Boudin: A Story Of Sausage, Slavery And Rebellion In The Caribbean

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A report by Melissa Banigan for NPR.

The making of boudin is a visceral, bloody and time-consuming process in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe. Boudin — a name that comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “sausage” — was first recorded in ancient Greece by a cook named Aphtonite. A variation of it was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as a stomach filled with blood and fat roasted over a fire.

Halfway around the world and thousands of years later, boudin was brought to some of the Caribbean islands by colonists. Yet unlike in mainland Europe, every bite retraces the dark history of colonization, the celebration of the abolition of slavery and postcolonial culture in Guadeloupe.

In the territory’s beach town of Gosier, Pascal Maxo makes two kinds of boudin, using recipes that have been in his family for generations. Artistry is required in making the fortifying, iron-rich stuff, and there’s no rushing the job.

To prepare, Maxo first heads to the butcher to buy a vat of fresh pig’s blood, the main ingredient of boudin rouge Antillais (Antillean red boudin). If using blood as an ingredient seems strange, one must remember that historically, the slaughter of a pig was an infrequent event. Cooking blood, which otherwise would go bad quickly in the days before refrigeration, was a way to use every part of the precious animal — from tail to snout.

Boudin rouge Antillais resembles a Creole version made in Louisiana, but one of its spices, graine de bois d’inde (seed of wood from India), is endemic to the West Indies and really sets the sausage on its own pedestal. The seed grows on Pimenta racemosa trees, and like many spices and fruits grown in the Caribbean islands, it is macerated in rum before being ground into a powder.

Rum, an alcohol produced from sugar, has a dark history. Christopher Columbus couldn’t possibly have foreseen how sugar would become “white gold” when he first brought sugar cane seedlings with him on his second voyage to what he called the “New World” in 1493. By the early 1600s, sugar cane was brought by the Dutch to the Caribbean islands, forever changing the islands’ fates.

Indigenous peoples were enslaved and forced to work on the burgeoning sugar plantations, and diseases introduced by colonizers from Europe and Africa wiped out entire communities. The “Triangular Trade” quickly developed among Africa, the Caribbean islands and the New England coast of what would become the United States, and indigenous peoples were replaced by African slaves to keep up with the growing demand for sugar.

Toward the end of the 1700s and well into the next century, ending slavery involved battles and revolutions. The British, Swedish and French took turns swapping control of the territory, and in the midst of all the changing hands, during the French Revolution the territory’s governor emancipated all people living as slaves. This emancipation, however, was short-lived as the French army fought to regain control of the territory. Unwilling to once again be subjugated, a mulatto officer in the resistance movement named Louis Delgrès led an uprising of 800 against the French army in 1802. Overtaken by soldiers, but unwilling to surrender, Delgrès and up to 500 followers, both men and women, shouted “Vivre libre ou mourir!” (“Live free or die!”) just moments before lighting a large store of gunpowder, effectively committing suicide while taking out many French troops.

Although Napoleon reinstated slavery, it didn’t last long and was abolished in Guadeloupe in 1848, at which point indentured Tamil servants from India were brought to the territory to work in the sugar cane fields. Today, the territory is still reeling from colonialism and slavery. Békés, or “white people born in the Antilles,” are the descendants of the earliest European colonizers in the French Caribbean. Despite being the minority, they still own much of the land and local industry, and deep racial and ethnic inequities prompted low-income workers to strike throughout the French Caribbean in 2009. Agreements were made with the government that ended the strike, but tensions remain high.

Unlike typical boudin from European countries or the southern United States, Guadeloupe’s version blends spices — some of them infused with rum made in the area — from Africa, Europe, India and the Caribbean. Each family uses a different mélange in its recipes, and Maxo’s family is no exception.

Maxo and his friends carefully prepare a mixture of blood, spices and bread that has been softened in water, then push the blend slowly through a large metal funnel into casings that are tied off into sausages. Despite using clean towels to mop up, blood still pools over the table and onto the floor. The twisted ropes of sausage are reminiscent of wet entrails, and the smell of blood in the tropical heat is heavy and pervasive. Maxo drops heavy coils of boudin into boiling water and then strings them up over a clothesline to dry.

Midmorning, Maxo turns on some music and breaks out a few snacks — ham, cornichons and ti punch, a rum drink made with a touch of sugar and lime. Each of the four boudin-makers has a different job. One person fills the funnel, another fills the casings, a third ties off the individual boudin, and the last is a floater who does anything else that needs doing. When one person tires of a job, a friend steps in. When the boudin are finally finished in the early afternoon, the area is cleaned and prepared for the next day.

Boudin blanc Antillais (Antillean white boudin) differs from blood sausage in that it’s typically made from a porridge of milk, bread and meats such as chicken or ham. Maxo, however, makes his boudin blanc from fish, one of the more popular foods in the territory. Although he enjoys a spicy boudin, his wife, Frédérique, who was raised in mainland France, prefers hers a little less fiery.

Friends and family gather just days after the boudin is prepared. Eaten with the fingers, both varieties are soft and dense. Whereas in France, boudin rouge is typically served with a light-bodied Beaujolais or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, boudin Antillais is generally washed down with un doigt of rum, and the table is often set with yellow, lime and orange plates and decorations and Madras-pattered napkins derived from Indian influence.

Although true aficionados of boudin Antillais probably don’t seek out the sausage to retrace its history, each bite taken by Maxo and his friends is a savory culmination of flavors and culinary processes developed over thousands of years.

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