Wednesday, October 10

Guest Post: Is Cochon de Lait Barbecue?

A meditation by Louisiana correspondent Rien Fertel, whom you might remember as one half of the Barbecue Bus team. 
Roll into Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, just about any time of year, and you’ll find thickly accented Cajun men crowded around a fire. A small pig hangs from a chain, sandwiched between metal racks,  absorbing the heat and smoke and flavor from blazing pecan or oak wood coals. This is a cochon de lait, a French term for a suckling pig and a Southwest Louisiana phrase for the act—and accompanying party—of roasting and consuming the sweet, tender meat.

Some local practitioners call this barbecue, and the similarities are inherent in the cochon de lait: the whole animal; the hardwood-stoked fire; the long, slow application of indirect heat and smoke; and the communal, celebratory event.

A still from Joe York's film To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish, about the cochon de lait tradition.
But is it really barbecue?

To answer, we must dive into history. Louisiana lore claims that Avoyelles Parish’s roast pig recipe originated with veterans of Napoleon’s army, soldiers-turned-farmers who, in the early nineteenth century, founded the town of Mansura. Today, Mansura claims the title of “Cochon de Lait Capital of the World” and is home to a massive annual springtime pig roast. Likewise, across the globe, cultures roast piglets, no more than six weeks old, to mark festive occasions. In France (where the term literally translates to ‘pig in milk’), Germany (spanferkel), Spanish-speaking nations (lechón), and Cantonese China (kao ru zhu), suckling pigs are prepared in similar fashions: smoke-grilled and served whole.

Photo by Denny Culbert.
But while the whole roasted pig is universal, the whole-hog barbecue is distinctly North American. Barbecue historians, and bloggers here over the past several months, describe that food as a hybridized or creolized preparation, a crossroads-hatched culture, combining Native American, African, and European culinary influences. Until more research is done, we can only assume that the cochon de lait is a culinary crossover from one French culture to another, from Continental to Cajun.

Follow Rien Fertel on Twitter at @rienfertel.