TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Boucherie fêtes for Santa in a Southeastern town

in Culinary Traditions & Food Ways/Customs & Cultures by

Christmas comes in many ways. In Louisiana, Santa is more likely given gumbo or beignets rather than a sugar cookie.

Every year in St. Martinville, Louisiana between Thanksgiving and Christmas, slaughtered pigs serve as the connective tissue for family and tradition. Creole and Cajun communities-descendants of Africans, Native people and European immigrants-re-enact Boucheries, or “cutting of the pig,” a local custom rooted in the southern state’s farming culture.

Different from the seafood-informed cuisine of New Orleans, St. Martinville’s residents subsist largely off of the land and local bayous. Located in Louisiana’s interior, like many other towns and small cities away from the Gulf Coast, farm animals such as chickens, cows and pigs make up the main protein in dishes.

Tito Shivers, a Baton Rouge-born truck driver whose parents migrated to Los Angeles when he was five, visited his grandmother, Leona Jones, during the summers as a child.

“My grandmother taught me how to kill, clean and cook a chicken. We ate from gardens in the yard. Urban gardens and farms were not a hipster luxury, it was a necessity. You wanted to eat, you cut those greens or tomatos from the yard. You picked the figs from the tree. Much of the food we ate was from the chicken coup or the patch.”

For generations in the agrarian South, raising hogs and chickens literally fed families. The meat was butchered for consumption or sold. For Black families, these were often the only options during segregation because in many towns with grocery stores, they had limited access.

In French, the literal translation of boucherie is butchery or butchering. During the annual public ritual, communities convene to kill, skin, carve then prepare the pieces of fattened hogs.

Since hogs were treasured meat, families portioned out one or two pigs at a time then households cooked succulent dishes.

“We ate a lot of boudin and cracklin’ during Christmas,” says Shivers who also operates a juke joint in Los Angeles. “Gumbo was cooked, but the pig is a succulent dish where my people are from. Every part of the pig was devoured, but my grandmother never cooked chitlins’. I never ate that stuff.”

Another type of soul food

Crawfish season starts in January, just after Christmas, but is now brought in sooner with Christmas.

Often soul food is homogenized. Outside of the South, the standard soul food menu is fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sugary sweet potatoes, cornbread and collard greens seasoned with fatback or hamhock.

Added to that are chitterlings often shortened to Black vernacular pronunciation of chitlins’, the lining of pig intestines which were considered a delicacy for enslaved Blacks who only were given that part by plantation masters and overseers. For many Black homes, chitterlings were never on the menu. In southwestern Louisiana, in Lafayette, St. Martinville, Opelousas and Broussard, food was quite different

Boudin, a sausage stuffed with pork, ground beef, herbs and rice is the epitome of the cultural menagerie of the area. The German-influenced sausage is paired with African, Spanish and French spices-depending on Cajun or Creole recipes.

Making boudin is an all day process which is made at home on special occasions, but kept throughout the year at the local butcher, a mainstay shop in Louisiana selling everything from crab boil seasonings to crawfish when in season.

Another culinary treat that must be eaten sparingly is cracklin’, the thick skin of hogs that is cut into squares then fried in pig fat.

“Heart attack in a bag,” is what Shivers calls it because the pig bits are deep-fried then set out on brown paper bags in which they are also served.

The cultural roots of Cajun and Creole food often get confused or thought to be the same. Though there are overlappings, it is not true.

Cajuns, derived from the word les Acadians. The group of whites come from the Acadians who were French colonists from the Francophone territory of Nova Scotia, Canada. When France lost control of the island in the mid 1700s to the British, the Acadians were forced to relocate to another French colony. They ended up settling in southwest Louisiana from the late 1700s to the turn of the nineteenth century, and today, the region is called, Acadian or L’Acadie.

For Creole, there are many versions of people with the mixtures being Spanish and French colonists; however, Black Creole Louisiana is what people reference when speaking about Creole people and culture.

Creoles are African peoples whose ancestry consists of European and possibly Native American. The intersection of cultural influences created a distinct cultivation of traditions that are steeped in Africa with inflections of other ways of life.

The biggest difference between the culinary ways of Cajun and Creole is that Creole food often uses tomatoes in their dishes which is a West African retention as many dishes in regions like Senegal use tomatoes.

Fais pas ça

The boucherie extended beyond food, it was part of a multi-day celebration around the holiday seasons. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, pigs were slaughtered and smoked for the long winters which ended harvesting. Until the next crop, families like Shivers’ lived off of smoked and canned food mostly.

“My grandmother didn’t give much gifts. She didn’t have much to give, but giving presents was not how she grew up. Gifts of food and leisure time were a luxury. She would every now and then give me a couple of bucks, but her presents were through beignets, teacake pies and cake. Man, my Aunt Marie would make a pecan pie that I could eat in one sitting,” says Shivers.

In a Catholic-centric area, Christmas is an important time for Louisianians. The winter fête lasts for several days as members visit each other’s homes to celebrate. Along with the food, local bands or a favorite deejay plays old school zydeco music favorites or a new school version. Zydeco, a local genre that sounds like Calypso rhythms over German accordions creates the melodious backdrop of Mardi Gras and New Orleans brass band. Like the food, it is a mixture of damn near everything; however, the end result is infectious.

While in small town Louisiana, all day and into the night, community members stop off at each other’s homes, announcing their presence usually with song and dance. They are welcomed in and fed a dish from the pig then after some time, they move on to the next house, with the former host joining.

By the end of the day, which is well into the late night-early morning, friends and family are full with good food, drink and camaraderie. Food and fellowship is Christmas tradition in any small Louisiana town today.

ed and smoked for the long winters which ended harvesting. Until the next crop, families like Shivers’ lived off of smoked and canned food mostly.

In a Catholic-centric area, Christmas is an important time for Louisianians. The winter fête lasts for several days as members visit each other’s homes to celebrate. Along with the food, zydeco music is spun, but often played by local bands.

“My grandmother didn’t give much gifts. She didn’t have much to give, but that’s not how she was raised. Her presents were through beignets, teacake pies and cake. My Aunt Marie would make a pecan pie that I could eat in one sitting,” says Shivers

All day and into the night, community members stop off at each other’s homes, announcing their presence usually with song and dance. They are welcomed in and fed a dish from the pig then after some time, they move on to the next house, with the former host joining. By the end of the day, which is well into the late night-early morning, friends and family are full with good food, drink and camaraderie. Food and fellowship is Christmas tradition in any small Louisiana town today.

 

Chef Cassandra Loftlin travels around the world digging into sumptuous dishes.

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