Everything in the Hog is Good

When the temperature starts to drop, mosquitoes are becoming scarce and the threat of hurricanes decreases until June, dry air pushed by the north wind fills our lungs and clears our minds so that we can finally enjoy outdoor activities: festivals, football with tailgating and hunting ducks and deer. Some call this gumbo weather, even though I had never heard this expression before arriving at Lafayette. With my family on Bayou Lafourche, we ate gumbo at least once a week throughout the year. However, each season has its rites and customs dictated by what Nature provides us or allows us to do. In the harsh climate of Louisiana before the advent of air conditioning and refrigeration, if we wanted to survive, we had to follow to the letter the orders that the rhythms of life gave. The amenities of modern life altered the pace and we ate anything anytime. Nowadays, with the "eat local" movement, people, especially the youth, are seeking to shorten the distance between the production, preparation and consumption of meals and eating in tune with the seasons. A good example is the resurgence of an ancient practice.

During the cooler months, after harvest and before sowing, we kill a pig in an event that is both simple and complex called la boucherie. Traditionally, a boucherie is done in the spirit of a helping hand (coup de main), the communal gathering where neighbors and family helped each other to perform various tasks that we could not do alone, like raising a barn or gathering the harvest. In the past, the meat was shared between families ensuring an adequate supply for the winter. Everyone takes part in the work, from the selection of the boar or sow down to the last crackling. One raises the pigs, another brings the over-sharpened knives and black iron pots, another gathers the blood for blood boudin, while someone else cuts the "holy trinity" of celery, bell pepper and onion to mix with the roux for backbone stew. The making of smoked sausage, tasso, andouille and hog head cheese is carried out by specialists of the genre. The biting cold of a winter morning ices the bones of participants, requiring a little antifreeze from small shots of bourbon and whiskey. Everyone shouts instructions or teasing insults through the condensation emanating from their mouths. All get carried away by the wave of happiness from being together and working towards a common goal. Despite the festive and noisy atmosphere, a solemn and silent veil comes over the operations when it comes time to give the coup de grâce to the guest of honor. Often someone is even designated to pet and soothe the pig for it to be peaceful until the last second of its life. It is a form of respect and appreciation that gives a spiritual dimension to an act which would otherwise be carnage as its name suggests.

Mary Pettibone Poole wrote, "Culture is what the butcher would have if he was a surgeon." Obviously, she has never seen a grand master like Toby Rodriquez operate on a pig carcass. You have to see with what care and what knowledge he seeks the exact location below the sternum to initiate the first incision. You have to appreciate the straight and fair lines drawn by the blade. As he removes each piece, he announces loudly the name of the cut and the dish it will become. The team members disappear to the preparation tables with each morsel according to its designation, without wasting anything. It takes a great knowledge about anatomy and cooking, as well as compassion, generosity and a sense of community, to carry this out. You can call it a great culture, and it is ours.

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