It strikes me that Ancelet is in-between worlds, at once giddily fascinated by the phenomenon and blissfully immersed in it—a subject of his own study. Somehow, Ancelet is both the observer and the observed. You see the academic self-consciousness dissipate when he catches sight of a photo of a child eating a plate of pork and fixin’s. Here, he is his earnest self, bucking the tittering of his intellect. And in these moments, he’s an open book.
“Well, there’s not a whole lot of particular history to it,” Ancelet tells me. “Everybody did this. Everybody killed pigs. Pork was one of the main staples for country people, self-sufficient people. It was very popular among Europeans, the people that came here as our ancestors.”
As we talk, he cycles through dozens of photos on a paper-thin aluminum laptop, his hide-tanned fingers flicking the mouse pad through a shellac of memories, the yellowed vintage of the photos scanned and preserved. Ancelet is speaking from experience here. His family held boucheries well into the early 1970s as a matter of utility, gathering nearby Cormiers and Menards each December to lend a hand and take home a share of the hog. Thanks to refrigeration, they didn’t have to commit to eating immediately all of the rendered foods, like generations of Acadian families had before them.
So much of the history of good food developed as a prologue to the age of refrigeration. Before you could stash perishables in a block of ice and expect them to remain edible for months, country folk devised all kinds of ways to make sure their crops, both plant and animal, could be consumed efficiently and last through fallow months. Boucherie is just one such example, and not necessarily unique to Acadian foodways. Not to be confused with other popular porcine celebrations in Louisiana cuisine—such as the suckling pig roast known as cochon de lait—boucherie is not itself a feast but a cooperative form of food processing that has yielded an entire culinary tradition still seen in Acadiana’s boudin and cracklin shops, rural Cajun smoke-houses and esoteric delicacies like ponce (a.k.a chaudin) or fraisseurs. That’s another chapter in itself.
Typically, one of a handful of families would contribute a pig to slaughter, each group taking turns to put up a hog of suitable size that was neither too big nor too small. All of the participating families sent representatives on the weekly-appointed boucherie day, each taking a station for breaking the hog down into a variety of meat products — most preserved, but some consumed on site. To that end, boucherie was a rotating series of chores for a small trust of families, not unlike the Monday laundry days that traditionally served as a time to make red beans and rice.
The bounty of boucherie was and continues to be manifold. The systematic butchering sent legs and intestinal casings to sausage making, gelatins and face fats were cooked down with seasoning to make hog’s head cheese, stray minced meat was cut with rice to make boudin blanc and/or mixed with blood to make boudin noir and the skin was simmered into lard to create a confit-like preserving fat in which to store other cuts of meat.
At the end of a long day of scraping, peeling, chopping, stirring, stuffing and smoking, the participants gathered around a pot of backbone stew, slowly coaxing marrow and tasty morsels from the spine. The list of foods goes on and varies from region to region. Only the dishes adaptable to modern palates and conveniences survived beyond their necessity. When you have a seemingly never-ending supply of pork loin, there’s not a lot of reason to boil ears.
None of this, Ancelet points out, was unique to the country folk of Acadiana. Most of these techniques and inclinations can be seen in a variety of European and North African culinary traditions. Boudin blanc, for instance, can draw its lineage directly to old world France, where farmers pounded chicken or veal to be stuffed into intestinal casings. Charcuterie and sausage-making stem from precisely the same utilitarian skill-set and abound culinary traditions in Italy, Spain and Germany. Acadians likely learned to smoke meat from Native American tribes or from colonial French contact with North Africans. Regardless of origin, they put those techniques on display in smokehouses called boucanieres, where they hung smoked links of andouille sausage or heavily spiced hams called tasso.
The need to make exhaustive use of livestock protein is emblematic of the Louisiana frontier’s rugged conditions. With so much ready access to produce and interstates, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the wetland we call home made inter-communal travel virtually impossible. Folks around here were geographically detached from the modernizing world. Even as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electric Administration began electrifying the rural South, rural Cajuns still gathered around cauldrons of molten pork fat, making soap out of bones and speaking a language that had severed ties with its mother vernacular hundreds of years before.
That same insulated distance from mid-century modernization made the Louisiana boucherie more resilient to the conveniences of refrigerated trucks, vacuum sealed packaging or electric-powered cookery. Because of that, boucheries continued to play a contributive role in the dietary routines of rural Cajuns well into the 20th century. The material utility of boucherie lasted long enough that its usefulness as a social device and as a symbolic device caught up. The modern boucherie is now a celebration of heritage and a form of cultural reflection, rather than an engine of self-sufficiency.
Ancelet speaks with academic respect for the ingenuity of the communal butchers, the abject trust involved in a rotating co-op and the rustic genius of the procedural efficiency. But the room gets heavier as we slip into talking about what boucheries mean to cultural survival.
Perhaps most vitally, the boucherie served as a binding agent for Acadian society well past the expiration of their material necessity. It’s important to qualify “necessity” in this case because, as Ancelet would argue, boucherie is still necessary insofar as it preserves cultural interconnection. This is not a new development, but one that becomes all the more important as the electrified kitchen gives us less reason to be together.
“Those people that you met at the boucherie, the people you shared the pig with, were also the people who would show up at your house if a storm blew your roof off,” Ancelet tells me. “They were also the people who would show up to help you pick your cotton when you got sick, and you couldn’t do it yourself. They were your people. That was your circle. Those were the folks that you could count on.”
We shift gears a little bit, and he interrupts our exchange again to show me a picture of St. Martinville’s La Grand Boucherie, an extroverted and festive version of the simple routine created as part of the Acadian cultural awakening of the mid 1970s, an era that saw the first attempts to rescue Cajun folkways from the creeping homogeneity of the American mainstream. The photo can barely contain the throng of smiling faces eagerly gathered around a hog splayed and ready for portioning. You can see immediately what’s important here, and it’s not the generous pounds of soon-to-be boudin. They’re preserving something else entirely.