By Boisy Pitre
Imagine a world without refrigeration, supermarkets, cold storage transportation, and other modern conveniences that we take for granted today. Such a world was not very long ago for many of our ancestors here in south Louisiana. Their primary source of protein was meat — it meant nourishment and the fuel for their hard labor. Having fresh, disease-free meat was paramount to sustain health, and the freshest meat meant slaughter.
It is out of this necessity that the custom of the boucherie sprung. A communal tradition by nature, the boucherie involved a number of local families within the vicinity of a community, where a hog was slaughtered and the meat would be divided up between participants. The benefit of this approach was that the intense labor of slaughtering, butchering, and cooking would be shared amongst those involved, lessening the burden. In the interest of fairness, each family would take a turn providing the sacrificial animal. Typical times for this event would be in the fall, right around harvest, and in the early spring while temperatures were still cool.
This custom not only insured nutrition for the families, but it also acted as a preservation of knowledge. Best practices along with secret recipes were enshrined over time and passed down to subsequent generations.
Today, the tradition is mostly relegated to festivals and other public events to show “how things used to be.” However, lately there has been a resurgence in the custom, not so much out of necessity, but out of a sense of community building and cultural preservation. These small, private gatherings are not always advertised or open to all, but instead are held by groups of friends and comrades. Such is the case of “Le Cochon est Roi,” a private, invitation only event, started by a group of like-minded men from the Opelousas area.
My farm in Prairie Ronde was the setting for this latest boucherie. Buoyed by sunny skies and cool weather, the event drew around 200 participants from around the area and beyond. Indeed, the meaning of the word “community” was stretched, as participants from states such as Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Texas, and Ohio converged right on the Evangeline/St. Landry Parish line both to witness and participate in this grand occasion. More locally, inhabitants from local communities such as Opelousas, Lafayette, Breaux Bridge, Youngsville, Prairie Laurent, Frilot Cove, Duson, Carencro, and others are represented.
It Starts With a Hog
The critical ingredient in a boucherie is, of course, the animal itself. In this instance, it was a 300-400 pound sow which lived its life as a “show pig” at various farm/livestock venues around the area. Such animals are reared strictly for display, though they may be bred, as this one was. They are also well fed, and their form is a testament to that. The pig for this event was a beauty: stout, muscular legs, perfectly round rumps, a fat yet meaty body, and beautifully symmetrical. We were warned that she was mean, and in fact was a danger to her litter, which expedited her sale to the cause.
Of course, no one is ever quite sure how many people will show up, so an additional 100 pound, smaller hog was procured for a cochon de lait as well as a lamb to be marinated and cooked over the rotisserie. The former is killed that day, while the later was slaughtered one day earlier.
Slaughter and Butchering
Considered an unpleasant task by many, the slaughtering is the first step in a long line of procedures for the day. With attention paid toward minimizing the suffering of the animal, a well placed shot with a .22 rifle is made between the eyes at a particular angle to ensure a quick death. Once the animal is shot, her throat is cut so that she may bleed out. Sometimes the blood is collected in order to make boudin noir (blood sausage) but this time it was not.
After several minutes, the animal ceases to kick. As the blood runs out and the heart eventually stops, she is hoisted onto a table by six men. There, sacks are spread on the animal and hot water is poured. This softens the skin and allows for removal of the hair using scrapers. Once the hair has been removed, the animal is cut open underneath laterally. Care is taken not to nick the guts or other organs that can spoil the meat. Entrails are carefully removed and sections such as liver and other organs are carefully harvested for specific meals that will be prepared later.
With the entrails removed, wholesale butchering of the carcass begins. Sharp knives and skill are required to know where and exactly how much to cut. The feet are removed, then the hind, the shank, and so forth. The back skin/fat/meat layer is removed. Each has its place in the pantheon of dishes that are to come.
Cooking and Eating
Out of one animal comes an eclectic array of dishes: boudin, backbone stew, sausage, gratons (cracklin), hog head cheese, and jambalaya. Seasonings come to bear on each dish, bringing added flavor to the meat. Other parts of the hog become a major meal in itself. For example, the ponce (stomach) is stuffed, then carefully sewn up and cooked (ponce is also known as chaudin in and around St. Martin Parish). The sausage is hung in a smoker box, where oak wood burns to provide smoke (a process learned from the Attakapas Indians). Pantoilette (caul fat wrapped pork sausage mixture) is made and hung in the smoker. Backbone stew is prepared with the backstrap of the animal, cooked in roux and served over rice. Other dishes are made, including macque choux, les haricots, and various homemade breads.
The Social Aspect
While food is the dominate reason for the boucherie, it also serves as a cohesive element amongst the participants. Men and women work together in unison, coordinating tasks in order to meet the goal of feeding everyone. Recipes are shared, tips and best practices are exchanged, and knowledge is transferred from one person to the next.
Along with sharing and eating delicious food, music is another important social aspect of the boucherie. Impromptu jam sessions spring up around the tents: accordions, fiddles, guitars, upright basses, and even drums and banjos suddenly appear with their tantalizing sounds reverberating all around. The air is also filled with veilelle — discourse among friends new and old. Old bonds are reinforced and new ones are created. Ideas are exchanged, and synergy is being created as people revel in the sounds and smells around them: meat browning in a large chaudiere noir, grease popping in the graton pot, the sound of a spoon scraping against metal as roux is being stirred. Beer is being consumed in copious amounts, smiles abound everywhere, and there is dancing and laughter.
Dusk eventually comes, and with it the rope lights bring clarity anew to the tents. The party carries over into the night, where some of the participants are slightly inebriated, others more so. A fire is started. Conversation carries on into the night, and a large, beautiful moon shines its light down in the field, showering everyone with luminance.
This is la Louisiane and her progeny enjoying the bountiful fruits of her land — la boucherie.