcass onto a board and move it to the staging area.

 

A boucherie is necessarily collaborative and offers plenty of opportunity for amateurs to get their hands dirty. Shaving the bristles alone involved a rotating crew of dozens of chefs, cooks and volunteers. Over the following hour, the crowd began to disperse as cuts came off the hog: liver, heart and kidneys for stew; loins for grilling; hams for a six-hour smoke session.
snout

Toby Rodriguez and co deftly remove the snout from our recently deceased benefactor.

Cooking up this bountiful mess of meat were a hodgepodge posse of Cajuns and some of New Orleans’ most celebrated chefs. Top Chef finalist Isaac Toups collaborated with Bacchanal‘s Joaquin Rodas on an organ meat stew laced with black-eyed peas. This dank concoction was ladled over a thin, raw slice of tenderloin in the style of Vietnamese pho. Mopho‘s Michael Gulotta diced and rendered pork belly for gratons, the Cajun take on cracklin’s. Whole-hog royalty/NASA rocket scientist Howard Conyers teamed up with Shaya‘s Zach Engle to handle the ribs and loins.

Paul Deville cooked the ponce: the hog’s stomach, stuffed with sausage, sewn shut, seared and braised until cooked through. Apparently this particular hog’s stomach was exceptionally large, and thus challenging to cook without it bursting. “If I’d have known he was gonna put me through this, I wouldn’t have said such a nice prayer,” Deville said.

 

Rodriguez and the rest of the Lache Pas crew are now in the midst of a nationwide tour, with stops in Houston, Birmingham and Denver. The Slow Food boucherie was the pilot event — a collaboration with community chefs that fuses Cajun ritual with local cuisine. “No matter where we go, we meet the same folks,” Rodriguez said. Farmers, fishers, chefs and eaters, all individuals who are emotionally invested in the provenance and treatment of the foods they consume.
spilled

The husbandry of animals is a crucial aspect of conventional agriculture. The crops that best nourish humans deplete the soil; animals, fed on the plants or parts of plants that humans can’t eat, return those nutrients to the ground. Animals provided a supplement (milk, eggs) and storehouse (meat) of calories, surety against a ruined crop or the barren cold of winter.

Modern industrial food production’s segregation of animals from the land is a violence against humans, livestock and our planet. Replacing the valued work of animals with petroleum-based fertilizers and gas-powered tillers, modern agriculture treats cows, pigs and chickens as units of meat production rather than sentient, sensitive beings. The process results in vast sewage lagoons, suffering animals and fat, sick humans.

 

“Taking the life of an animal is a huge responsibility,” Rodriguez said. Our daily behavior does not reflect this fact. Ethically-farmed meat and vegetables are premium products, unattainable for most on a daily basis. We no longer move within a system of traditional, sustainable agriculture. Events like a boucherie are a sad reminder of what we’ve lost, a statement on where we stand, and a prompt to change.
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