Chefs at Blood on the River, a boucherie staged by Louisiana cooking authority John Folse and South Carolina pig farmer Tank Jackson on the banks of the Wadmalaw River outside Charleston, didn’t just use every part of the hogs they slaughtered. In some cases, they used the same parts twice.
Sunday’s gathering started just before sunrise with a prayer delivered by Folse, who grew up in St. James Parish going to his family’s boucheries, harvest-time community events centered on the butchering of at least one fat hog. He vividly remembers his grandfather rewarding the youngest participants with a coveted Acadian delicacy.
“My grandfather would take the head after all the meat had fallen off, walk over to the table, and call all his grandkids,” Folse said. “And he took a hatchet and he split the head open, and then he took a little teaspoon and we’d eat the brains out of that pig, which we loved. Not because we knew what brains were, but because our grandfather was feeding them to us.”
Folse evoked that spirit of communalism, intimacy, and respect in his prayer, which stressed the seriousness of the traditional task. Although a few dozen chefs as well as a small group of paying guests came prepared with drinks ranging from beer to aged Madeira, Folse was insistent that the boucherie was more than just a party.
“This isn’t Mardi Gras,” he said. “If we want Mardi Gras, we go to New Orleans. We want to really be humble and quiet. We’re going to kill an animal. And that animal will be butchered with a lot of honor and dignity. And then every piece of meat will be preserved in the way it should be.”
After breaking down the pig, raised by Jackson, of Holy City Hogs, on his nearby farm, Folse’s team distributed various cuts to chefs at makeshift cooking stations arranged in a rough approximation of a circle. As attendees lolled on the sloping wedge of waterfront, snacking on coq au vin prepared by Johns Island restaurant The Fat Hen, the day’s butchers darted between tables with fresh hams and buckets of offal.
The livers, heart, kidneys, and bits of head went to Buddy Hiers, a well-known liver pudding maker from Hampton, South Carolina. John Taylor, author of the classic Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, had attended the first iteration of the event in 2015 and this year recruited Hiers to help put a South Carolina stamp on the boucherie.
“Isn’t that pretty?” Hiers asked, pointing at the boiled meat just after it was pulled from a cast-iron pot. “We’ll grind it, put rice in it, bring it back to consistency.” As for the water in which it was boiled, that went back to Folse.
“He takes it and adds meal to it and cooks it,” said Hiers, working alongside his son and grandson. “Now, you talk about something good.”
It wasn’t the only example of meat doing double-duty. Stripped carcasses of rabbits, killed the previous day, became crab trap bait. The crabs were battered and fried by a team of chefs including Manning, South Carolina, native Howard Conyers; BJ Dennis and Giovanni Richardson of Charleston; and Wilmington, North Carolina’s Keith Rhodes. In a nod to the Lowcountry’s Gullah heritage, they served fried porgy, smoked sweet potatoes, and okra and pepper sauce.
“After all, there’s no more synergy between two cooking cultures than Savannah-Charleston and Louisiana,” Folse said. “I mean, forget about it. That’s really the animus.”
Blood on the River originated after Jackson contacted Folse for boucherie pointers: Folse invited Jackson to his home for a boucherie he was filming for his PBS show, A Taste of Louisiana. Although Folse couldn’t make last year’s Blood on the River, he told Jackson he could count on him this year for raccoon-and-rooster gumbo.
Now that each man has participated in the other’s boucherie, they’re planning to take the event on the road. Folse envisions upholding the Louisiana tradition by hosting boucheries in four or five cities around the country.
But they’re also pioneering traditions of their own. Folse is going back to Louisiana with a leg and a loin; both will hang in the charcuterie case at his restaurant R’evolution. That cured meat will be served at next year’s Blood on the River. And when Jackson returns to Folse’s boucherie in Louisiana, he’ll come home with meat for Charleston chefs to transform into charcuterie.
“So the pig that was killed today was killed with respect, and is moving to New Orleans,” Folse said. “That is a tradition that begins today.”