A Southern Focus

A Louisiana Tobacco Tradition

By Jed PortmanDecember 13, 2012

These days, a person can buy barrel-aged condiments, cocktails, and beer. Harder to come by, though, is barrel-aged tobacco. Louisiana’s perique tobacco is not just barrel-aged. It is stemmed, barreled, and then pressurized, which squeezes juice from the tobacco. Over the course of a year or so, the juice and leaves ferment into a dark and spicy product.

Perique comes only from one place—St. James Parish, on the Mississippi River, where farmer Pierre “Perique” Chenet began selling pressure-fermented tobacco in 1824. He learned his technique, according to local legend, from Choctaw and Chickasaw natives who aged tobacco in hollow logs instead of barrels.

The growing and aging of perique is a labor-intensive process that has teetered on the edge of extinction for a century. In the 1990s, only one farmer still grew perique full-time. But some outside interest in recent years—from the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, notably, which added a black “perique blend” to its line of American Spirit cigarettes in 2000—has kept the ailing industry on life support.

For eight years, Charles Martin has been out in the tobacco fields and curing barns of St. James Parish documenting the planting, harvest, and aging of perique tobacco. His black-and-white photographs are now on display at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans. Perique: Photographs by Charles Martin runs through February 2, 2013.

To see a few of Martin's photographs, click through our slideshow. If you won’t be in New Orleans this winter, consider the companion catalogue, which includes a short history of perique by local writer Mary Ann Sternberg. The book, and the photographs in it, are fine tributes to a centuries-old Louisiana tradition and to the people who keep it alive today.

>Click here to see a slideshow of Charles Martin's perique photos.

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