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A Swine Time: Cochon de Lait Festival, Mansura, Louisiana

A Swine Time: Cochon de Lait Festival, Mansura, Louisiana
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  • A Swine Time: Cochon de Lait Festival, Mansura, Louisiana

    Post #1 - July 9th, 2007, 3:04 pm
    Post #1 - July 9th, 2007, 3:04 pm Post #1 - July 9th, 2007, 3:04 pm
    Cochon de Lait, Mansura Louisiana

    I’ve made no secret of my love of pork, but there’s really more to the story than a simple taste for bacon and cracklins. It’s really about pork consumption as a social ritual—the simple act of sharing the experience of preparing, cooking and feasting on this divine animal with friends and family. The heritage sausage-making party, for example. We spent 7+ hours drinking beer, sharing recipes and carrying on family traditions that, no doubt, our parents and grandparents thought would die out with their generation. The 50 pounds of sausage was just a tasty bonus to the occasion.

    The Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, Louisiana, is another example of a fine tradition in swine cookery that runs deep in my family. Every year, this sleepy backwater with French roots (it was named by early settlers, ex-soldiers of Napoleon, for its resemblance to the prairies of al-Mansurah, Egypt) hosts a three-day throw-down whose guest of honor is the succulent, slow-roasted pig. The festival is held every year on Mother’s Day weekend, and for as long as I’ve been going back for the festival and family gatherings, we have our own cochon de lait at my aunt and uncle’s house, a mere two blocks away from the festival (mostly because Uncle Ed insisted that his recipe was better, but also, at least partly, because it was the one way to get all umpteen of us in one place at one time, to hold hands and say grace before dinner). This year, we didn’t have Uncle Ed around to bark orders and run the show, but the next generation did an admirable job of carrying on the tradition. Here’s a look at how it went….

    It starts with a big metal box, a fire and, naturally, an old swing-set rigged with a motorized rotisserie.

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    All of the prep for this feast took place in the cold room, a small outbuilding with a walk-in refrigerator. Back in the day, this is where my grandfather and his family did a lot of food prepping, particularly for a boucherie. The cold room was mostly off-limits to us as kids, and it sat unused for years, but it was recently brought back to life—with new sinks, a hot water heater and other amenities.

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    A true cochon de lait is 25-30 lbs., although as the crowds have gotten bigger at the festival, so have the pigs. The 50-ish pigs cooked at the festival are 200+lb. Chester Whites from the LSU Agricultural Center, but we decided to stick with the more traditional size. The pig is dressed, the skin is scored…

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    …and seasoned (that’s Tony’s Chachere’s Creole Seasoning—a staple in any Southern kitchen)…
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    …and the pig is pinned between two large sections of fencing wire.
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    Once secured, the “rack” is attached to the rotisserie. The motorized rotisserie is a technological improvement from the old school “poke it with a stick to turn it” method.

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    The beauty of the motorized rotisserie is not only in the saved labor, but also in the amount of time it frees up to do things like…make beignets. Since we were cooking outside already, it seemed only natural to fire up the propane and eat a few batches of deep-fried dough dressed in powdered sugar.

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    But something is wrong. The beignets are delicious, but there’s a flavor that seems to be missing. What’s that, you say? Pork? Yes! Pork! A little nugget of homemade sausage, enveloped in beignet dough…

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    …deep-fried to deliciousness. (You can barely see the sausage, but believe me, it’s in there, and it was good.)

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    It’s time to check the pig. See the perfect circle of fat drippins on the ground below the pig? Momentary consideration was given to how the fat-soaked ashes and dirt would taste on a cracker.

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    We believe in eating a pig from the root-y to the toot-y. Hog’s headcheese is not my favorite, but the old school likes it, so we attempted to make it. First, one must pay proper respects to honor the head.

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    Then, one must remove the extraneous bits and pieces—eyeballs, tongue, brains, ears and the tip of the snout.

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    It seems a shame to waste such vital organs on an animal, so in addition to our contribution to the culinary arts, we attempted some sculptural art with the leftovers.

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    Headcheese bits rolling around in a pot of boiling water isn’t as photogenic as you would think. I’m not posting the few photos I have for simple lack of quality, and all-around grossness. Really. It isn’t pretty. But it tasted alright on a saltine cracker.

    It’s time to check the pig again, anyway.

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    It’s looking good, and our pig consultant told us at this point that it was time to turn off the rotisserie and move the rack closer to the fire to crackle the skin. After six or eight hours of slow turning, the meat surrenders and the browned, oil-slicked skin is crispy, cracklin’ good.

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    ************************
    A little bit of history on Mansura’s Cochon de Lait
    Beginning with Mansura’s Centennial celebration in 1960, the Cochon de Lait Festival became an annual event that drew tens of thousands to town to celebrate the pig. My dear mom, who probably never dreamed how the honor would haunt her, was Miss Mansura High 1959, which put her in the very first parade associated with the Cochon de Lait (that’s her in the middle).

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    In the weeks prior to the first festival, the ladies and gents of Mansura donned 1860s-era clothing—long, high-neck dresses and bonnets for the women and beards, bowler hats (or red berets) and string ties for the men—and traversed the state in a caravan of busses to promote the Centennial and attract visitors to the festivities. I’ve seen amazing footage of the bus tour (compliments of a guy named Mike Hildenbrand, who discovered a cache of old film reels from the Centennial when he moved back to his childhood home after Katrina washed him out of New Orleans in 2005). The footage is classic, twitchy 16MM of Mansura’s finest, tumbling into and out of busses at the different stops along the tour. The men are giddy, slapping each other on the back, nearly every one cupping a cigarette, cigar or pipe to light, or pulling a drag off the one dangling from his lips. They pass through Opelousas, Lafayette and Franklin, Louisiana. They cruise down Canal Boulevard and spill out of the old Falstaff Brewery in New Orleans. They pose and preen on the steps of the Capitol building in Baton Rouge. I get a frisson when the few frames of Papa, my grandfather Lysso, flash across the screen. He’s sporting the requisite beard, beret and vest, and he’s got his arms around two women. He gives each a peck on the cheek. Neither of these ladies are my grandmother, Daisy.

    Pressed for details about exactly what went on on the gender-segregated busses, old-timers blush and chuckle, and say things like, ‘It was something.’ A sense of fraternal decorum seems to prevent them from saying more. What happened on the Centennial bus tour stayed on the bus tour.

    Reading local newspaper clippings about the Centennial, it’s pretty clear that, although the organizers hoped to draw a big crowd, they were genuinely shocked at just how big a crowd actually showed up. More than 10,000 made the pilgrimage to Mansura’s Centennial cochon de lait. The town officials and Centennial organizers, including my great uncle Merlin Coco, instantly realized the crowd- and revenue-gathering potential of an annual festival. So on May 24, 1960, a mere month after the first celebration, Mayor Kirby Roy petitioned to have Mansura legally declared the state’s official Capitale de la Cochon de Lait, a decree that was signed by the notorious Governor Earl K. Long. From 1960 to 1972, Mansura turned into a hotbed of dancing, carousing and, of course, feasting on a menu of roast pig, dirty rice, candied yams and other French, Cajun and Creole heritage eats.

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    If it’s possible for a town to be too good at something, Mansura was too good at throwing a party. As the organizers anticipated, the festival crowd grew—and grew. In 1966, just six years after the Centennial, an estimated 45,000 people showed up. (This is a town that, in the 2000 census, registered a population of 1,573.) At the height of the festival’s popularity in1972—the year Edwin Edwards, another of the state’s colorfully corrupt politicians, was parade marshal—a reported 100,000 revelers poured into Mansura. It was also the year Boone’s Farm came to town. Bottles of Strawberry Hill and Apple Blossom flavored wine made its way into the bloodstream of the festival, and things got real ugly from there.

    By 1972, the party had reached critical mass. Undercover State police camped out in the side pasture across from another aunt and uncle’s house to covertly observe the cottage industry in drug trafficking. “Harley riders and campers parked wherever they stopped—in yards, in the middle of the street. There was nudity and making out in public,” my aunt, Laurie Ranheim, recalls, still wide-eyed at the memory. “The wahwees were sleeping in ditches right in the front of the house.” Wahwees [wah-WEEZ] being, in the family lexicon, shady, unsavory types with questionable hygiene, illegal habits and little in the way of moral fortitude. Think: Hippie meets redneck.

    Too many people. Too much trash. The streets and side-yards of Mansura twinkled with shattered glass. The way people describe it, the town looked like New Orleans the Wednesday after Mardi Gras, only not as good. It’s hard to point a finger at one particular thing that pushed the festival’s organizers to call off the Cochon de Lait after 1972, but the lethal duo of cheap wine in glass bottles features prominently in the legend. Food writer Calvin Trillin, reporting from the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival in one of his first food dispatches for The New Yorker, laments the demise of the Cochon de Lait with no qualms about placing blame:

    “I am justified in holding the idea man who developed soda-pop wines personally responsible for the fact that the Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, Louisiana, ended before I had a chance to sample the cochon. May the next belt-tightening in the wine industry (or the advertising industry, if that is where he's harbored) find him in an expendable position.”

    For the next 15 years, the newly dedicated Cochon de Lait Civic Center in Mansura, a pole barn attached to an open-air pavilion, was a venue without its marquee act. The people of Mansura “decided to stop and rest for a while” (a quote from the Chamber of Commerce’s history of the festival, which is far too polite and dignified to go into the specifics of why), but Mansurans can’t resist an excuse for a good time, particularly one that involves the beloved pig roast. The only thing surprising about the rekindling of the festival in 1987—by a younger generation of locals, many bearing the same last names of the festival’s original organizers—is that it didn’t happen sooner. But it’s been going steady ever since.

    A true cochon de lait is the kind of spectacle that can hush and awe even the rowdy crowds of the hungry and beer-fueled that the festival attracts. From the piles of pecan wood and hickory stacked inside the roasting shanty to the primal, visceral draw of fire and cooking pig, it is a mesmerizing sight to behold the rows of pigs roasting in their wire rotisserie cages.

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    At first glance, the Cochon de Lait might look like any of the small food festivals happening in towns all over the map, like the Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana, or the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. There are the dentally-challenged carnys running the terrifying rides and luring customers into chance games with promises of giant stuffed a Tweety Bird or Tazmanian Devil. There are arts and crafts stalls where you can have your name carved, burned or painted onto just about any surface you can imagine. But from there, the Cochon de Lait takes a sharp left from corporate, cookie cutter festivals. They’ve got meat pies. Hot boiled crawfish. Boudin and (sigh)…boudin balls, crispy-fied meat-y, spicy, rice-y orbs.

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    The schedule of events for the festival is a roster of unintentionally hilarious contests. The beer-drinking contest is notable for the fact that there are two—one for the men, and one for the ladies. In theory, my personal favorite should be the boudin-eating contest, because what’s not to love about speed-eating tubes of spicy rice and pork sausage? But the fact that this delicacy is hard to come by (short of a special trip to Ron’s Cajun Connection in Utica, IL) makes it a shame to see it consumed with such heedless disrespect. But, in fact, it’s the greasy pig contest that I love the most. The simultaneous thrill and horror of watching packs of sweat- and dirt-smeared kids high on cotton candy chasing after squealing, lubed-up piglets is something everyone should experience at least once before they die. I am proud to say that a handful of my nieces and nephews—most of them what my aunts and uncles call “city kids”—have tackled and won a few greased pigs. More gratifying than the smile on that kid’s face is the sight of his or her dad walking away from the fairground, tentatively holding a burlap sack containing the thrashing, squealing piglet.

    For the past few years, every time I go back for the Cochon de Lait, I’m always afraid it’s going to be the last. It’s the same old story: the festival is a lot of work for the town. The old-timers are getting tired and the kids don’t want to take up the tradition. Go while it’s still going.
  • Post #2 - July 9th, 2007, 10:00 pm
    Post #2 - July 9th, 2007, 10:00 pm Post #2 - July 9th, 2007, 10:00 pm
    Amazing.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Really excellent.
    Joe G.

    "Whatever may be wrong with the world, at least it has some good things to eat." -- Cowboy Jack Clement
  • Post #3 - July 9th, 2007, 10:29 pm
    Post #3 - July 9th, 2007, 10:29 pm Post #3 - July 9th, 2007, 10:29 pm
    Ccrush,

    This is a wonderful piece of family and food history. While it is an honor to read it first on LTHforum. It is something you should consider sharing with Southern Foodways Alliance whose website is www.southernfoodways.com.

    Thank you.

    Regards,
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
    Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
  • Post #4 - July 10th, 2007, 10:45 am
    Post #4 - July 10th, 2007, 10:45 am Post #4 - July 10th, 2007, 10:45 am
    What an excellent use for an old swing set!

    Very fine post -- so glad I read it right before lunch and that I have a few fried pork chops left to eat.
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #5 - July 10th, 2007, 11:22 am
    Post #5 - July 10th, 2007, 11:22 am Post #5 - July 10th, 2007, 11:22 am
    crrush,

    I can't say for sure, but I believe this has to be something I experienced in my youth. My next door nieghbors brought me to a similar event on their family property when I was about 5-6 years old. I can vividly remember the spinning piggy, and my first tast of boudin. Thank you for sparking my memory.

    FWIW - at least when I worked there, Pappadeaux had a reasonble boudin blanc on the menu. Although, I wouldn't state that much of anything else is authentic.

    Flip
    "Beer is proof God loves us, and wants us to be Happy"
    -Ben Franklin-
  • Post #6 - July 14th, 2007, 7:54 am
    Post #6 - July 14th, 2007, 7:54 am Post #6 - July 14th, 2007, 7:54 am
    :D
    Last edited by surfinsapo on July 26th, 2007, 12:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #7 - July 20th, 2007, 12:06 pm
    Post #7 - July 20th, 2007, 12:06 pm Post #7 - July 20th, 2007, 12:06 pm
    I made it to the Cochon de Lait festival this year. I grew up in Morganza but this was my first time to make it there. I really enjoyed it. The hog calling contest was fun to watch. It is something everyone should experience if they get the chance.
  • Post #8 - July 20th, 2007, 3:08 pm
    Post #8 - July 20th, 2007, 3:08 pm Post #8 - July 20th, 2007, 3:08 pm
    I attended a parish festival at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Vinton, LA about 10 years ago when I found myself on a road trip out of Houston. Phenomenal food, locals who were surprised that anyone from Cleveland would come down there.

    One rule. No alcohol period. They said that once they eliminated alcohol, all the locals would participate and that mostg of the riff-raff would stay away.

    Went back there a few years later and noted that the festival was no longer being held as the old folks were tired of preparing all that food. It was a great loss.
  • Post #9 - October 26th, 2012, 5:44 am
    Post #9 - October 26th, 2012, 5:44 am Post #9 - October 26th, 2012, 5:44 am
    Of course I was reminded of this classic post when I saw this video (one of an incredible bounty of Southern Foodways Alliance shorts on Vimeo)

    http://vimeo.com/25308619

    Joe G.

    "Whatever may be wrong with the world, at least it has some good things to eat." -- Cowboy Jack Clement
  • Post #10 - October 26th, 2012, 6:52 am
    Post #10 - October 26th, 2012, 6:52 am Post #10 - October 26th, 2012, 6:52 am
    Joe York did an incredible job on the video. He's done a few more for SFA. A few people have attempted documentaries on the Cochon de Lait over the years, but I haven't seen any others show up.

    Now that I'm living down here again, I'm amazed at the sheer number of food festivals happening just about every weekend. This weekend is the Larose French Food Festival (http://www.bayoucivicclub.org/festivals.htm) and the Black Pot Festival in Lafayette (http://blackpotfestival.com/). Next weekend is Boudin & Beer in New Orleans (a fundraiser for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation -- 50 chefs, and you can't possibly eat everything offered...trust me, I tried.)

    Open invitation to anyone who visits New Orleans/South Louisiana -- get in touch!
  • Post #11 - October 29th, 2012, 1:19 pm
    Post #11 - October 29th, 2012, 1:19 pm Post #11 - October 29th, 2012, 1:19 pm
    I know, I can't get enough of the SFA documentaries. I should start a separate thread about them...
    Joe G.

    "Whatever may be wrong with the world, at least it has some good things to eat." -- Cowboy Jack Clement

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