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Cajuns Boil the Head and Save the Blood

Lately, there’s been the “whole-hog” cooking trend. You know, using the tail to the snout. But the Cajun community has been cooking with the whole hog for 200 years. The pure Cajun spirit comes from living off the land in a proper format and being...
Illustration by Denny Culbert

Lately, there's been the "whole-hog" cooking trend. You know, using the tail to the snout. But the Cajun community has been cooking with the whole hog for 200 years. We've been doing it longer than anybody else as a habit because in the past, people were fairly poor. If you couldn't sell it off, you needed to eat it all. People like my parents made sure to consume it all. They'd boil the head, cure the loins and the hams, and make boudin from all the different parts with rice to stretch it out. Then they'd make confit and bury it under the house. They'd process everything. The pure Cajun spirit comes from sustainably living off the land in a proper format.

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I was born and raised in Rayne, Louisiana and brought up by several people who had dynamite passions to cook, but I didn't realize that until much later in my life. Both of my parents and my brothers cook, my uncles cook, and all four of my grandparents cook, so I thought, everyone in the world must cook. I didn't realize how unique everyone that I grew up around raised me was until I interacted with people from different backgrounds. I look back on it and think, wow, that's amazing that someone could be around that much talent and not realize it. And I didn't know it.

The pure Cajun spirit comes from sustainably living off the land in a proper format.

I became a cook when I was 20-years-old and fell into the job. I was job hopping when I was in college and got into cooking and realized, holy shit, I really like this. I didn't expect that. I thought a home cook wouldn't translate into being a line cook, but it did. It helped me blossom into being the owner of my own place, Toups Meatery.

Having a Cajun background, we care so much about food. My father is a dentist, one of my uncle's is an oil field worker, and the other sells pharmaceuticals. They all have different professions than being professional chefs, but they all taught me how to cook. My father was raised in the Thibodeaux/Houma area of Louisiana, which is in far South Louisiana near the tributaries and waterways, which worked its way into the gulf. His family always had a bunch of seafood: crabs, crawfish, oysters, shrimp, fish. If it came out of the Gulf or brackish waters, the myriad of things that he could get was astounding, and he knew how to cook them all. Daddy would boil crawfish or crabs. We'd shuck oysters and fry fish. We were always cooking outside.

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Now, with my mother, she was raised about 100 miles north in central Louisiana where she had a lot of Native American influences. They were landlocked, so they knew about pig, beef, rabbit, and deer. My mother's side of the family would come into play, and she was a big fan of rice. She taught me how to make rice dressing and a roux in the oven instead of a pan. Both of my parents showed me the different diverse parts of southern Louisiana—two distinct places where everyone thinks it's one. There's two very different sides of Cajun cuisine.

Even though my restaurant is in New Orleans, I'm doing what a Cajun guy would do with ten years of fine dining experience, and all the things that I can get in New Orleans: not only the ingredients, but also working with talent, taking the techniques that I've learned, and what I favor, while keeping it Cajun. That's what you get at Toups Meatery.

And all the fresh charcuterie I make really showcases where I come from. As Cajuns, we don't have the luxury to dry cure anything like the Europeans can. We're not like the French and the Italians with their dried salamis and capicolas, or the Spanish and their Iberico hams because we can't put anything outside. It would all rot. We have high humidity and hot temperatures and we had to find other ways of curing them: smoking, salt-curing, brining the hams, and extending the meats with rice for boudin, or picking the whole hogs head (which don't have a whole lot of meat in there, but a lot of collagen.) Boiling down all of the collagen allows us to make whole hogs head cheese. We also fry down the pork bellies until they're cracklings and keep them in salt. So that's what I bring. I bring the true, fresh Cajun approach to charcuterie.

For some reason, the Atchafalaya Swamp Basin divides Cajun country from New Orleans, which results in separating New Orleanians from boudin balls and boudin sausage (which you can get at any gas station in Acadiana). You have to put quality ingredients in it and you have to make it fresh. To me, the perfect boudin has slow-roasted pork that's been salted for 24 hours, slow cooked until it's completely falling off the bone, mixed with all of the juices that fall off the pork—a lot of rookies tend to throw the cooking liquid out (you really need to keep it in)— and good quality fresh liver. The fresher the liver, the better; if you have turned liver, it's a no go. And lastly, the boudin must have the freshest spices—I use a smoked paprika in mine and pay way too much money for it, but it's well worth it in flavor, smell, and quality. To me, that's perfect boudin. You could almost leave out the fucking rice.

You know you're not in Cajun country when you can't get boudin balls at the gas station. I still don't know why that's the case in New Orleans. You can get them here at the restaurant or boudin at Donald Link's, Butcher, but if I could find boudin balls at a gas station somewhere in New Orleans, I'd be right there, pumping my gas even if it was 20 miles out of the way.