At 6:45 in the morning, fog clings to the fields that flank the East St. Bernard Highway through Meraux, Louisiana. The road is lined with white rail fences and passes beneath an avenue of huge and ancient live oak trees. We are 18 minutes out of New Orleans, but this idyllic setting feels like another world. Just past the trailer park, the sign for Docville Farms tells us we've reached our destination.
Slow Food New Orleans and Lache Pas Boucherie are hosting a traditional Cajun Boucherie here at the farm. Dedicated to the principles of sustainable food and the preservation of local food traditions, it's all about knowing where your food comes from and how it gets to your table. Today's event features the slaughtering and butchering of a live hog, and the preparation of traditional Cajun foods using every part of the animal, from nose to tail. If you are squeamish about this, or disapprove, you should skip the rest of this post.
|Rodriguez's tools laid out in preparation|
But enough preaching. This morning at the farm, there are about 50 or so people, clustered beneath an open-air shed under the oaks. About a dozen of them are wearing chef's attire of black-checked pants and double-breasted white tunics, and have knife-bags slung over their shoulders. There are young people, students of various local community college culinary arts programs. The rest of us are a mixed bag, foodies and journalists, photographers and tourists. There's a big barrel-smoker parked off to the side, and a couple of propane burners seething away beneath aluminum cauldrons of water on the boil. At the wooden picnic table, Toby Rodriguez is sharpening his knives.
The pig is in a trailer parked beyond the shed. There's a call for volunteers to hoist a 4' x 8' framed plywood tabletop around beside it. As the group assembles, one of Toby's crew flames a bundle of sage and asks for a volunteer to offer a blessing. People look around, puzzled. We were told this would be a participatory event, but no one's prepared for this. Finally Chris, a Docville Farm staffer, offers a brief statement thanking the pig for its life.
From inside the trailer, first quiet and then a single shot rings out. Suddenly everything starts to move really fast. The door pops open and the men surge forward, grappling for what we can barely see. Splashes of crimson blood stain the plywood before a steel basin is laid to catch the stream. The pig's shuddering groans are heartrending, though brief, before they subside, and soon the only sound is the quick whisking of salt poured into the basin of blood.
When the blood is drained, the pig's carcass is heaved out onto the plywood. Another call is raised for volunteers, and like so many pall-bearers, they carry the bier solemnly back to the shed.
Washed down with hoses, the pig is pale, pearly pink, and has a look of serenity on her face in death. She appears almost hairless to me, unlike other pigs I've known, and I ask Toby whether she has been prepared like that. He tells me the pig is a Yorkshire, a breed known for being less hairy than others.
Weighing in at 258 pounds, the pig was raised at the George Family Farms in Eclectic, Alabama. Chris George talks to me about his farm and the pig, sheep and cattle he raises there, as well as produce, all organically with no GMOs. His wife, also named Chris, works a job in town, so he is, as he tells me, "the chief pooper-scooper, feeder and midwife" for the animals. He spends his days with them, and he knows them as individuals. The animals are kept humanely, they farrow, or give birth, in a climate-controlled barn, instead of outdoors or in breeding pens, he tells me. This pig was raised on leftover watermelon and corn from his farm.
Someone else asks, how did he choose which pig to bring here today?
"It was the first one out of the gate," he says. "I didn't feel like chasing them around. So when it was first out of the gate, I said, 'Congratulations. You've just volunteered.'"
While we're talking the pig is being scraped, removing the hair from its skin. First burlap sacks cover it, then boiling water is poured on. Steam rises up from the carcass in the morning air. Rodriguez gathers the young students and hands them tools - razors, knives, and two mushroom-shaped scrapers. The students shave and scrape away, white hairs and scurf come away from the skin, to be hosed onto the ground. The students look solemn, but none of them look grossed out.
As this is going on, Tom Crosby arrives in his pick-up truck. He's a big guy, his broad, flushed face crowned with wavy black hair threaded with grey. He shouts out the window of the truck at the butchers, but I can't understand a word he's saying because he's speaking Cajun French. He's here to render out the graton, or cracklings from the skin of the pig.
He pulls the truck to the rear of the shed and starts unloading his gear - propane tanks and iron stands. He wears a pair of denim bib overalls over a green shirt, and he.'s huge, over six feet talk, maybe 350 pounds. Even so, he needs a helper to heave a giant iron kettle, black as midnight, down from the tailgate to balance it on top of one of the stands.
He walks over to where the pig is still being cleaned to grab the water hose. He winks at the spectators, playing to the crowd. "Dey goin' to use ever't'ing of dat pig but the oink," he says.
The pig is scalded and scraped, turned and scalded on the other side. Finally, Rodriguez uses a blow torch to sear the skin one final time before hosing the whole thing down. When he's done, her skin is even more pearly-pink than before, her plump shoulders and buttocks still round and smooth. Her feet are delicately crossed at the ankles.
It's unsettling to me that what she calls to my mind is a reclining Venus painted by Titian, the same plump, pearly flanks and rounded limbs. That she is laid bare on the soaked table beneath the gaze of this bearded, tattooed and ball-capped crew almost makes me cringe for her.
Perhaps it's a good thing that Gary, the director of Slow Food New Orleans, chooses this moment to announce that the bar is open in the barn.
A bloody mary is a good idea, because when we get back, Toby has climbed up on the table, and calls for more volunteers.
He explains that the common industrial butchering practice is to hang the pig by its rear trotters, and slit its belly from top to bottom. But he was taught a different way, he says. He will cut the pig the other direction, from "where the food goes in to where the food comes out," from the maw to the anus. It only makes sense, he says - there's no sense in allowing gravity to let the lower intestines potentially contaminate the rest of the viscera.
The volunteers grip the pig's limbs to position the carcass belly-up on the table, and, straddling it, Toby slits downward from the animal's throat. He uses a hammer and hatchet to break the sternum, cracking the ribs open. There are so many people crowded around to watch this operation I have a limited view, but I can see the crew separating parts of the viscera into tubs, some for waste and some for keeping. The heart, an empurpled knot the size of a softball, is placed in a cooler on the ground next to me.
Carefully, they remove the stomach, the kidneys, and liver. Toby instructs the students, you have to be sure to cut around the gallbladder without breaking it, to avoid releasing the bile. "Anything the bile touches is ruined," he says, and then he lifts free the liver, a dark, cordovan and weighty mass.
Tom Crosby walks by and exclaims, "Dat's a purty liver dere. You can tell dat pig had clean water." He calls back, "We gonna cook the chitlins?"
Someone answers him, "Not unless you want to clean them."
Tom laughs and turns down the offer. Then, "He's a professional," he says, gesturing to Toby. "He can clean dat hog faster'n you can change your underwear."
Now it's the chefs' turn. You can read about what they do in my next post.