Chef John Folse knows that culinary knowledge and skill are growing by leaps and bounds. But the legendary Louisiana chef thinks his colleagues should revere the old ways, too.
Now, chefs, restaurant owners and butchers from around the country have a new appreciation of a Cajun tradition from way back.
When Folse hosted a boucherie on a cold, breezy day in February at White Oak Plantation, it was the real deal. They saw the pig killed, helped put it on a makeshift table to scrape off the hair, saw it bled, butchered and every part used for food — just like families did it for years.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve traditions,” Folse said. “That’s the goal here today.”
“The key is to show where your food comes from, and that it doesn’t just get delivered in a truck,” said Adolfo Garcia, 54, owner of Primitivo Restaurant in New Orleans, who has been in the business since his mid-teens. “A lot of times, that’s what happens. Chefs don’t get to see the pig being sacrificed and all the steps involved in getting to the end process. … We got away from it in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s.”
By the time the day was done, the food professionals watched and participated in pigs being turned not only into familiar cuts like chops and ribs, but into andouille, sausage, boudin, hogshead cheese, cracklins and debris, a stew made from heart, tongue, liver and kidneys.
Adding whimsy to the event, one of Folse’s brothers, Carroll “Tootie” Folse, served up a raccoon gumbo.
It was the first of what Folse plans to be an annual event, one that will be turned into a fundraiser for charity.
How authentic was it? Folse made sure even the pigs were old-school.
Tank Jackson, of Holy City Hogs in Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, brought two heritage-breed pigs. When vegetable oil started replacing lard in American kitchens in the 1950s, Jackson said, pig farmers began breeding animals that were increasingly lean. Jackson raises pigs from older breeds that are much higher in fat. And he makes no apologies.
“You can take a piece of lean meat, cook it, and if you don’t season it, it just tastes like you’re eating cardboard,” he said. “If you take a piece of my pork, it’s so succulent and juicy, all of that flavor is going to blow your mind.”
Jackson, who could walk onto the set of “Duck Dynasty” and be mistaken for part of the Robertson family, takes his pigs seriously, but not without humor. The pig slaughtered that cool Saturday morning at White Oak Plantation was part of a litter whose father he named Kevin Bacon and whose mother was named Mia Ham.
“This pig had a name. His name was Odell. I had him for 3½ years. He was damn near a pet,” Jackson said.
“When John was, like, ‘Let’s do the festival of butchers,’ I told the wife, ‘What better ending for this pig than to teach a new generation … It’s not about just the pig or just the ’coon, but knowing how food gets on your plate,” Jackson said. “It’s how we used to eat.”
Mark DeNittis, a meat, seafood and poultry specialist for Sysco Foods in Denver, Colorado, said the event reminded him of growing up in Massachusetts as the son of immigrants from Italy. The family had a huge garden, and would pickle the produce and make salami and wine in the basement.
“To be here is amazing,” DeNittis said. “John Folse is like my culinary Pope, if you will, and this is like the Vatican.
“There’s a human side to our profession, and he’s a great example of that, and sharing and preserving traditions,” DeNittis said. “It’s about all of our heritage from our time here in the United States and as far back as our European and other roots.”
If this culinary Pope had a homily for the day, it was for food professionals to embrace traditions.
“The young butchers who have never done this, the folks who’ve never seen a pig slaughtered, they’ve never seen an appreciation for the animal, that’s what they’re all learning today,” Folse said. “If nothing else happens today, I want people to walk away saying, ‘I’ve eaten a piece of history today, a real important piece of history.’”