You can imagine the scene. There he is, the legendary chef, John Folse, preparing for his participation in the Dueling Hams portion of the Fêtes des Bouchers on the grounds of the Culinary Vegetable Institute. He’s got his ham, he’s got numerous containers of intriguing looking ingredients, and he’s got a great big tub of water on his table.

Suddenly, he pauses his prep work long enough to look around the brilliant autumn scenery. And then, as people are entering the tent where he’ll help us to envision how he’d cure a ham in the New Orleans swamps of his childhood, Chef Folse starts to speak in his vibrant Louisiana twang.

“There’s something pretty special about an Ohio Boucherie,” he says, pausing again and looking at the festival attendees. “Something we don’t even have in Louisiana. Do you know what it is?”

People in the tent lean forward in anticipation, and you can hear echoes of “What? What is it?”

“Ohio’s got,” Chef Folse continues as he returns to his prepping, “some real natural refrigeration!”

It’s hard to debate that point, especially in that moment in time. The Fêtes des Bouchers was held outdoors on a crisp fall Saturday in October 2019—the 12th, to be exact—and temperatures were barely in the 40s, not counting the effects of chilly winds.

But, that didn’t stop people from eagerly listening to everything Chef Folse had to say that day, which started out with his saying how honored he was to be at the Culinary Vegetable Institute with Farmer Lee Jones and his entire team, calling the Boucherie an “incredible experience,”—and, the feeling is clearly mutual. After all this prep work, after all our anticipation, it’s hard to believe that it’s finally time to feature Chef John Folse at our first-ever Fêtes des Bouchers.

The Boucherie—or “party of butchers”—is an age-old Southern social tradition where neighbors, friends and families gathered together to butcher and prepare hogs to fill their winter larders. Chef Folse, who is the culinary ambassador of Louisiana, and chef at White Oak Estate and Garden in Baton Rouge—has worked hard to revive this practice to honor its heritage for modern day meat lovers. So, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a cadre of butchers and chefs joined him on that very special day to demonstrate multiple ways a single animal can be prepared.

Chef Folse Shares His Background and Inspirations

In New Orleans, he explained to the Boucherie audience, “the swamp floor was our pantry. We’d go out into the deepest and darkest of the swamp floor because we had no stores, no refrigeration, no commerce. Everything where we grew up was gotten off of the land.”

His father was a trapper, trapping and skinning animals. He’d then sell the furs to merchants who’d come from France to buy them. “Trappers had a code,” he added, “that whatever you caught, you ate. If you skinned an animal, you were going to eat that animal. So, you can imagine growing up in the swamp—there were eight of us children—if he came in with alligator or muskrat or raccoon. The reality is that those were the fresh foods of the day, foods that we were going to cook, and we learned how to do that at a very young age. People used to say that, if you could wash the dirt of the bottom of a green onion, you could cook. If you could use a knife to cut off the roots, then you could cook even better.”

Chef Folse also discussed how food was “omnipresent” in his childhood world, in a time and place when and where everyone respected seasonality. He also shared anecdotes that caused a whole lot of laughter, such as the following. “We used to smoke food,” he admitted to the audience, “in an old 55-gallon drum that we stole from our neighbor. We just painted it a different color. He’d never seen paint before so he didn’t ever figure the smoker was his.”

In Chef Folse’s demonstration, he used a small ham because that’s the size a farmer would have had to feed his family, a size that they’d call a “family ham.” The family would need to eat it in a couple of days because there was no refrigeration.

In his childhood, they’d collect clear rainwater in a cistern (“We didn’t drink swamp water out of the bayou, although you probably think we had”) and then they’d add about two tablespoons of pink salt to some water to cure a ham. Chef Folse demonstrated that process, and he also added pepper to the water—and then the ham would sit for two or three days in a root cellar for preservation purposes.

In another tongue in cheek comment, he claimed that the salt and pepper was always carefully measured—and, before warning attendees not to steal his formula, he began pinching some of each ingredient with his fingers before just tossing it into the water. Afterwards, back in the swamps, they’d also inject some of their curing fluids into the ham, which added even more flavor.

“With eight kids,” he said, “we never worried about enough being left over long enough for the food to spoil. And, if that did happen, we’d just add it to the gumbo. We wouldn’t call it spoiled ham, either. We’d just say it was ‘smoked.’”

Then comes the sugar, treasured in Louisiana, the land of sugar cane plantations. Chef Folse poured cane sugar syrup over the ham, followed by brown sugar, cracked pepper, salt, and cayenne pepper, rubbing it all over the ham for flavor. He then added more cane sugar syrup to create a glaze, washing his hands in the water and claiming that final step added even more flavor to the next ham.

The ham was placed in a sock, with glaze added over top of the sock, as well. “Look how thick and rich that is,” he said, before asking if anyone in the audience had the slightest doubt that this ham would be full of flavor. No one did. He’d then smoke it over select woods. His favorite now is a combo of oak and pecan and, since Native Americans from the Louisiana area believed you should always use three woods, including a fruit or flowering wood that’s native to the area, Chef Folse has adopted that practice at his restaurant.

Stations at the Boucherie

Attendees at the event got to watch chefs at multiple stations prepare recipes; here are the stations and their recipes:

Station 1: Andouille, Sausage, Ponce

Station 2: White Boudin, Red Boudin

Station 3: Hog’s Head Cheese

Station 4: Cracklins

Station 5: Raccoon and Rooster Stew

Station 6: Pork Backbone Stew

Station 7: Pork and Smoked Sausage Sauce Piquante

Station 8: Game Changer

Here’s more about presenters not mentioned elsewhere in this post:

Educational Tent at the Boucherie Festival

From 9 a.m. to 12:30, presentations were being given in a tent, including the one given by Chef John Folse.

The first one was titled Salumi/Charcuterie 101: The Fundamentals of Presentation Traditions by Mark M. DeNittis of DeNCo Enterprises, LLC. In contrast to Chef Folse’s Louisiana accent, Mark has a Massachusetts one that occasionally slips out as he talks enthusiastically about what he does.

In his presentation, he shared processes for creating salumi/charcuterie, which is enjoying a resurgence over the past decade or so. He discussed common cuts, along with curing methods, processing techniques, and safety/sanitation issues, including the challenge points of botulism.

“The problem with botulism,” he said, “is that you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, and it doesn’t get slimy.” Mark then went on to discuss testing procedures and much more for safe food production.

Ron Joyce of Joyce Farms co-presented with Chef John Folse in Dueling Hams: Heritage Breeds and Sugar-Cured Ham Demonstration. Joyce Farms raises poultry, pigs and cattle—including the Gloucester Old Spot, the oldest pedigreed spotted pig in the world, dating back to 1790—and, when growing grazing material for those poultry, pigs and cattle, they use regenerative farming techniques.

This is a practice near and dear to our hearts at The Chef’s Garden and Culinary Vegetable Institute, so we appreciated the example that Ron gave during his presentation. He asked people in the audience to compare a tomato that you can buy at the grocery store to one that we grow at The Chef’s Garden, and he bets that people will clearly notice a “night and day difference” in our favor.

At the Boucherie, he also shared how, at most farms, organic matter in the soil is only one half of one percent. Ideally, he said, it’s four percent. Or five. Or even six. When Joyce Farms began to embrace regenerative agriculture, they were told by experts to expect to need 100 years to return their soil to that type of health. By focusing strongly on regenerative farming practices, though, Joyce Farms was able to accomplish incredible things in just three to four years.

Drinks Served From an Asparagus Trailer

We’re all about repurposing, so the asparagus trailer that we pull around the fields in the springtime to fill it up with farm-fresh asparagus became our outdoor bar. From this transformed trailer, CVI Wine Steward Elizabeth Studer offered a Bloody Mary drink—with or without the vodka—that contained multiple crops from the farm.

“We used three different types of tomato,” she said, “along with pink tipped parsley, cukes with bloom, micro celery and so forth, with carrots used to stir the drink.” Ingredients also included citrus coriander, mustard bloom, arugasabi bloom, fresh horseradish, a fermented serrano chili, onion powder, garlic powder, kimchi flake and more.

Another option was a hot mulled cider, with or without bourbon or spiced rum, containing clove, peppercorn, orange peels and more—plus local beers and an assortment of wine.

Story Behind the Story

Another presentation given in the education tent, offered right before the spoils of the Boucherie were enjoyed, was by history enthusiasts Stephen “Steve” Estopinal and James “Jim” Hunter, who provide Boucherie history at events put on by Chef John Folse.

At these events, Steve—who shows up wearing 1812 militia garb—likes to share how the pig could be credited with saving Western civilization. He admits that might be a bit of stretch yet is a topic that’s interesting to explore. “When Europeans first settled wildness areas in the United States,” Steve explains, “one of the first things they established was a pig population, because a pig is prolific, producing meat quickly, and they’re easy to raise in part because they’ll eat anything.”

Jim, meanwhile, shares relevant local history—which, in the case of Ohio, includes how Cincinnati was once called Porkopolis because of its role in pork production and shipping. In the days when people couldn’t refrigerate their meat, they salted or smoked it. Then, in Cincinnati, they stored the pork products in warehouses before transporting it in barrels to other places, including New Orleans. “The waters of New Orleans,” Jim pointed out, “used to see a thousand steamboats in just one day”—which is why Steve called the Ohio River/Mississippi River the freeway of the 19th century, especially before cross-country railroads existed.

Culinary Vegetable Institute Events

If you were able to attend the Boucherie, we’re thrilled to hear that!

We’ve got plenty of upcoming events, as well, including our November 16th cruciferous and root crop Vegetable Showcase and, on December 21st, our Christmas Tea Party. Hope to see you there!