The Butcher’s Sage

Toby Rodriguez circles the shoulders on a diagram of a splayed hog crudely scrawled into his notebook at an overhead vantage. He flicks his pen to either side of the page, indicating the hypothetical destinations of each quadrant of hog meat — one to boudin, the other to sausage. Maybe both to boudin, he says. Really, the sky’s the limit when you know the whole thing is going to be eaten in a single day. He chuckles to himself about the luxury of pork shoulder boudin, yet another one of those things that his Lache Pas team of cooks and preservationists do that the old timers may not appreciate.


“My family would not have been OK with both shoulders going to boudin,” says Rodriguez. “Boudin was trash. Boudin was our fraisseurs [stew made of pork viscera]. It was not what the Lafayette link is today; that’s straight up shoulder. That went to sausage. That was prime time meat. “


There’s a lot about a Lache Pas boucherie that might make the old timers shake their heads. Rodriguez and his partner, Bryan Kyzar, have been known to burn sage around the hog before shooting it. From the outside, wafting a holocaust of herbs in the air resembles a pagan ritual when paired with animal sacrifice, but Rodriguez says the whole point is to mellow the pig before slaughter. Once felled by gunshot, they slide the hog onto a pallet of plywood, employing six cooks or volunteers to hoist the dead weight onto what is best described as part gurney and part butcher’s table. Attendees follow the procession from the killing site to the cooking tents like mourners behind pallbearers. Rodriguez swears that it was never meant to be a funeral procession; it just sort of happened that way.


“At first, it made me a little uncomfortable that people were becoming moved by what we were doing. I didn’t know how to receive it. People started referring to it as theater. And I thought, ‘It’s not theater, we’re not faking anything.’ But then I realized that it’s living theater. It’s meant to evoke emotion. If you want someone to retain information, make them vulnerable,” he says.


I believe him. He takes the business seriously. Like many other neo-bouchiers, Rodriguez inherited the technique by way of a farm-raised upbringing in Poché Bridge, La. Back then, Rodriguez’s family killed and butchered animals they knew and named in a life-and-death cycle from which most modern carnivores are completely removed. For us, it’s anathema to believe that you could love and respect something that you ultimately saw as a source of nutrition; but for the vast majority of the history of animal husbandry, that’s how it worked.


“We have no emotional attachment to our food sources. People used to have that. They were so much more conservative and so much more reserved about what they did with their meat and how much meat that they ate,” he continues.


By returning intimacy to processing meat, Rodriguez’s vision of boucherie is one that combines drama, liturgy, visual art and ethical provocation. Even for progressive eaters, the concept can seem dauntingly radical. Farm-to-table is one thing, but it’s entirely another when you bring the table to the farm and face the life before the death that comes before dinner. Consider that you demand that sacrifice for your enjoyment and not your survival, and that reality can be chilling.


But survival is exactly what Lache Pas aims for. It’s the very definition of the name of Rodriguez’s business, which translates roughly to “don’t let go” or “don’t forget.” As a group of artists who moonlight as custodians of a materially obsolete tradition, Rodriguez’s crew has taken to traveling the country, spreading the gospel of boucherie, a message that has been easy to evangelize in the farm-to-table age. How fitting, then, that we’re talking in a Whole Foods Market where Rodriguez is hosting a cochon de lait in the parking lot. There’s irony to that, given his cynicism of even the most humane forms of commercial butchering. Most people, Rodriguez says, think meat comes from a Styrofoam package.


The brutal resonance of Lache Pas’s work begins with the draining of a hog’s blood to make boudin noir, an ancestral variation of today’s mainstream rice and pork shoulder boudin that you’ll find around Acadiana. Moments after the fatal gunshot, Rodriguez splits the hog’s throat with a 12-inch blade, directing blood into a bucket beneath it. He adds salt to preserve the correct viscosity and prepares it to be stuffed into casings made of the hog’s intestines. Too little, and it’s runny. Too much, and it’s blood soufflé. The product is rich and ferric to taste but stunning to behold with a robust blackened red unlike any sausage you’ve ever seen.


This can all seem terribly grisly. Most of us eschew consuming blood unless it’s juice from a steak. Rodriguez harvests it alongside a slew of other hog parts considered trash by today’s standard butchering chart. The trotters join the hog’s head to be rendered for headcheese. The viscera make the aforementioned fraisseurs, an apocryphal organ stew that Rodriguez has revived as a main attraction at his events. Ribs are picked clean to buttress sausage- and boudin-making or sometimes thrown on the grill for a more familiar plate. Hams join the loins in ovens, and the spine makes backbone stew, the day’s hearty reward for the cooks and butchers.


Every part of the pig will be rendered and consumed by a crowd of eager pilgrims, another aspect of the performance that Rodriguez admits contradicts the routine efficiency for which boucherie was developed. But confronting people with the brutal utility of a harvested animal becomes secondary to the need to protect a cultural heritage—the Acadian legacy of rugged durability. Only now, rendering lard preserves identity rather than a precious source of protein.


“I do what I do because there was a need for preservation. This animal was once being killed to preserve meat; now it’s being used to preserve culture. This process is on the verge of extinction,” he explains.


Rodriguez is not the only guy doing the preservation work. Since the 1970s, the old timers have kept the tradition alive as a reason to get together and to celebrate being Cajun in the manner of St. Martinville’s Grand Boucherie, all yarns and fiddles and re-enactment. But moving forward, folks like Rodriguez have re-established boucherie as something that can inform a contemporary culinary ethos.


Today, Rodriguez’s use of the term “harvest” when referring to the process becomes more prescient. Making use of the whole hog is no different than the preciousness with which his grandmother treated watermelon rinds or corn cobs—stubborn but edible castaways in their own rights. She would boil the cobs to make corn soup or render the watermelon rinds into a jelly, fussing at the kids who’d only toss the rinds on the ground when they finished wolfing down the sweet and celebrated meat of the melon’s center. That’s another kind of boucherie, Rodriguez argues, and one that becomes infinitely applicable in a world with declining resources and multiplying refuse. Waste not; want not.

%d bloggers like this: