Monday, October 18, 2010

Random Pig Parts in Cajun Country




Boudin. Believe me when I tell you that pig parts, random pig parts, are delicious when combined with rice and packaged in intestine, and lovingly referred to in this part of the world as "boudin". Sounds like ordinary sausage to me, you might say. Well, if you're entering Cajun country and know what's good for you, do not utter such a heresy. Boudin is a thing of art here, so much so that the town of Lafayette hosts a boudin cookoff with 25 different artisan chefs disseminating their wares, in competition for a number of awards, any of which they will don with pride and distinction.

Like the ubiquitous fresh fruit stands in California, or po-boy stores in New Orleans, you will find the almighty boudin shop in Lafayette. Brought to Louisiana by the French, Cajun boudin is comprised of pig parts, including but not limited to heart meat and liver, and white rice cooked dirty with seasoning, blended, and cased in intestine, touched with a peppery Cajun kick you will not find in its European predecessor. Cajun boudin is typically boiled or simmered, sometimes smoked or grilled.

Despite its origins in the French culture, boudin and all things authentically cajun are not readily found in New Orleans. Like any true regional specialty, quality boudin can only be found in smaller towns like Lafayette, or for those in New Orleans, the nearby town of LaPlace.

And I, on my boudin quest, I took the road less traveled to Lafayette, drawn in large part by the annual boudin cook-off. There I had the good fortune of reconnecting with a long-lost former cousin-by-marriage, Vicky, and her Cajun husband Gene. Gene exemplifies one of the many reasons I have for many years connected with the cajun culture. Known for eating frog parts, alligator, liver sausage, and just about anything that moves and can survive in the region, while spicing it all up with red and black pepper, I've always felt that cajuns were the equivalent of white Asians. I have a theory that Cajun and Asian sauces are so exquisite in order to mask the strange and often pathetic creatures cooked in them.

It is a hot afternoon on cook-off day. A beer vendor is the first stand on the perimeter of the festival grounds in the middle of historic downtown Lafayette. "I don't know about you, but I like washing my boudin down with beer." I agree and we stroll down the boudin aisles with light beer in hand.

And so the noshing begins. We purchase $0.50 samples from a multitude of vendors, some of whom have held titles from the cook-off for years, some of whom are newcomers looking to make a name in the boudin world. Twenty-five vendors in all, I'm overwhelmed by the choices. Traditional cajun boudin, smoked boudin, grilled boudin, crawfish-stuffed boudin, boudin wrapped in bacon, deep-fried boudin balls. So many pig parts, so little time. Luckily, I have Gene's guidance.

By profession Gene works in the construction industry and comes from a family of tradesmen. But the seriousness with which he discusses our sample strategy, and the detail in which he analyzes the almighty boudin is reminiscent what I'd read from a food critic from a Michelin guide or New York Times culinary columnist. Immediately he scolds me for having accepted a free ice cream sandwich to start. "Now why would you contaminate your palate like that? I'll let it go because it's a local maker, but seriously..."

The boudin samples are delightful. A combination of seasoned rice and meat, boudin is like a complete meal in an edible wrapping. I'm enjoying just about every bite. But through Gene's lenses, I am learning the distinctions that only a true Cajun would notice at first blush. "See now, this maker hasn't processed the parts to my liking. The spicing is right, but the texture needs work. Chewy parts are unacceptable." At the next stand he points out, "See here, the liver flavor is more distinct, yet not overpowering. However, the casing is too thick and chewy." At another stand he barely finishes a bite before he observes in disgust, "My god, they've used minute-rice." After a few bites myself, I notice he is dead on with every call.

By the time we arrive, two hours into the festival, his favorite makers have sold out their product. But after ten generous samples from other vendors, I am somewhat relieved, and wondering if there is a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist on hand. By now I agree with his call on the ice cream sandwich.

We stay for the awards which have been swept away by Nunu's. I'm also pleased to see the charming newcomer family of redheads take the specialty award for their bacon-wrapped and smoked boudin.

Waddling back to the car, I contemplate buying some packages to take back to New Orleans; chock full of one of mother nature's most effective preservatives--pork fat--I have been told that boudin links store well. But with all the blood in my body struggling to process the contents of my rice and meat-stuffed stomach, and with the weight of my intestine-filled intestines, I cannot muster the strength to engage in what seems at the time like an exhausting transaction. But, I forgive myself, for, a mere two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans, there is no doubt in my mind that I will be returning for this delicacy of random pig parts in Cajun country. I look forward to a future of deep fried boudin nuggets, and smoked boudin with bacon, and boudin with a seafood twist...

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