I’d been roaming round Louisiana for quite some time when a guy who made piano accordions told me ‘You ain’t been in Louisiana, if you ain’t been to a boucherie’. There was no messing with the guy. His name was Marc Savoy. He was a jack of all trades who also happened to be a cajun musician. A guardian of tradition. His workshop was hung with posters with slogans like ‘We ain’t shortsold gumbo soup for hot dogs’ and ‘This ain’t Anywhere, USA’. He was right. We were in Eunice, Louisiana. Swamps and bars. Blonde Miss Americas and bugs. Women banned from playing in the same band as guys who weren’t family.
Q: ‘So what’s a boucherie?’.
A: ‘You kill a hog, you pick a beauty queen and you drink until there’s only one man left standing or only one bottle left to open’.
The day after, at midday on the dot, I was on Marc Savoy’s estate. Under the big oak tree. Ice buckets stacked with bottles of beer, greased barbecues, women in Versace tops, men in dungarees. Most held fiddles, one held a shotgun. The hog executioner. The hog itself was grunting away in a wood hut. A crowd formed. The executioner in his yellow uniform, for all the world like a gas pump attendant, stepped in. Silence all round. Banggg! Sparse nervous laughter and a couple of toasts. Three men dragged the dead hog onto the lawn and hoisted it onto the banquet table. Mister Yellow Pants directed operations surely but slooowly. The guy was half surgeon and half priest. He jointed the beast ritually with benedictory motions of the hands. He was aided and abetted by a youth and a cripple, a guy who I later learned, to my amazement, worked as a pleasure flight pilot. Apparently a glitch landing had deprived him of his left hand and half his skin. Maybe that explains the painstaking dedication with which he shaved away the bristles from the of the hog to give the skin a sheen.
As the band beneath the oak tree played waltzes, a locomotive came in through the gates driven by a man in a cap. It was the mother of all barbecues, a car with lids in which all the parts of the pig would soon be turned into chops for broiling.
The lawn was dotted with tables. Something was going on at each of them. One group of women was chopping up cheese for the dreaded ‘cheese & hog’, red and white cubes that stay solid in your stomach for weeks on end, unless you erode them liters of Abita, the local brew. A cluster of men fried catfish caught fresh that morning in the bayous. Another guy
wielded a bottle of tabasco to herald the arrival of sausage. Dishes were filled up with hot jambalaya, potatoes and beans.
At last, the Master Surgeon announced that the operation at the banquet table had come to an end, and the hog was consigned to its destiny. Passenger class In the locomotive or as an escort for the cheese. All sorts of vapors rose up into the air. Alcohol, first and foremost. The music got funkier and time grew hypnotic and slooow. The cakes on display (almost all chocolate-based) were all unlidded at once to create improbable mixes-and-matches. ‘Hog & choc’!. I asked what the four old-timers in the band by the barn door were playing (Louisiana Social Club?). ‘Les flames d’enfer’, they told me, as tongues of flame flared unguarded from the barbecues, cleared of every morsel of food.
A lot must have happened later. They most likely played on until dawn and elected a beauty queen (my vote went to a gal from Arizona who looked like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, dressed as if for a tea party, yet brave enough never to descend from her skyscraper-high sandals). They probably clipped a few chickens too, and no doubt drank the Abita factory dry. But only the ‘last man standing’ can tell the tale. And it wasn’t me!
Gabriele Romagnoli is a leading Italian journalist, writer and broadcaster. His latest book, Louisiana Blues, will be published in June.
Translated by di John Irving