Blood Thicker than Water

Growing up, it was Manny Augello’s job to stir the lamb’s blood. Before moving to the United States from Sicily 20 years ago, he took over his mother’s childhood role at family celebrations, churning a ruddy bucket of blood to prevent clotting. The scene should sound familiar at this point. His grandfather would provide a lamb from his farm. His uncles would slaughter it and portion it, cooking the more substantive cuts for the holiday meal. Some parts were preserved for salumi, the Sicilian/Italian tradition of curing meats for preservation, and the rest would be consumed by a family that worked up a hunger from a day prepping an animal.


Today, Augello is a chef applying that carnal and inherited know-how to the modern kitchen. Though he doesn’t really practice boucherie in the slaughter-prepare-and-eat kind of way, his restaurant in Lafayette is adorned with an abiding love for making whole use of the pig. Above his deli case hangs smoked andouille sausage, house-made boudin stuffed into genuine intestinal casings, Spanish chorizo, and guanciale (cured pork cheek). This is nose-to-tail cooking, the most obvious ethical descendent of peasant-style butchering. At once thoroughly Acadian, Augello’s work expands on the generative grammar of survival and culinary necessity that is universal to at least all European foodways, but most likely every cuisine in the world.


That’s what attracted Augello to Lafayette from his American childhood near New Orleans, where his family owned a restaurant and had long strayed from Sicilian farm cooking customs. Cajuns still seemed to eat that way, Augello remarks. He laughs when he tells me about the first time he saw ponce, a variant of sausage that is stuffed inside of a pig’s stomach and smoked.


“It looked like an alien,” he chuckles. “I mean, it’s literally sausage wrapped in a football.”


The whole thing awoke a long dormant memory of his childhood, something that years of American convenience had suppressed into the distant regions of his mind.


“I had no exposure to it [communal butchering] until I settled back in Lafayette. We had completely forgotten about it to the point where, when we moved to the States and the years went by, it was one of those things that was like, ‘We don’t do that here. That’s not how it’s done in America,’” he says.  “All of those ways were gone until I came to this magical part of Cajun country. It’s all still here. It’s still vibrant. Then the memories started flushing back.”


As far as I know, Augello is one of the only guys in town making ponce the old-fashioned way, fully embracing the rustic ham-fistedness of the process. You don’t really need a pig’s stomach to smoke sausage, especially the variation that’s affectionately called Cajun bologna for its use of mixed and minced meats, jalepeños and the occasional injection of yellow cheese. But Augello’s commitment to that methodology is his way of moving local cuisine forward by embracing the past full-bore.


This approach goes for much of his cuisine, trading entirely on the nose-to-tail principle made popular by British chef Fergus Henderson, author of the seminal movement tome The Whole Beast. It’s from Henderson that, oddly enough, Augello developed his recipe for hog head cheese. By way of this British connection, Augello declined to use the mainstreamed cuts of pork that had become de rigeur in Acadiana head cheeses. Hog head cheese in Louisiana often is made from pork shoulder or loin when found at a restaurant or a specialty store rather than a boucherie.


Adopting that nose-to-tail principle brought his version closer to the original purpose of hog head cheese, itself a pork product ubiquitous to Western cuisine, while simultaneously introducing technique and acumen. The result elevates the make-do recipe into a legitimate delicacy. You might call that an inversion. Augello calls that cooking.

Hog's Head Cheese

“I’m not going to take shortcuts, especially as an outsider to this culture that I fell in love with, and not make things what they used to be 100 years ago,” Augello insists. “It’s not fair, as an outsider, to take shortcuts. I want to pay homage to the culture that was here long before I came along. And if we’re going to make hog head cheese, then why not make the real deal?”


The reason you wouldn’t make the real deal is that demand for the real deal has drastically diminished. As we become more and more separated from the production of meat, we become more selective about what we’re willing to eat. The reasons are somewhat arbitrary. Why is it, exactly, that pork loin is more desirable than pork cheeks? The answers aren’t really clear—modern diners do prefer meat to fat—but likely come from an invasion of cultural mores into a hardier and less picky cuisine. That’s a process that’s repeated over and over in Louisiana food culture, seen prominently with the lack of favor held for crawfish among the general population until the late 20th century. Many have attributed the historical diet-shaming of Acadian foodways to a bustling import of Texas and Oklahoma oilmen in midcentury, already inclined toward pity and contempt for the rural Cajun.


Slowly but surely, those attitudes have begun to thaw. Celebrated Cajun foods like boudin and cracklin have never really gone out of style, but plenty of restaurants and specialty meat shops are beginning to reintroduce dish concepts long fallen out of favor. Chefs like Augello are applying intergenerational knowledge of how to fully utilize animal protein after gulfs of disinterest have separated Cajuns from once essential foodways. All of this can be immediately drawn to the sustaining influence of boucherie and its cross-cultural resonance with German, Italian, French and Spanish cuisines. Once nearly forgotten, boucherie as a methodology has begun to express itself once again as an ethical standard in the modern kitchen. What was old is new once again.

%d bloggers like this: