Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Johnson's Grocery

A couple of years ago Paul and I flew into New Orleans, spent a couple of days there, and then rented a car and lit out on 10W, en route to DeRidder. On the way we passed through Cajun country, and before long we started seeing gas stations and ramshackle little buildings with “Specialty Meats” signs outside. Music to my stomach.

In Louisiana, “Specialty Meats” is code for boudin, a delicacy that consists of rice, ground pork, and savory seasonings stuffed into a sausage casing. (You can also find versions made with crawfish, or catfish, etc…but the pork is the best.) Each place has it’s own recipe and there is no end of discussion, sometimes heated, as to the best ratio of rice to pork, etc. Most people have a favorite place they’re devoted to. My aunt Corinne—our family Cajun--used to insist on driving an hour away, from Oakdale to Bunkie, to get her favorite boudin.

I think it was Calvin Trillin, in an homage to boudin in The New Yorker, who once said you had to buy two batches of boudin—one to eat in the parking lot, the other to bring home. (It’s that good.) Corinne used to run a knife through each sausage, splitting the casings, and then put them under the broiler until the casings crisped up. Then she’d scoop out the boudin, spread it on a Club cracker, and douse it with Tiger Sauce—a sweet, sour, spicy sauce that used to only be available in Louisiana. (I can buy it in my local grocery store now.)

Anyway, Paul, who is game for just about any food, had read Trillin’s New Yorker homage, and was intrigued. And I was more than ready for another dose. It had been eons. So we began stopping…at every one. Our favorite place was a place called Johnson’s Grocery, in Eunice, a Cajun town about forty miles north of Lafayette (Cajun central). I think Johnson’s was mentioned in one of my guidebooks, and it took a little doing to find it. We were a tad nervous because in the book it said Johnson’s didn’t make boudin every day.

Lo and behold, we turned a corner and saw a hand-lettered sign stuck in the ground near that said “Hot boudin today!” (Somewhere I have a picture of Paul sitting next to the sign.) We pulled into a gravel parking lot in front of a little, white one story building, opened the screen door, and made our way past rows of shelves with things like fishing tackle and random groceries to the back, where there was one man grinding sausage and filling casings. One pound of boudin: $2.67. I think, as Trillin had advised, we got two.

We were standing in the parking lot, squeezing boudin straight from the casings into our mouths, when we heard the screen door screech. The owner of the store, an elderly gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, leaned out and said “My wife just put on a pot of coffee. Would you like a cup?” We probably stood there for an open mouthed second before Paul—who can drink hot coffee in 90 degree weather—said “Sure!” and headed back into the store.

“I wasn’t sure whether to pay for it or not,” he said later. It became clear pretty soon, however, that it was just a friendly gesture. One of many we jaded northerners would encounter on that trip. While inside, Paul also got a boudin lesson from the old guy, who proceeded to tell him exactly how he made it. “You’re going to show me all the secret ingredients?” Paul joked. No secret ingredients, the guy said. It was all in the making. And they’d been making it a long time.

The reason I bring this up is because a) we’re on our last package of boudin in the freezer—you can order it online, though not, alas, from Johnson’s. (I order from Poche’s which is also darn good.) And b) In searching the web on the subject of boudin and Johnson’s in particular I was, at first, horrified to see a note that Johnson’s had closed. But it’s okay. It turns out that the family has just decided to eschew the grocery business and focus on making boudin. Well, hey, you can buy eggs anywhere. But boudin this good? It’s worth travelling for—even all the way from New York.


Anonymous said...

ahh i want some more boudin! what crackers did you put them on again?

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn said...

Club crackers. Click on the highlighted word "Club" in the text of the blog and it should bring up a picture.

Rhett Johnson said...

Hi my name is Rhett Johnson i am the last generation of johnsons to work in Johnsons Grocery. I am proud to inform any one reading this that we have reopened a store in laffayette it is called Johnson Bouaniere ( cajun french for Smoke House )u can find us on urbanspoon.com . and we r proud to say that we have won the award for best boudin in the area. I am sorry to in form that the cowboy hat wearing old man ( Steve Johnson ) has passed on and out of the four brothers there r only 2 left Wallace ( my grandfather ) and Matt Johnson. it is my aunt lory that has the store now and she is enjoying every minute of it my grandfather is there every day that it is opened and u can meet him around lunch time. It puts great pride in me to see how much our little store has acomplished since the thirties from being the first to comercially market boudin to the best at doing so. I am twenty now and depending on the day and year that u visited u may have seen me learning the ropes, recipes , and culture. but thank u and yes we ship boudin now and our SPECIALTY MEATS. thanks and godbless // oh and by the way the coffees ready would u like a cup

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn said...

Hi Rhett! I am THRILLED that the Johnsons are open for business again! I'll do a post on the main page on the new place--do you have a picture of the place you can send? And a web site address? When did you open? My husband and son and I were actually in Lafayette in early September, and we were on the hunt for boudin. Had I known I would have made a bee-line for the place. Congratulations on continuing the family tradition--I'm proud just reading about it.

Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn said...

I'd be remiss in not adding that I'm so sorry about Steve Johnson--a lovely guy--and that we will definitely take you up on the coffee when we get back to Lafayette!