Cochon de lait is one of Acadiana's most famous and most delectable dishes -- marinated, pit-roasted young suckling pig, sliced thin and served with gravy, on a plate or on a po-boy. The mere aroma of this dish is enough to make your knees buckle, not to mention the taste. In fact, it's sinfully good ... good enough to make a nice Jewish boy eat treyf.
Several years ago my friend Doron, who's originally from Israel, came down to New Orleans along with his girlfriend to experience Jazzfest for the first time. He reckoned, quite correctly, that given his lack of knowledge of the ins and outs of the Crescent City, it'd be a very good idea if he went down to Jazzfest in my company. We had a blast, of course; he took to the city instantly, and it was beginning to look like all he'd need to "go native" is a Nint' Ward accent.
All of the Creole and Cajun gustatory delights offered or suggested were gleefully devoured, and he was always energetic, looking for something else to try. At one point on the Fairgrounds during the Fest, I made a beeline to one of my very favorite food booths, a must-stop at least once every year -- the cochon de lait booth. The family that was serving pig at that time did a beautiful job. Melt-in-your-mouth tender slices of roast pork, drenched in aromatic, deeply flavored gravy, piled high on a po-boy loaf. The same booth also served the venerable Fried Potato Po-Boy (the first po-boy ever), smothered in the same gravy; for the truly brave, their Combo po-boy had both sliced roast pork and fried potatoes (my favorite!)
I got one and dug in even before we found a place to sit and eat. The aroma of that meat and that gravy on that sandwich was intoxicating; there was no way I was going to wait. I had already had an iced tea ready to go, so I didn't even have to wait to get something to wash it down with.
Evidently Doron was finding the aroma to be intoxicationg as well. He just stared at my sandwich, a thousand-yard-stare, his irises and pupils practically turning into spinning spirals. "Oh my God," he said, and brought his face so close to my po-boy that there'd be a danger of my biting his nose off if he were any closer. "My God," he said again, "that is incredible. Incredible! I haff to have thees! I haff to!"
He spun and bolted toward the booth, and got a large one.
He was unwrapping it as he returned to where I was standing, the expression on his face not unlike that of a tomb raider who had just opened a chest filled with gold pieces. He looked lovingly at his new precious jewel, opened his mouth to take a bite, hesistated, then looked back at me and said with a slight look of dismay, "This is all pig?"
Now, Doron was a secular Jew, and not terribly observant, at least at that time; I didn't think he kept strict kosher, but I wanted to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting into. "Yep, I'm afraid so," I replied.
He looked back at his cochon de lait po-boy, sighed, shrugged, said, "Oh well ... my poor mother," and quickly removed a Gargantuan crescent-shaped bite of his beloved new pig sandwich. The entire thing was gone in less than five minutes.
One person to whom I told this story said, "Oh, you are so going to hell." Hell shmell, so I inadvertently made a nice Jewish boy eat treyf. G-d'll forgive me. (All He needs to do is smell that cochon and He'll understand.)
This is cochon de lait as once prepared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival by the Timphony and Stewart Families. This particular recipe was taken from the old Jazz and Heritage Festival Cookbook, now sadly out of print. Here's a link to another good cochon de lait recipe as well.
Cajun Roast Pig:
Outdoor Cooking Louisiana-Style
Acquire a fresh, suckling pig of 25-75 pounds, dressed-out. In other words, a butchered pig with head and legs removed. Place the pig on a large flat surface (cover a workbench or truck tailgate with cardboard, etc.). Take a small axe and split the pig along its backbone in order to make it lie flat. Be careful not to cut so deep that you break it in half.
With a sharp carving knife, cut slits approximately one inch long and 1-2 inches deep over the entire side of pork. Put them 3-5 inches apart. Now, insert peeled pieces of garlic cloves in each slit.
Using a large ice chest or pan, put the pig in a marinating sauce prepared to your own taste. Use lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Cajun Power Garlic Sauce, wine vinegar, chopped onion, celery, garlic salt, and chopped parsley. Place in the refrigerator and marinate for at least 24 hours.
When you're ready to begin cooking, remove the pig from the marinade and rub plenty of black pepper and celery salt into the surface of the skin and precut slits.
The best apparatus for cooking can be created using two sections of clean, and unrusted, reinforcing wire (the mesh type used in concrete construction). Center the pig on one piece and lay the other over it. Tie all four sides together firmly using strong wire. Attach an "S" hoop to the top and bottom of the roasting rack. To hang your rack use any metal crossbar set-up you can create. Keep in mind you'll have a fairly intense fire beneath this. Many "modern day" Cajuns find that an old metal swingset serves well. Rig up a pair of chains to enable you to hang your rack (rotisserie style) and keep it suspended over the fire.
Next, dig a trench about 2 feet deep, 3 feet wide and 4 feet long to serve as a fire pit. Use oak mixed with pecan and/or other light wood and build your fire in the pit. Build a low wall encircling the pit with concrete blocks or bricks. Lay sheet metal or tin against this wall and down the sides of the fire pit.
Start your fire and keep the wood stacked-up about 1-1/2 to 2 feet high throughout the cooking process. Turn the roasting rack about every half hour. If possible, place some wet hickory chips on your fire towards the end of the cooking (usually 4 to 5-1/2 hours) to add a good smoked flavor. Total cooking time with vary according to weight of the pig, but you should allow 6 - 7 hours for a 25 - 50 pound pig, and 8 - 9 hours for a 50 - 75 pound one. The grease will stop dripping and the skin becomes golden brown when the pig is completely cooked.
Translated from French to English, Cochon De Lait literally means "Pig in Milk." The idea behind this Cajun pig roast is to use a suckling (young) pig to get the finest pork flavor. The Cajuns of southwest Louisiana have always enjoyed their pork, but consider a Cochon De Lait to be a special treat. And, to have an excuse for a party makes the project of roasting a pig, even that much more appetizing. Historically, the suckling pig is cooked by the men, over an outdoor fire, while the women prepare other dishes inside the house. A Cochon De Lait is easy to prepare following this method ...
Many Cajuns consider the cracklin' skin the best part of the Cochon De Lait. To get the skin croquant (crispy) the true connoisseur will build a very intense fire, and bring up a strong flame, just before the pig is going to come off the fire. It is best to recruit some assistance and lower the roasting rack over the flame. This will give you a cracklin' skin guaranteed to be some good! When you hear the last of the grease popping, bubbles will rise on the skin, and it's time to turn over the pig and put the other side over the flame.
Now your efforts will pay off. Take the rack away from the fire and lay it on a clean flat surface for a few minutes. Call the guests to gather around and begin to carve some delicious meat!
Note: Not recommended for apartment dwellers. An engineering degree might come in handy.
Yield: Serves dozens.
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Chuck Taggart [chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com]