“My idea of a good breakfast,” says Rodney Babineaux of Babineaux’s Slaughterhouse in Breaux Bridge, La., “is a six-pack of beer and a link of boudin.” Greg Walls of Johnson’s Boucanière in Lafayette agrees. “Down here that’s what we call a seven-course meal.” Babineaux’s customers also like Coke with their boudin, while Johnson’s’ prefer Abita Root Beer…for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While some of Louisiana’s culinary treasures—jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée—have developed fanatical out-of-state followings, Cajun boudin (pronounced BOO-danh), inexplicably, has not. And that’s a very good thing because it makes this pork, liver, onion and rice sausage into a very rare thing: a totally uncorrupted regional specialty.
Combining those components into the ideal boudin is more art than science, says Robert Carriker, Ph.D. of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Academia is Carriker’s vocation but boudin is his avocation. He pursues the perfect boudin the way knights pursued the Holy Grail, and the search is just as elusive. “Getting the rice just right so that it includes the flavor of the meat and broth, and then grinding and cooking and mixing and re-grinding... one slip and you change the taste,” he says.
You make boudin with your hands and that’s also how you eat it. You unwrap it hot from its butcher paper and squeeze the filling right out of the casing directly into your mouth. Other than pronouncing it boo-DANH, requesting utensils is clear sign that you’re an out-of-towner. “There really is no good way to eat it with a knife and fork,” says Carriker, “though it can be done.”
Boudin comes from the Acadian tradition of boucherie, a communal pig slaughter where participants shared the meat and made, among other things, boudin. Because of that history, says Carriker, boudin suffers from a lingering stigma that it contains objectionable pig parts. While it’s still handcrafted mostly by small, family-owned businesses scattered throughout southwestern Louisiana, most makers today use pork shoulder. Liver is the only offal and adds a subtle richness. “It’s not an, ‘I’m-eating-liver-here’ experience,” he says.
Cajuns like nothing more than to talk about who has the best boudin. But “best” is rarely the result of analyzing meat-to-rice ratios, spice blends, texture and taste. “Best” often means a personal allegiance to the grocery/butcher shop/gas station where your family has always gotten boudin. People don’t comparison-shop. So Carriker created boudinlink.com, which gives ratings and reviews and brings a dispassionate voice to a passionate debate.
Babineaux’s represents the classic boudin-making tradition and they’re one of very few who produce boudin rouge, made with added pig blood. They also custom-process everything from goat to deer to buffalo. Johnson’s Boucanière (French Acadian for “smokehouse”) revives a seventy-year old family tradition. Arneastor Johnson opened Johnson’s Grocery in Eunice, Louisiana in 1939. He, and then his sons, turned out legendary boudin and smoked meats until 2005.
Arneastor’s granddaughter, Lori Johnson Walls, wouldn’t buy sausage when the store closed. “You can’t just not eat sausage because your dad’s store closed,” Greg Walls said to his wife. So she started making it. In 2008 Lori and Greg opened Johnson’s Boucanière in Lafayette.
The Walls resurrected the Johnson expertise in what some call the “prairie arts of smoked meats,” curing and crafting sausages, ribs, pulled pork, Tasso and boudin. Lori oversees boudin production and is the only person who knows the boudin seasoning mixture. “Johnson’s boudin had always been the best and people from this area, well, it’s a good chance they grew up eating it,” says Walls. “Boudin’s serious business around here.”
Lori’s father, eighty-three-year-old Wallace Johnson, one of Arneastor’s two surviving sons, is the living link to Johnson’s storied past. Everyday he drives eighty-miles roundtrip from Eunice to Lafayette to take orders, chat up customers in fluent French and reminisce with second- and third-generation customers. He also paints and sells his paintings in the store. Most importantly, “if the boudin’s not exactly right, Mr. Wallace tells us,” says Walls. Mr. Wallace plans on making the trip for another ten years, retiring at ninety-three.
Johnson’s does lunch and dinner weekdays and offers a Saturday breakfast of boudin and boudin balls (deep-fried, casing-free boudin rolled in bread crumbs) only. Next, the Walls plan on building a dance hall on the same property. “Down here,” says Walls, “music is as important as boudin.”
If you want to check out a bounty of boudin head down to Lafayette’s Fourth Annual Boudin Cook-Off on October 22nd.