On this hot and damp morning in mid-summer, along West Airline Highway in LaPlace, the air hangs especially heavy in the wide shed behind Jacob's World Famous Andouille store.
From two little smokehouses in the shed, wisps of dark-gray smoke, carrying the dense perfume of pecan wood, snake out between the cypress boards. Two other smokers sit idle. All four of them, sheathed in Louisiana cypress with pitched metal roofs are almost identical. They could be mistaken for small tool sheds or big, windowless doll houses.
Up steps young Stephan Cuny, charged with keeping the embers glowing at Jacob's from dawn to dusk. He slaps on a respirator mask and picks up a hose. Then, he releases the latch on the single door of the first smokehouse, swings it open and splashes the flaming logs below, generating a loud, sizzling hiss that sends more smoke billowing out.
Jacob's is the oldest of several producers of Louisiana-style charcuterie in and around LaPlace. One of its four smokers dates to the 1930s. Two others were added about five years ago. The smokehouse Cuny was working as we entered the shed is by far the oldest, constructed in 1928 by the company's founder, Nelson Jacob. Its age is documented by the accumulation of pecan-wood resin covering the door and its frame. The pitch-black resin, about an inch thick in some places, glistens like polished tar as the flames flicker within.
"You just get sort of immune to the smoke after a while," Cuny says. "Your eyes'll water, but they stop pretty fast when you get outside. I used to pull the midnight shift at Zapp's Potato Chips in Gramercy. This is better."
Standing near Cuny is his fellow employee, Joey Mason, wiping his eyes with a towel. He smiles and says, "I've put in my smoking time. I'm the store manager now. When I worked back here in the winter, I had to tend to all four smokehouses almost every day of the week to keep up. In the summer, we sell about a thousand pounds of just the andouille. In the winter, the figure increases to about ten times that." (In addition to local customers, Jacob's is occasionally jammed with passengers from tour buses. It also ships its products worldwide).
Before the meat reaches the smokers, the sausage casings have to be stuffed. This is done by Eula Marks' just inside the small, gaily painted storefront facing West Airline Highway, in the cubicle that serves as Mark's production line. Here, she stuffs the boudin, andouille and sausage casings, slices the beef jerky, fries the pork skins to a crisp, and makes the golden, jellied hogshead cheese.
What has to be smoked is later hung a few feet above the smokehouse fires: Pork sausages, turkey legs, chickens and breast halves, links of 2-inch-thick andouille, and slices of tasso (south Louisiana's richly spiced seasoning ham). At temperatures averaging about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, they hang for 6 to 12 hours, depending on sizes and thicknesses. In all of them, the fat content is considerably lower than that of most meat products.
Later, the smokehouse meats will share space in the refrigerated display cases out front with the non-smoked merchandise at Jacob's: Hogshead cheese (with no head meat, but lots of seasonings), breadcrumb-stuffed artichokes, peppery white boudin (made with pork and rice), and bags of beef jerky and pork rinds.
These hearty products, and others like them, form the core of south Louisiana's traditional charcuterie, robustly spiced to deliver yet more of the region's glorious catalogue of flavors. Most of the sausages will find their way to a gumbo bowl, or a plate of steaming red beans done the New Orleans way, zestily seasoned and ladled beside white rice. The tasso slices will likely add their deep, lusty flavor to vegetables simmering in black cast-iron pots. And the turkey legs and chickens probably will be devoured at family meals, snacks and picnics.
While the production methods at Jacobs are fairly modern, the heart of the operation hasn't changed much since 1928. That was the year Nelson and Camille Jacob started making and selling andouille at their general store in Milesville, a riverside community long since absorbed into the town of LaPlace. He was a descendant of one of the German families that began emigrating to Louisiana in the mid-eighteenth century. She was young Camille Charnet, from a village near Vichy, France. Nelson married Camille just before the 1920s, while he was a member of the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I.
In 1928 the couple opened a general store in the riverside community of Milesville. There they made and sold their andouille in addition to hats, clothes, groceries and other merchandise. Soon, the sausages were outselling the stockings.
In the 1940s, Nelson's youngest son, Henry Diddy Jacob, carried on the family tradition. Later, so did Henry's daughter, Mary Ann.
Today, the store's ownership is in its fourth generation, in the person of Nelson Jacob's great-grandson, 35-year-old Aaron Lions. Lions picked up several years where his mother, Mary Ann, left off. "She's retired, but still comes around and leaves her mark," a grinning Lions says, "She wants you to know who's the real boss here."
The dual, German and French, origins of the Jacob's andouille business apparently stems from the character of the earliest settlements along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. Immigrant families from both Germany and Acadia began establishing communities there in the late 1700s. Both cultures can boast of centuries of experience in making different types of sausages, terrines, and other forms of charcuterie.
The charcuterie tradition continues today in the kitchens of many New Orleans restaurants. Among those that smoke their own are Commander's Palace, Palace Cafe, Brigtsen's, Bella Luna, Gabrielle and Gamay.
Boudin rouge, the famous pork-blood sausage of both France and Acadiana, can sometimes be found on the menus at Bayona, Peristyle and Lilette. So can another classic French terrine, the jellied, parsleyed ham known as jambon persillé.
At Herbsaint, chefs Susan Spicer and Donald Link regularly offer several varieties of charcuterie, pâtés, terrines and similar meat courses at both lunch and dinner.
Much of Link's boyhood in Lake Charles was spent feasting on his grandfather's rustic Louisiana meat dishes. "Making these things fulfills my desire to keep things homey and simple, the way my grandfather cooked, Link says, "They're the kinds of things most restaurants don't take the time to do any more."
Among Link's favorites are his classic French rillettes, an hors d'oeuvre spread made with shredded pork, duck or rabbit. He marinates the meat with garlic and herbs, then slowly simmers it in the oven, retaining some of the fat. He reduces the juices to a syrup and mixes that with the fat and the coarsely shredded meat. Marinated and chilled to allow binding by fat and gelatin, the rilletes are brought out with big, fresh croutons.
"I don't recall seeing any leftovers on the serving dishes." Link says.
That's just one more testament to the durability of the home-grown brand of charcuterie that has long been an integral part of south Louisiana's long culinary history.