In Search Of Louisiana's Pork Trinity
Photographed by Cheryl Gerber
It’s been estimated that the pig has been around humans for well over 7,000 years, making it one of our earliest domesticated animals. But it wasn’t until 1539 that pigs were introduced to the “New World.” Explorer Hernando de Soto brought pigs with him as he journeyed across the southeastern portion of the continent, and while he was busy searching for the fountain of youth, some pigs with him went looking for their freedom. It was these escaped pigs that became the ancestors of the wild boars we know today.
In the northern part of the continent, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the pig was an important food source for the independent French settlers who lived in Acadia, present day Nova Scotia. When the British forced these Acadians out of their homeland, many found their way to French-speaking Louisiana, and pork-eating traditions came with them.
Much like the Plains Indians who utilized virtually every part of the buffalo for either food or shelter, Cajuns did not waste any part of the hog. During the traditional Cajun boucherie, multiple families would come together to butcher a hog and share its meat. In addition to the mainstays of bacon, ham, chops and roast cuts, the Cajuns would also use the hog’s head to make a gel-like substance known as hog’s head cheese. The pig skin would be fried up in lard to make gratons, better known to many as cracklins. Andouille sausage and Cajun smoked ham known as tasso were also made during these boucheries. Even the lining of the pig’s stomach was stuffed with pork meat and seasoned. This delicacy was called chaudin. And, of course, people in Louisiana can barbecue with the best pit masters from Texas to Tennessee, serving up our barbecue with a little Voodoo spice and Cajun ingenuity. But it is what I affectionately term the Pork Trinity – boudin, cracklins and hog’s head cheese – that truly sets Louisiana apart from other places that dine on swine.
Boudin is a combination of pork, rice, green onions and various other spices and seasonings, mixed together and stuffed in an edible casing. There are as many variations of boudin as there are to the story of what happened to Gabriel and Evangeline.
In Louisiana, each boudin maker has their own idea of the right amount of rice, meat and seasoning that goes into those stuffed casings. Traditionally, boudin was made by mixing the pig’s blood in with the meat and rice mixture. Known as “red boudin,” this delicacy, which has a slight liver taste, can rarely be found today, as the “white boudin” has become the boudin of choice for modern Cajuns and visitors alike. Authentic red boudin can still be bought, however, if you look hard enough. It’s an acquired taste that still has its admirers.
Boudin and its antecedents have long been a staple of the European and Acadian diet. When, however, did this culinary creation first become available to the masses, to be enjoyed by Cajuns and non-Cajuns alike? A man in Lafayette thinks he has the answer.
In Lafayette, at Johnson’s Boucaniere (smoke house), near the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, you can talk to a man who has been making and selling boudin and smoked sausages for more than 50 years. Wallace Johnson will regale you with stories of the early years of his store and meat market, and he believes that his store in Eunice was the first-ever to sell boudin commercially back in 1948.
Boudin is so popular that there are numerous websites and books devoted to all the places in South Louisiana and the neighboring regions that sell the sausage. The Boudin Link (www.boudinlink.com), created by Dr. Bob Carriker, a history professor at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is one of the best websites to refer to when planning your next road trip to find worthy boudin. There’s a charm to cruising the back roads of Cajun country searching for that little mom-and-pop store that still makes authentic, high-quality, stuffed-pork and rice creations.
Cracklins are another delicacy that utilizes a portion of the hog not necessarily thought of as a food source – the skin. These morsels are not at all like the pork rinds you can buy in the store, which are basically fried air with a little pork skin flavor. Making the perfect batch of cracklins is a science. You have to know how to cut the skin just right, because a good, mouthwatering cracklin will have the right amount of meat, fat and skin and will be fried to a golden perfection and then seasoned with whatever seasoning your mama likes. When you chomp down on one, it should give a good pop, or crack, as you nosh down on the skin and fat and then have a nice little chewy finish from the meat.
These delectable fried pieces are not for those who are trying to watch their figure or their blood pressure, that’s for sure, but as a unique tradition in the Cajun heartland there is nothing like them. I can remember as a kid visiting my grandparents in Lafayette, and occasionally my grandfather would go to his neighborhood store and get a bag of those wonderfully fried pork cracklins, thus passing on the experience to yet another generation.
Hog's Head Cheese
Hog’s head cheese is European in origin and in France is known as fromage de tête. In any language the name can be deceptive because the meat and spice mixture is not a cheese at all but rather jellied meat. Most head cheese these days is made using pig’s feet and shoulder meat that is boiled and cooled in order to create the jelly that holds all that spicy goodness together, but in the old days a real hog’s head was cleaned out, cut up, boiled, and then poured into molds to cool. The resulting mixture of pork and the spices has a flavor with a unique texture, good by itself or on crackers.
Family feuds have been started over the dinner table arguing about who makes the best cracklins and boudin in South Louisiana. Every person has their own personal favorite and insists that their place is the best, or that their grandfather’s best friend’s neighbor made the best homemade cracklins, hog’s head cheese and/or boudin they ever tasted.
Today, pig-eating has gone highbrow. Boudin and cracklins can not only be found in butcher shops across South Louisiana, but also in fine dining establishments in the Big Easy. At restaurants like Cochon and Boucherie in New Orleans, restaurateurs Donald Link and Nathanial Zimet, respectively, have taken the boucherie and the tradition of smoked and cured meats and given them a contemporary flair. From the backroads of Cajun county – in search of the best link of boudin you ever tasted – to the haute cuisine of some of New Orleans’ finest establishments, the pig is in them all. Oink if you love it, my friends.
Our Reporter’s Picks of Places to Try
<- The Joint | 701 Mazant St. | New Orleans
The Joint offers barbecue done the Louisiana way, with the finest pulled-pork sandwiches this side of the Carolinas.
NuNu’s Fresh Market | 509 Lafayette St. | Youngsville
Half the fun is traveling to this charming Cajun town on the outskirts of Lafayette, but when you get there, a wonderful array of plate lunches and pork offerings await. Check out the fantastic boudin and cracklins.
Legnon’s Boucherie | 410 Jefferson Terrace Blvd. | New Iberia
This meat market is where you can find all kinds of great pork products, from chops to ribs to boudin and head cheese, as well as other smoked meats. Though not made of pork, their crawfish boudin is the best I’ve ever tasted.
Bourgeois Meat Market | 543 W Main St. | Thibodaux ->
You can still find the traditional red “blood” boudin at this meat market down the bayou in Thibodaux, but the boudin burrito is a newer offering that is a must-try.
Cochon | 930 Tchoupitoulas St. | New Orleans
Cochon is known for its traditional cooked and smoked pork dishes with a gourmet nouveau flair, bringing the boucherie to the 21st century.
More Places to Try...
T-Jim’s Gro. and Market | 928 Dr. H J Kaufman Ave. | Cottonport
Traditional smoked meats and sausages as well as boudin and hog’s head cheese can be found at this family-owned and -operated meat market in the northern tip of Acadiana. Also has the best website of any on the list. Visit live or virtually for a fun treat.
The Best Stop | 615 Hwy. 93 N. | Scott
You’ll want to walk out with a bit of everything, so bring a cooler that you can load up full of goodies. Don’t miss the Cajun-seasoned cracklins.
Don’s Specialty Meats | 730 I-10 S. Frontage Road | (Right off Interstate 10) | Scott
Once you walk in, you’ll want to sample everything. Highly recommended are the boudin balls, which are perfectly fried to a golden crisp.
<- Podnuh’s Bar-B-Que | Multiple locations in Shreveport, Bossier City, Baton Rouge and Monroe
Having been around for more than three decades the lead the way in developing what it calls a “Louisiana Style” barbecue.”Pork dishes, and the sides, are a specialty.
The Forest Restaurant | 1909 Main St. | Franklin
This little gem of a restaurant tucked inside a commercial hotel chain along Bayou Teche in St. Mary Parish fries bacon so good you’ll wish breakfast was served 24 hours a day, but the fried pork chop for lunch is a favorite among guests and locals.