Much of my love for cooking is a result of my parents’ love of the same. Both my mother and father were fantastic cooks, but dad was more of a student of culinary history and arts. His library was filled with cookbooks and when we traveled, he sought out the local, the unusual and the authentic. This passion spilled over into his professional life as well.
As an attorney, representing injured railroad workers in their claims against their employers, the local chapters of the United Transportation Union were of extreme importance. The railroad is a highly unionized workplace and the locals are where many important decisions are made. In many rural communities, the local union hall is a place of socializing, politicing and celebration. At the top of the ladder in a local union is the Local Chairman. These elected positions are powerful within the workplace and the community. Showing support for a Local Chairman is paramount to getting business from that local. When railroad men get hurt they look to their local chairman to help them choose an attorney. Being a second-generation, UTU designated attorney, dad knew this fact of life and fiercely protected his relationships with union locals and their leaders. Part of this relationship was entertaining the union local membership a time or two each year by paying for and attending their festivals, annual meetings and even the occasional wedding or anniversary bash. My father’s name was always known by the union workers because he was the generous man who footed the bill for the fish fry/cochon du lait/boucherie/goat roast that was the hallmark of the union man’s social season. During these events, the local chairman would introduce dad to the receptive audience and ask him to say a few words about the Ramsey Law Firm and how they had been helping injured railroad men for two generations and how the firm was founded by one of their own – an injured railroad man who went on to get a law degree and represent his brothers and sisters from the union when they too suffered from a disabling accident. Dad was in his element. He sang with the bands, danced with the wives, mothers and grandmothers and swapped tales with the men. But what he enjoyed the most was jumping into the fray with the cooks. He spit roasted goats, pit smoked hogs, scaled and fried fish, tended the bubbling pots of roux to make gumbos and threw all manner of critters into roiling cauldrons of stew. He boiled crawfish, grilled steaks and shucked oysters with abandon and joy. Despite the fact that he may have arrived on a private plane, the men and women and the union hall saw him as just another one of them, decked out in overalls or sporting white shrimper boots and mopping his sweaty brow with his signature red bandanna. His accent would migrate a bit from his usual southern drawl to Cajun, Creole, Texas Latino or Hillbilly twang. And this wasn’t an act. He loved these men and women. He felt more at home with them than with a bunch of suits in a courtroom.
Lucky for me, I got to see much of this first-hand.
From the time I was in diapers until he retired I attended these events with him. As a child, I learned to eat just about anything and was shucking oysters before I could sit at a table without a high chair. Up until I left for college, I went to as many as I could and even as I grew older, I made a point to accompany him to a few a year. I grew up knowing some of the children and grandchildren of the union families and I still stay in touch with one or two. This experience shaped me in so many ways that I’m still discovering them.
This past weekend I attended the SlowFish 2016 Boucherie in Violet, Louisiana. My friend Chef Ryan Hughes asked me to join him on the boudin station and I was so excited to do so, I drove the three hours to South Louisiana at the crack of dawn so I could arrive at 7:00 am along with the organizers and other chefs. My Sous Chef, Jordan “Flash” Holley came along and I think her life is now forever changed.
A Boucherie is a one to three day festival around the slaughtering of a hog. Early in the morning the hog is humanely and reverently killed and teams of butchers, cooks and pit masters set to the work of preparing a group meal utilizing every part of the beast. Nothing is wasted.
This particular boucherie was led by Toby Rodriguez and his troupe Lâche Pas Boucherie. “Lâche Pas” translates roughly to “Don’t Let Go” and his team holds fast to the traditions of the boucherie. To start the day, a cajun band played softly, heads were bowed, a prayer was offered and Toby raised a .22 pistol the head of the Berkshire hog. When the shot rang out Toby’s team rushed in to collect the blood as Toby pierced the hog’s heart with a scimitar. Like I said, nothing is wasted. The crowd stayed in place, young and old alike watching with reverence as the life was drained from the beast that would provide the food for the festival. From this vantage point, you are in touch with your food. There is no shrink wrap to insulate you from the meat you will consume. There is no wall to hide the butchery. There is no sanitation of what is happening. You know that something living has died and that you will consume it. If this doesn’t make you respect and honor the pig, you should really become a vegetarian.
I joined in to transport the hog “pallbearer-style” to a couple of sawhorses where volunteers assisted in shaving the hog before it was butchered into parts for the different cooking stations. Great care was taken to carefully and cleanly break down the animal, preserving each part for its appointed task. The head and trotters went to the Aaron and Mina at the Hog’s Head Cheese station, two hams to Dan and Nick for the smoker, ribs, loin and belly to Zach and Howard manning the Pit, two shoulders and 3/4 of the liver to Bart and me – the Boudin makers, the stomach to Paul to make Ponce, the backbone to Morgan and Nate for Backbone Stew, the heart, remaining liver, kidneys and tenderloins to Isaac for Fraisseurs and finally the skin and some of the belly to Mike and Mason for Gratons. At a multi-day boucherie, the intestines would be cleaned and used for chitterlings and sausage casings, but this being a one-day event, they were taken over to the levee and tossed into the river, where they were certainly eaten by turtles and fish.
As everyone was setting up their mise and starting work on their stations Zach and Howard and the unmistakable sweet, smoky and gamey aroma of pit roasted lamb drifted over the farmyard and got the revelers excited to try the first bites of the day. The night before, Bart and Toby dressed a whole lamb and started the laborious process of pit roasting it. Zach and Howard basted it to finish with pomegranate juice and olive oil so that it would be ready to start the morning off with a hearty breakfast. Their timing was as perfect as the meat was served and in short order the bones were clean and gleaming white.
Over the course of the day, different fishermen shared their bounty with the crowd. We ate oil-canned tuna, boiled shrimp, raw oysters and grilled fish while we imbibed on local beer from 40 Arpent brewery and Carmine’s Cat Head Honeysuckle Vodka cocktails.
Flash threw herself into working as many stations as possible. It was a day full of firsts for her as she helped shave the hog, grind the meat for sausage, brown the backbones, clean the stomach and who knows what else. I’ve never seen her as excited to be anywhere as she was on Docville farm that morning and afternoon.
One after the other, dishes were completed and the crowd was fed, each station showing off their skills and pride. As the sun go low, the band played its last Cajun waltz and we, the cooks, broke down and cleaned the stations over the last of the cold beer. Hugs were exchanged and Kiril “the Mad Russian” kissed as many men as would allow it. I got more than one from the happy Cossack. Promises were made to meet again and not a soul went home unnourished.
Here is a little movie from Docville