Cajuns usher in Mardi Gras with grand boucherie

Published 12:03 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

Far from the Carnival balls, parades and raucous crowds in New Orleans, Cajuns in St. Martinville held their last “bon temps” before the Lenten season in a much different fashion Saturday: with a grand boucherie, or slaughtering of a pig.

Over cold beer and wine, Cajuns butcher a freshly killed pig to make patties; sausages such as andouille and boudin; head cheese; marinated pork; and tasso, smoked meat for seasoning, later.

“The boucherie is so important to our culture,” said Denise Leger, 34, a Cajun Catholic from New Iberia whose uncle was butchering the pig Saturday. “ … A lot of people give up their favorite foods, like boudin, as a penance during Lent.”

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Each year, Catholic Cajuns in this community about 140 miles west of New Orleans hold their “La Grande Boucherie des Cajuns” the weekend before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.

“This is a celebration that was started out of necessity,” said Stephen Hardy, 38, who leads the group organizing the event. “Before refrigeration, they had to share the slaughter. One family could not consume a whole hog before it would go bad. They would have family and friends over to help, and everyone would leave with something.”

Back then, he said, a family would either host or attend a boucherie about once a month. With meat today readily available at any grocery store, the boucherie is simply a celebration of an old tradition, bringing family and friends together one a year for one last hoorah before the Catholic season of fasting begins.

Unlike other Carnival celebrations, in Cajun communities like St. Martinville food is the focus. In Mamou, locals ride on horseback collecting ingredients for a community gumbo during the “Courir du Mardi Gras” or “Mardi Gras Run.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to watch them kill the pig, but I sure like the food,” Jody Gibbens, of Bandera, Texas, said Saturday as she sipped a midday beer and weighed her lunch options — barbecued porkchop sandwiches, deep-fried boudin balls, the Cajun snack cracklins — as a lively band played in the background.

Federal health code regulations prevent attendees of the boucherie from eating what is slaughtered during the celebration, Hardy said. So, a licensed butcher will kill the pig, to show what was traditionally done, and take the meat to his butcher shop to finish preparing the meat.

He’ll have plenty of options for what to make: salt meat, patties and sandwiches, boudin, rice and pork dressing stuffed in an edible casing; head cheese and cracklins, among them.

Nothing goes to waste, Hardy said. The skin of the hog is scraped and the fat layer next to it rendered into lard for cooking. The skin and attached fat are what’s fried to make the crisp, tasty cracklins.

Twelve-year-old Sage DeLaunay’s arms were dripping with that fat Saturday after he beat out more than 20 other kids to win a greased pig contest — and the lard-covered, hairy pink piglet he nabbed.

He was stoked: “This was my first time, and I’m so excited. I’m gonna raise it and kill it one day.”