This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.
Toups' Meatery is typically closed on Mondays, devoid of its clinking glasses of bourbon, first dates with mouths full of boudin and delicious charcuterie, and eyes ogling the massive elk horns that function as a centerpiece in the main dining room. The soft yellow wooden support beams remain unlit except from the sun or passing cars on the nearby New Orleans street. But this past Monday, chef Isaac Toups opened his doors for a moment so that Belfazaar Ashantison and I could come by, learn about the intricacies of cooking with blood, and partake in some ourselves.
This was no ordinary blood-tasting trip and chef visit, because my stocky six-foot-one companion with long, tangled purple hair is no ordinary man. For the past 37 years, Ashantison has lived as a vampire—a sanguine vampire, to be specific—which means he has a compulsive need to drink human blood to sate some infinite hunger. Luckily, the effects of vampirism end there, and we didn't have to concern ourselves with the effects of daylight or the garlic chef Toups would be cooking with. Drinking human blood is the only real parallel to Bram Stoker's stereotype or the countless others that have appeared in pop culture over the years. But because we feared the possible legal repercussions, we only sought to curb his boundless craving with some pig blood. That wouldn't resolve his energy crisis, though.
"The House of Mystic Echoes, the organization I'm the founder and elder of, defines vampirism as an affliction where the person's body either does not create enough or any at all of the essential energies needed to get by on a daily basis," Ashantison explained to me in a coffee shop a week earlier as he sipped a rich drink called a Turtle Mochasippi. "You can eat all the food you want, but you just never seem to have enough energy. You can eat properly, you can exercise, you can take vitamin B shots up the ass, but you never seem to have enough energy. So you have to take it from an outside source.
"My source is blood. Human blood."
Isaac Toups looks like he could be Jean Laffite's first mate. The Cajun-born and French-trained chef boasts a thick, powerful build, a bald head, and an impenetrable beard and mustache. Typically dressed in all black, he keeps a long knife in a leather sheath attached to his backside. In his back pocket rests yet another sharp folding knife. Toups' manic energy is infectious. You want to match it but know you never can.
Once we'd decided to start, the chef took us inside the Toups' Meatery kitchen, sliced up jalapeños, and tossed them into a food processor with garlic. On the side, he mixed salt, pepper, and various spices with his sausage meat in a metal bowl. Finally, he pulled out a silver teapot with condensation dripping down its side. The teapot was filled with pork blood, and Toups poured it into the processor.
"Animal blood, across the board, is all different," Toups explained. "Pork blood tastes different from beef blood. Beef blood has an extremely high mineral content. Pork blood, not so much, because it has a sweeter taste. Chicken blood is very mild. Duck blood is really strong. Goat blood is inedible. In general, when used right, blood is not to be thrown away. It's something that should be absolutely utilized and not wasted."
He hit the blender switch, and it instantly looked like he'd left his hand in there and ought to be screaming.
"On the next season of Dexter," Toups called out over the food processor, "Dexter owns a charcuterie shop." With that stage completed, he poured the blood concoction in with the sausage meat and spices and hand-mixed them, creating a goop that looked like a decaying calf muscle.
Mixture in hand, Ashantison and I followed him into the back to his sausage-piping machine. In this dimly lit room, he and Toups really started hitting it off.
"The entire sausage process from here on out is phallic," Toups said as he prepared to stuff the bloody mix into his machine.
"I'm a gay vampire," Ashantison said after a chuckle. "Dick jokes are common."
But when the sausage came out and Toups caught and pinched it, we were silent as if in agreement that the words "demon dick" need not to be uttered.
Originally from Indiana, Ashantison has lived in New Orleans for 25 years. He worked odd jobs until he found a home at Voodoo Authentica, where he's a trained voodoo priest, but that's a separate part of his identity, he says. Vampirism is one facet, voodoo is another. He first showed vampire tendencies when he was 11, he told me—the same age he realized that he liked boys. Though a round, sickly kid throughout his youth, he proved to have a pretty violent temper.
An uncle who had a tendency to pick on his sister caused Ashantison to snap, and he went after the much bigger and stronger man. But the act proved futile. The 11-year-old found himself locked in a bear hug with his arms pinned behind his back, so he played the only card he had left. With one swift jerk, he reared his head back and latched his mouth onto the side of his uncle's neck. He bit through the man's winter coat, sweater, shirt, undershirt, and flesh. With that he drew blood, and when the warm liquid hit the back of his throat, Ashantison liked it.
Now the vampire claims four donors—people who offer up their blood to him on a periodic basis—all of whom, he says, found him. Most recently, he met one at the laundromat. Since his awakening as a sanguine vampire, he believes he has had 30 to 40 donors, but he keeps strict rules. Ashantison has never slept with a donor, gets tested with them regularly, provides them a bill of rights, never drinks from the same one twice in a row, and utilizes a clean technique to procure the blood rather than a sterile technique that would require needles to draw the blood.
This clean technique includes: gargling with mouth wash, brushing his teeth, cleaning the incision site—usually the back—with hydrogen peroxide, making a small cut with a brand new X-Acto knife, and sucking away a maximum of six ounces. Once he finishes, he cleans the wound and follows up to see how it's healing.
"There are flavors in human blood, from salty to sweet," Ashantison told me. "Some of them have more iron in their system, and so have a more coppery tang. You can tell when someone isn't getting enough fatty acids because their blood is bland. You can tell when someone isn't drinking enough because it won't bleed freely. So yeah, there are a lot of components, food-wise. I notice people who have a restrictive diet tend to be lacking in certain things. For me, the perfect blood has a little bit of a coppery tang, but it's also between that salty and sweet stage. And blood type does play into it. I'm more fond of A-positive."
The wooden board sat on the table nearest the window, with two plump blood sausage links resting at its center atop a bed of barley and caramelized onions—a Viking dish Toups found in his studies. A side of pickled jalapeños and a dash of Creole mustard aioli joined them on the board as well, but Ashantison and Toups weren't getting into that yet.
Toups first placed two shot glasses on the table and declared it was time to take the boucherie shot—a traditional drink that includes pig blood, hot sauce, and liquor. According to Toups, it's not done by everyone, but only "when you like to be real freaky." The drink is representative of the animal and a proof of goodwill to those buying pork. The hog was considered good only if the farmer or rearer drank some of the warm blood straight from the source.
"Now, we didn't kill the hog today," Toups admitted after mixing the drinks from his seat at the table, creating a liquid that looked like a thick Bloody Mary. "But we got some fresh Chappapeela pork blood and some of my favorite bourbon. I was trying to find the name for this shot, and there actually is no name for it. I guess we'll have to make one up. Let's call it 'Bloodbath on the Bayou.'"
Ashantison, sitting across from Toups, agreed with the name and clinked glasses with the chef.
"This is for all the dead pigs," Toups said, holding up his glass briefly again before shooting it back. "Delicious."
"That's actually really good," Ashantison agreed.
They then pulled the food up and dug in, at first with forks and knives and then their hands.
"Traditionally, you just pick it up and eat it out of the casing," Toups offered as he watched Ashantison struggle with his silverware.
Ashantison smiled. "Trust me," he said, putting down his fork and knife, "I'm as traditional as they come."
With their hands free to eat, Ashantison and Toups began to discuss their varying backgrounds and experiences with blood between mouthfuls of barley and sausage. Ashantison claimed human blood carried its own distinct and powerfully salty flavor because many people have a salt-heavy diet. Toups found that interesting, and compared it to the flavor profiles of various types of blood he'd worked with.
Vegetarians, however, have a bittersweet quality, Ashantison added. But they did carry that coppery tang of humanity that sates his hunger.
A week before feeding, Ashantison puts his donors on a diet. Most of them agree to it. First, he increases their water intake and requires they eat "real meat"—no fish—and combine it with some greens. Snacks consist of oranges, bananas, and pineapples to increase their magnesium and potassium levels, which he believes influences flavor. They plan a day, and they come over to his place when they're ready. While it seems a difficult lifestyle to sustain, it is not a choice to Ashantison.
"You have people who believe that it is a condition of the soul," Ashantison said at the coffee shop, slurping at the tail end of his Turtle Mochasippi, "and then you have people who believe that it is a physiological condition. I personally believe it is a physiological condition. Others think it's a mental or emotional condition. Other people believe it's any combination of them."
The belief that it's a disease rather than a curse seems a common one and allows for vampirism, a 19th-century idea born out of fear in a time of unknowns, to float two centuries later. Though the practice is irksome and the people seem strange to many, Ashantison claims he isn't bothering anyone and often works to help the city that has, more or less, embraced him.
During Katrina, he was unable to leave New Orleans, so he started a food drop at his house. It was considered "the official unofficial food drop of New Orleans," and was the only food drop that wasn't robbed.
"That could have something to do with the six-foot-one faggot vampire with a sword," Ashantison said with a quick laugh. "I was walking around with my claymore."
Every year since Katrina, he and members of the New Orleans Vampire Association, a non-profit of self-identifying vampires, gather in the historic French Quarter park, Jackson Square, to distribute food to the homeless. Next, he hopes to open a homeless shelter for pagan homosexual 17- to 25-year-olds, an age he recalled as rather painful for someone like him.
By the end of our time together, Toups had gone from raising an eyebrow to vehemently defending of Ashantison. According to him, New Orleans is about being a unique individual and allowing for that to flourish.
"I want to throw tomahawks and make blood sausage and have sex in the backyard with my wife, and I don't fuck with anybody," Toups said from behind his bar as he started to clean up. "He's a vampire, he comes to my restaurant, and has a good time. We hang out on the weekend, he doesn't fuck with me, I don't fuck with him, then we can all live together."
Ashantison looked profoundly touched.
Before we left, Toups told Ashantison to wait up and went back to the kitchen. He returned with a plastic container filled with the pork blood he didn't use. As we walked out of the restaurant, Ashantison held it up to the sky and inspected it, standing in the midst of a drizzle coming off the tail of a tropical storm that had just passed.
"This is going to mix great with a nice merlot," he said before tucking it under his arm and walking farther down the street.