Blood on the River

Posted in John's Current Blog on October 30, 2015

Sunrise on the river

Savannah, Georgia. October 29, 2015:

As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, I attended the best culinary event I have ever had the honor to be a part of on Sunday last. In spite of thunderstorms and historically high tides and flooding surrounding us, the weather could not have been better. Blood on the River was organized by Tank Jackson, of Holy City Hogs. It was a boucherie, a Cajun communal affair during which hogs (and other animals, in this case) are killed, butchered, and cooked on site. Lots of folks seemed to wonder why there isn’t a similar tradition in the Lowcountry, but in fact there is. I have been to several hog killin’s not only in the Lowcountry, but in the midlands of South Carolina and in the piedmont of Georgia. What’s missing here is a unifying culture such as that of the Acadians who for over 250 years have made up a large percentage of Louisiana’s population. While numerous, they were often isolated in rural settings, entrenching their culture, much as the Gullah/Geechee dialects and traditions on the barrier islands of the Lowcountry were preserved until the building of bridges and the encroachment of modern life via capitalism and the airwaves.

Northeast Georgia; December 5, 1974

The foods are decidedly different at the hog killin’s in the Lowcountry, but what is the same no matter where you are is the amount of people involved. Until Adam Danforth’s award-winning, brilliantly conceived and illustrated books arrived on the scene, following the rapid rise of the popularity of charcuterie in America, the standard book was Garden Way’s Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game (1986) by the large animal veterinarian, Dr. John Mettler, Jr. He wrote, “Hog killing is as much an American tradition as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. In fact, in the South it used to be done on or near Thanksgiving Day…. It is impossible for an individual to slaughter a hog or hogs without help. Neighbors and family members have always helped each other at hog-butchering time, making it an almost festive occasion, like a barn raising or husking bee.” This is true the world over. As Allan Stevo has observed in Slovakia on his site there’s nothing simple about having a crew of 10 or 20 people each working on their own vital step of the process, and often doing so simultaneously.  It’s really very complicated when you think about all the knowledge that goes into doing every step of the process right, knowledge never studied in school or read about in an article like this, but rather passed down from one generation to the next.”

Traditionally the hog is stunned, and, hopefully, killed with the initial blow to the head. Today, that is most often done with a bullet, though I have attended hog killin’s where the hog was knocked out with a sledge hammer, hung by its hind legs, its throat slit, and the blood collected in a huge bowl, constantly stirred with either salt or vinegar to prevent its coagulation. Most often, the blood is used to make sausage – also called blood pudding, black pudding, and boudin noir. I gave a recipe in my first book, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking (1992):

 Blood Pudding

“Of all blood, that of the hog is thought the richest, and this is always

employed in France in their boudins of this kind, which are excellent.”

                                                                                                         -The Cook and Housewife’s Manual

By the time Meg Dods published her classic of Scottish cooking in 1826, black puddings — or blood sausages — were well established in the culinary traditions of Berkeley County where Scots-Irish and French Huguenots had settled along the banks of the Cooper River. On Barbados, whence came many of the early English settlers and African slaves, blood pudding and souse are still traditional Christmas dishes. Rice has replaced the oatmeal, traditional in Scotland, and the bread crumbs used in some parts of France (other French thickeners include apples, chestnuts, and spinach) in my version of this surprisingly delicate sausage. Light and creamy like its French cousins, this sausage is not heavy like the Cajun and German versions.

It is illegal in most states to sell pig’s blood, so the culinary tradition of making blood sausages has all but disappeared. Only in pockets of the Lowcountry where farmers still butcher their hogs will you find someone who knows this old bit of charcuterie. The only local current cookbook in which I have found a recipe is Billie Burn’s collection, STIRRIN’ THE POTS ON DAUFUSKIE (1985), from Daufuskie Island, which is still separated from the mainland by the lack of a bridge. I go to my butcher’s on slaughter day, with a bucket to catch the fresh blood. He gives it to me to bait sharks, but what I really do is make blood pudding. A tablespoon of salt or vinegar stirred into a quart of fresh blood will prevent its coagulation.

1 cup cooked white rice

2 cups cream

2 quarts fresh pig’s blood, plus 2 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon Quatre-épices*

2 tablespoons salt (or 4 if vinegar was used in the blood)

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

2 pounds fresh pork fat

2 pounds onions, chopped

prepared hog casings, knotted at one end, rinsed well

and placed in a bowl of water

Soak the rice in the cream. Stir the seasonings into the blood. Dice the fat and fry out 1/2 pound of it in a heavy Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook slowly until the onions are translucent. Remove from the fire. Add the rest of the fat and the rice/cream mixture to the pot. Stir the mixture well, and when it has cooled, add the seasoned blood, stirring well.

Now, put on an apron and cover your work surface with something like a large cookie sheet, as you cannot help but make a mess with the liquid sausage stuffing. Slip the unknotted end of the prepared casings over the end of a plastic funnel, holding the casing tight with one hand so that it does not slip off. Ladle the mixture through the funnel into the casings, then tie it off in 4″ lengths. Simmer the sausages in water for 15-20 minutes, or until a pricked sausage oozes brown, not blood. As the sausages are very fragile, this simmering is accomplished best with a wire basket for deep-frying. When cool, wrap well in plastic wrap. They will keep refrigerated for several days or in the freezer for several months.

I serve these sausages on a cold winter night with spinach and mashed potatoes — half white and half sweet — mixed with a little milk and butter; or, as an appetizer, on a bed of caramelized onions. To cook blood puddings, simply prick them lightly in a couple of places and fry or grill them.

*Quatre-Épices: “Four-spices” are, in fact, usually five, and are commonly used to season forcemeats for sausages and terrines. This is one combination of spices that I try to keep on hand in small quantities. The recipe is really just a suggestion: the quantities and proportions given below are typical, but not written in stone. Vary the amounts to suit your own palate.
2 tablespoons white peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger
Put all of the above in a spice mill or blender and process until it is all evenly ground. Store in a cool, dark place. Make quantities no larger than this, for spices quickly lose their punch after being ground.

I’ve blogged about blood pudding before – in my very first blog and I have also blogged about the charcuterie and whole-hog cookery 8 years ago, when I was living in Washington, DC, where I was able to find frozen blood in Asian, African, and Caribbean markets. By the time the paperback edition of my book (which has been continuously in print for 23 years) was published in 2000, all four of my traditional butchers had closed. I left the Lowcountry in 2004 just as the charcuterie craze was taking off. It is my understanding that there are now several serious butchers in Charleston and many, if not most, restaurants offer homemade salumi, rillettes, and confit.  I wish more of the traditional Lowcountry charcuterie like blood pudding were offered: liver pudding, souse (head cheese), and hog head stew, recipes for which I also gave in that first book. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled to see the increased interest and practice, and Blood on the River was a perfect opportunity for farmers, chefs, and food writers like me to witness and participate in the sunup to sundown ritual of a Cajun boucherie. In truth, the event takes much longer than that. When I left after being there for nearly 12 hours, many of the dishes were not yet finished and some of the animals were still alive (I saw a duck in a cage as I drove away).

My favorite comment of the day, I think, was the architect/teacher/farmer/journalist Jeff Allen’s. I paraphrase, but basically what he said was, “I love that these fancy restaurant chefs have to cook like us rednecks!” There was no refrigeration or running water. There were no ovens, other than a smoking rig hauled behind a truck and a makeshift one made of concrete blocks. There were a few gas burners, so sautéing was possible, but most of the food was cooked over open fires or on or in smoldering embers. Most of the cookware was large cast iron. There was a rudimentary spit large enough for a hog, but it wasn’t really used. There was an amazing amount of camaraderie. I saw no egos. No jerks. No attitudes. Bourbon bottles were passed freely and the amiable Gerry Keiran (aren’t all Irish?!) of Seanachai Whiskey and Cocktail Bar on Johns Island cheerfully dispensed potently delicious and refreshing drinks all day. I didn’t ask what was in them – lots of booze, something slightly fizzy, something bitter, and a twist. I had one on an empty stomach and it took about 5 dozen raw oysters before I could have another. They were mighty tasty.

Kevin Mitchell browning backbone sections over coals

Tank had divided us into teams – Team Goat, Team Chicken, etc., with 6 or 7 pork stations – the liver, the offal stew, the backbone stew, the ribs, and the hams. Chefs didn’t get to work with their usual kitchen crews. David Bancroft, whose ACRE restaurant in Auburn, Alabama, produces the finest charcuterie I have ever tasted, had B.J. Dennis, a Geechee caterer, and Kevin Mitchell, a culinary professor and scholar of African-American chefs, on his team. Aaron Lemieux of  Michael’s on the Alley in Charleston was on Team Chicken  with chefs from other cities. Most folks were working nonstop. Though I watched Ben Berryhill of Red Drum in Mount Pleasant and Nate Whiting of 492 King breaking down two huge wreckfish for an hour, I never introduced myself or asked their names: at every station, everyone was busy working and freely sharing knowledge and techniques. I never got a taste of their fish stew. There was food at every turn, once we finished butchering the hog and chickens. Fresh local vegetables were tossed in sauté pans, lush gravies were coaxed from browned bones, and fresh sausages were stuffed into stomachs and carcasses to go in the barbecue oven. Kevin and B.J. and David conjured a delicious backbone stew. It had potatoes in it, but was served over perfectly steamed rice that B.J. had cooked in a large cast iron pot. The cooking was done over ashen coals.

Geoff Blount of the new International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach had his great-grandmother’s bread board and several slow yeast concoctions that he worked into flour for breads – flat and fried. I never saw him stop working (see photo, right). The fry bread was a major hit. Most of the chefs worked nonstop. All the guys from Louisiana from master butcher Toby Rodriguez to shaman Paulino Solorzano constantly shared their boucherie skills.  Leila Schardt and Tito Marino of Monza and Closed for Business in Charleston dug right into the scraping of the hog’s hair, then chopped and chopped vegetables and innards for the organ stew. There were barbecue champions from all over the country – Hipolito Sanchez, Phil Wingo, Jack Waiboer, Randall Wright, Mark Richardson, and the folks from Hometeam BBQ in Charleston. Few of us walked up to each other and said, “Hey, I’m so-n-so, who are you?” Instead, we passed bourbon bottles and asked if we could help or, more likely, “What’s that you’re doing? Could you show me how?” Most of the names I learned after the fact: my Facebook friends grew by 100 immediately because of the event.


Me drinking Txakoli from a traditional Basque porron. Photo copyright Paul Cheney.

The goat didn’t arrive so Tank put David Shields and me in charge of oysters. It’s a good thing since I was the only one with an oyster knife. And since I don’t give a damn about roasting oysters, I opened them raw for myself and for others for hours. Adam DeGraff, a brilliant fiddler (Bach to Rock) from West Virginia, had never had one and fell for them. I opened a couple of dozen for Ashely Christensen, whom I had never met before, and from then on she found me wherever I was and brought me samples of her dishes. Her pork gravy ruled! I got to spend a lot of time talking with the charming architect/educator/farmer/journalist Jeff Allen and his father David of Rebellion Farm. As with David Shields, conversations with these polymaths often range far and wide, and sometimes not about food at all. Jeff lamented the lack of smoked mullet in the lowcountry and he got me thinking about it. And then I found an article he wrote for the Charleston newspaper several months ago. I’m not sure how we got on that subject. And we talked about charcuterie in different parts of the world. And suckling pigs. I told him about the amazing pajata (pagliata in Italian proper) I had years ago in the Testaccio quarter of Rome, and we wondered why it couldn’t be done with suckling pigs. But at what age and weight are suckling pigs slaughtered? And how? Pajata is an unusual dish made with the intestines of milk-fed veal or lambs, still full of mother’s milk (or chyme, more correctly), which, when cooked, curdles into soft cheese-like deliciousness.

After I got back to Savannah, I wrote him twice:

Tuesday, October 27:

Hey Jeff,

So good to see you and your delightful father.

So I’ve been reading about pajata (pagliata in proper Italian) and it seems that the milk-fed intestines of several animals are used — veal, lamb, and kid are mentioned. Surprised no mention of pig, but lots of information about chyme, the semi-digested mother’s milk.

I see that there are a lot of Jewish restaurants in Testaccio now, and, going through my Roman cookbooks, I’m seeing veal and ox and sheep offal called for, but no pig. In fact, I’m only seeing pork chops. Weird. Carlo Middione says “the farther south you go, the fewer chicken dishes you see because the meats of choice and availability are lamb and pork,” but he only gives two recipes for pork at all in his The Food of Southern Italy (a classic from 1997)… and no recipe for tripe, a Roman favorite. Pork tripe is not eaten. (In Puglia, I’ve seen little meat other than horse.) David Downie lists a bunch of offal recipes in his Cooking the Roman Way (2002) but only gives a tripe recipe. Some sources say that cooking pagliata in a tomato sauce destroys its delicate flavor. David mentions, but does not discuss, “Grilled milk-filled lamb or calf intestines.”

Jo Bettoja is from Millen, Georgia, but married a wealthy Italian hotelier many years ago. She’s written a lot about dining in the grand tradition in Rome. She gives a recipe for Porchetta alla Romana but she specifies a 25-pound pig. That seems awfully big to me, but she also writes, “This porchetta is to be made at home. The porchettari, vendors who sells roast suckling pigs in their shops, debone pigs weighing up to 200 pounds or more.” Richard Olney, whose culinary advice I trust, says 6 to 8 weeks or 12 pounds. He gives French, Brazilian, and Polish recipes in the Time-Life book on pork. Jane Grigson, whose charcuterie book was the first serious one in English (1967) and still my favorite, says 2 to 6 weeks old or 12 to 14 pounds. Interestingly, Stéphane Reynaud’s Cochon & Fils (Pork & Sons), which I helped translate, doesn’t mention suckling pig. In fact, it seems that porcelet (a marketing term that I doubt you hear in France; I always heard “cochon de lait“) is sort of anathema to many French chefs — just not enough meat to matter, I guess. And they ARE cute! Nonetheless, Raymond Oliver gives a recipe calling for a “young suckling pig (about 10 pounds).” Most authors writing about French cuisine (from Paula Wolfert and Madeleine Kamman to Bocuse and Curnonsky) don’t mention it.

Zharennyi Porosenok (Russian) or Pecheno Prase Sukalche (Bulgarian) both call for a 10- to 12-pound pig, the head removed and cut into quarters. (At right, my friend Philip Harmandjiev, whom I think of as the Joel Salatin of Europe, is shown at his winery where he raises heritage breeds of cows, sheep, chickens, and hogs and grows heirloom vegetables, all sustainably.) But the place I have seen more suckling pigs is on the Iberian peninsula, especially in the central plateau of Spain. You can always find them already roasted — cochinillo asado — in the markets of Madrid and Toledo and Segovia and Arévalo. But they are only 3 weeks old, weigh about 6 pounds, enough to serve four. They are cooked in wood-burning ovens.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Picayune Creole cookbook (1901) says 4 to 5 weeks old, but no mention of weight. Mary Randolph (1824) gave recipes for both whole hogs and shoats, but they are obviously bigger than piglets. Sarah Rutledge (1847) gives no mention of pork except in curing, pickling, or sausage-making instructions. Makes sense, actually, to preserve it rather than cook it in this heat and humidity. Though I’m sure there were suckling pigs presented at some of those winter balls in Charleston. Lettice Bryan (1839) basically paraphrases Randolph. Edna Lewis uses a 15- to 16-pound pig, stuffs it with lots of pork and liver and fruits and chestnuts and uses more than a pound of butter and lard and then more in the sauce, with more liver. Overkill.

Debbie and I with Philip and his winemaker, Ivo Todorov, at the winery in Bulgaria

Anyway, that’s enough research for today. Let’s do this! I’m copying Debbie [Marlowe, my wine guru of The Wine Shop of Charleston] on this. She’s already thinking Austrian wines. If we indeed do the Italian thing, Jo Bettoja says you have to have Frascati: “This white wine is the pride of the Romans. They are particularly pleased that it doesn’t travel, which makes it exclusively Roman.” I know Debbie’s not having it!







And on mullet:

So I just read your piece in the News and Courier about smoked mullet. It’s how we usually prepared it when I was growing up (and into my adult years when I was still casting for it). I had a mullet net, hand-woven in the lowcountry, with heavy weights. It was cotton twine, too, and would wear your ass out after a couple of throws, but I’d usually get a half dozen on a toss.

I am continually amazed at all the things that I tried to get folks doing again in my lowcountry book and that still haven’t caught on. For example:

Smoked Mullet and Eel

One throw of a mullet net — a circular cast net similar to shrimp cast nets, but with heavier weights and a larger weave –in a tidal pool on an incoming tide will often yield an entire school of mullet. They are usually cut up for bait and the heads are used to bait crab traps. But I love freshly caught mullet, pan fried for breakfast or cured by smoke, the way I prepare eel. Berkeley County eels are world-renowned, though the industry has suffered many setbacks in recent years. They are farmed in ponds, but I most frequently come upon eels that have wandered into my crab pot.

Dealing with an eel is no easy task. They are strong and they bite. Wear a glove and grab the eel from behind the head, then put it down in a tub of heavily salted water to both kill the eel and to remove the layer of slime that covers its body. Hang the dead eel by its head, either from a hook or by driving a nail through its head into a board. Make an incision into the skin all the way around the head, then, with pliers, pull the skin off the entire body in one fell swoop. Dress the eel, removing the head. Leave the tail fin intact. It is then ready to be cured. Proceed as for the mullet:

1 quart water

1/4 cup salt

1 teaspoon ground mustard

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon sorghum molasses, cane blackstrap molasses, or brown sugar

the juice of one lemon

1 small onion, chopped

six 1/2-pound freshly caught mullets, scaled and gutted, or a 3-pound eel

In a nonreactive container such as a Pyrex baking dish or a stainless steel bowl, mix the salt in the water and stir until it dissolves. In a small container such as a coffee cup add a little of the water to the mustard and turmeric and mix well to form a paste. Add the paste to the water, along with the molasses, lemon juice, and onion. Stir to combine all the ingredients. Submerge the fish in the marinade,and place a plate right-side-up on top of the water to keep the fish under water. Refrigerate overnight. Remove the fish from the brine, and hang by the tails in a well-ventilated, bug-free place while a skin, called the pellicle, forms on the outside of the fish. Soak hickory chips in water and prepare the grill. The grates should be clean and brushed with oil; the temperature should be stay at about 140 .

Smoke the fish over smoldering chips until it flakes with a fork. It will take between 2 to 4 hours. Serve at once or allow to cool, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator.


 My sister just gave me a bunch of cookbooks and among them is The Mostly Mullet Coobkook (1998) by George Griffin of Old Town, Florida. He says that the ban on gill nets in the mid-90s is what happened to the smoked mullet business. Ted Peters in St Pete still has it, but they don’t ship. Joe Patti’s is out of stock, but, amazingly, they have mullet roe — white and yellow, for $1/lb! (Salted and sun-dried, the Japanese pay $250/lb for it!). Safe Harbor in Mayport also doesn’t have any right now. I’ve seen lots of articles lamenting its demise.  I’m glad to see someone else (you!) has tried to get it back in favor again. I remember it from my childhood; you could get it in most seafood houses along the “ditch” — the Intracoastal Waterway.  I see there’s a recipe in the Barrier Islands cookbook that Cornelia Bailey helped put together, but it’s really for grilled mullet. But in SW Florida and the panhandle, it’s daily fare. The nutty flavor of the fish is often compared to pecans or sunflower seeds. I love it fresh or smoked. Damn, you got me thinking about it!


And that’s how it’s been all week. Emails, texts, Facebook postings (if you’re on Facebook you can see the rest of my pictures here; if you are not my friend, ask), and phone calls following up on what was, again, the best culinary event I’ve ever attended.

So many old and new faces for me there. Way too many to mention and most of whose names I learned  only after I got home. Oyster Mike provided both delicious local oysters and the chickens. There were local vegetables and grains from Halston Towles and David Shields and Geechie Boy Mill and Anson Mills. There was a porron of txakoli produced at the oyster station by the ever-snapping photographer Paul Cheney (see photo, above). I talked about local chanterelles with master forager Chris Bennett, whose Southeast Foraging is a wonderful addition to the literature. Adam Danforth patiently shared his profound butchering skills; his book is worthy of its accolades and awards. It was great to see Charleston chefs Jeremiah Bacon and Fred Neuville again, and to meet so many wonderful new folks:  Lindsay and Patrick McKinley, who provided the rabbits and who asked Adam perspicacious questions; the ebullient Columbia restaurateur Kristian Niemi, whose dry-rubbed ribs did not last long; the pizzaioli Alan Cooke and David Robb; 492 pastry chef Amanee Neirouz, who provided breads and sweets; Richard Gruica, who offers culinary tours of Croatia; Karen Overton of Wedge Oak Farm in Lebanon, Tennessee; and Dave Smoke-McCluskey, yankee-turned-southerner, of Local Pop in Augusta, who stirred the blood of Pearl, the pig, for the longest time to keep it from coagulating and who has, like most, been so full of praise after the event. There were others I never met, but I saw them working, among them the chef educators Joseph Bonaparte and David Quintana. Anyone I didn’t meet, I want to: I have never been around such an ego-less crowd.

It wasn’t about commerce, but about respect for ingredients. I bet I heard 100 toasts to Pearl in the 10 hours I was there. It was about sharing a communal, truly farm-to-table. I am honored to have been included. This weekend I will be eating in New York at my friend Sara Jenkins’s Porsena, the sister restaurant to her renowned East Village Porchetta, and at Danny Meyer’s Maialino. I can’t wait to tell them about Blood on the River.

Thanks to everyone who was there, but especially to Tank and to Pearl. Please forgive me for any omissions.



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