Crucial ingredient

It is a rare day that antarcticiana jumps on somebody else's story and recycles it, but on our January stay in New Orleans we were shameless tourists, consulting the local literature and doing everything possible to maximize all forms of excitement, whether culinary, musical, or architectural. It seems only fair to share the good news with our wide and cosmopolitan audience. We're also already big fans of the edible series of magazines, which appear to be defying the generalized hemorrhagic fever cutting down the publishing industry; they're springing up like March crocuses in one small regional marketplace after another.

The very first issue of edible New Orleans appeared in tidy piles in Bywater cafés and restaurants only days after our arrival at the beginning of January, featuring on its cover a row of giant but smoke-wizened andouille sausages dangling in a row above an undoubtedly fragrant puff of woodsmoke. Laplace, Louisiana, the article editorialized, is the andouille capital of the planet.

In the two centuries since the French sold us most of the Mississippi valley for the equivalent of a few bowls of gumbo, the Louisiana andouille has diverged enough from its continental ancestor that they really shouldn't be thought of as the same sausage. Somewhere in France someone doubtless disagrees, but American andouille is ruddier, spicier, smokier, chunkier and more rustic than its finer French cousin. I was aware of the Louisiana variety as a ubiquitous and essential ingredient in cajun cuisine, a sort of local bacon likely to crop up in everything from jambalayas and breakfast sandwiches to chocolate bars, and had bought a package at the supermarket while laying in supplies. Only after I read edible New Orleans did I come to understand that the dull orangey cluster of shrink-wrapped, factory-produced links I had acquired scarcely deserved to print the word on their packaging. Mine were wet and scrawny and soaking in nitrates; the photographed andouille hanging in the smoke were gigantic meat batons, wrinkled and dry from countless hours of smoking. They looked like the sort of preservative-free sustenance that you would hang off the pommel of your camel-saddle for emergency snacking during weeks of trudging through the desert. If there is a culture that rides camels and also eats pork.

Laplace is an hour west of New Orleans. I'm willing to drive much further than that to sample premium hog products, so Laura and I jumped in the truck.

Being known as the andouille capital of the world is perhaps a humble distinction. Once we had arrived, after an hour's drive through salt-blasted cypress stumps, the town's stretch of the "Airline Highway" proved to be a generic and charmless strip of big box stores and auto-glass purveyors ready at any moment to slide back into the swamp. It was a tawdry landscape, and it seemed entirely credible that regional sausage excellence was the town's greatest and perhaps only claim to fame.


Our first stop was at Bailey's "World Famous Andouille," the largest business in a modest strip shared with a hair-salon named Starz and the sort of one-desk-and-a-fax-line financial services firm you might expect to find pushing 5-year ARM mortgages in a roadside mall in Louisiana. But to step through the doors was to enter a womb of regional character and cultural preservation entirely distinct from the mind-numbing familiarity of the chain-store landscape outside. A long row of icy display cases held one product after another critical to the local culinary heritage and entirely unavailable back home in the tri-state area. Forget the andouille, here's a sampling of things I'm fairly certain are not on offer at the local Red Hook Fairway: Hogs Head Cheese (hot or mild), Boudin, Tasso, Smoked Pig Tails, Hand-ground Filé, Rabbits, Green Onion fresh sausage, and Chicken Gumbo, for starters. In fact, most people outside of Louisiana have no idea what most of these things are; I was only familiar with Tasso, the salt-dried pork, because an identical beef preparation with the identical name is still served in Haiti. (It is meat salted and dried to just this side of jerky.) We gobbled some boudin, had a cup of gumbo, and bought a stick, as andouille sausages are known locally. Log might be more appropriate; Bailey's andouille was at least an inch-and-a-half in diameter, and something like a foot long, nothing like the inadequate hot-doggesque links I had purchased in a New Orleans supermarket, about which I suddenly felt ashamed.


Only fifty yards down the highway was our second stop, Jacob's "World Famous" (no relation). Although almost next door, Jacob's sticks proved that there is no one ideal archetype for this king of sausages. Jacob's andouille was dryer, denser, and smaller, if still imposing; I suspected that it and Bailey's version had likely begun their existence as similar sized agglomerations of chopped pork shoulder and spice, but that Jacob's had smoked theirs longer, rendering more fat, shriveling the casing and hypothetically intensifying the smokey flavor. It was the reddest of the three sausages, with the calloused skin of an octogenarian woodsman. Visually, I found it the most appealing. 

"Don't be confused, we are the original Jacob's." In fact, we've been in business since long before the invention of ducts, conduit, vents and maybe even electricity.

But two giant sausages weren't enough, so we left the strip, looking for Wayne Jacob's (some since expired but historical relation) and a sausage trifecta. A few blocks in, on what might have once been the main street before the Airline Highway sucked the life out of it, WJ's is the only spot of Laplace's three towering pillars of andouille manufacture to have seating, so we sat. And ordered lunch, despite the long morning of snacking on pork crackling. Here I made the only misstep of the day, ordering a pulled pork platter. Laura is from North Carolina, and while some Louisianans, Alabamans and Georgians might disagree, you really can't mess with NC pulled pork. I blame myself, not Wayne, or Jacob; this was poor ordering. I should have gumboed or jambalayaed, even though by now I felt I was up to my ears in the stuff. The andouille here was a gigantic meat baton, but I can't tell you anything about the flavor, because I took it as an offering when invited to an upstate Mississippi farm for the weekend, and I never saw or heard from it again. (This post was never meant as a battle of the andouille, but next time I'm in Laplace I promise to do a side-by-side taste test and post an update).

It's all about the smoke. Pecan is the wood of choice, which contributes to the regional character, pecan orchards being almost synonymous with the deep south. One imagines that an andouille smoked with Massachusetts hickory chips would have Yankee overtones. Nonetheless, back in Brooklyn, and having exhausted my supply of andouille, I scored some double-smoked kielbasa from Eagle Provisions. Desperate to make some jambalaya, I was unwilling to wait for some airlifted sausage to arrive from Laplace (Jacob's and Bailey's will both overnight ship to you, although don't expect Google checkout).  I don't know what kind of wood chips they use in Poland, but the kielbas' was a highly effective substitute.


Anonymous said...

Wayne's is great - I frequently buy andouille for Christmas presents, as well as the required Christmas gumbo.

Anonymous said...

Wayne's is great. I'd also recommend the hogshead cheese as among the best.