Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) was an exceedingly modern fellow by our standards. He was a lawyer and politician by trade, but he is best known as one of the earliest practitioners of the gastronomic essay. He was, quite possibly, the world’s first foodie. It is he who coined the aphorism, “you are what you eat.” His wording was actually “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” but history, it seems, found the delivery of this version a bit wordy.
At its most basic, this famous saying is metaphysically correct. Your food, after all, makes up your body. It is also generally a good dietary maxim. Eat poorly, feel much the same. But this saying has far broader implications. You are what you eat, in that what you eat often determines who you eat with.
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Treif is the opposite of kosher. It can be broken down into two basic types: food explicitly prohibited by the Old Testament, and food not prepared according to specific procedures. Pork and shellfish are always out.1 Beef is allowed provided it’s slaughtered properly and is free of disease or defect; the blood is drained, usually by salting; and it is not prepared, consumed, or sold with any dairy products. Consequently, kosher Jews do not know the exquisite joy that is the cheeseburger. I am a Reform Jew, and we don’t keep kosher. Other movements, the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, for example, are strict adherents.
I was raised in Lawrence, New York, more commonly known to the citizens of Long Island as one of the “Five Towns.”2 It was once home to wealthy Protestant families, many tracing land title back to the Revolutionary War, but from the 1950s through the 1980s, Reform Jews came onto the scene and basically took over the place. This is when my parents moved in. By the time I was born, in 1980, the seeds of a now nearly complete transition had already been planted, and the trend was clear: Lawrence was on its way to becoming a modern Orthodox Jewish town. Kosher restaurants were not hard to find, and anyway, most large affairs were held at temples, which served kosher food.
The Five Towns had lots of Italian, Chinese, and other types of seafood, all of which, obviously, did not conform to Jewish dietary law, and most of my community ate of this cuisine heartily, though not wholly shamelessly. I had more than one friend whose family maintained a stash of disposable flatware and dishes for use when indulging in treif, as if God were rendered blind by a Dixie paper plate.
The captain of team treif is pork. As a result, in the Five Towns, the pig and its myriad consumable parts, capable of countless delectable preparations, rarely found its way onto most menus. With the exception of bacon eaten at Greek-owned diners, roast pork from Chen’s Chinese Kitchen, and the occasional nonkosher frank at a ball game (my family not being particularly culinarily inclined), the pig remained to me an undiscovered country.
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Three years ago I moved to New Orleans. For two years, my home was the left side of a French Quarter double shotgun house. My landlords were a close law school friend and his sister. For a month or two I had the place to myself while searching for a roommate. The task proved challenging, because no matter how charming my self-description on Craigslist, people just don’t want to move in with a random person. Having experienced this, I was somewhat surprised to learn that I was to have a new roommate who had agreed, via text message, to move in sight unseen.
Jason Darensbourg is from New Roads, Louisiana, a town possessed of a rich Creole tradition. He had secured work as a chef at a highly regarded restaurant in the French Quarter. His commute would be less than ten minutes on foot. Jason makes an impression. Example: Early in our cohabitation, the subject of gruesome wildlife encounters came up, and I bragged of once removing a dead and bloated rat from my driveway. Jason, not be undone, informed us of a time that he was elbow deep in the practice of bovine husbandry. I doubt if those present remember my story. None will forget Jason’s.
We are, to put it mildly, somewhat different—a modern iteration of the odd couple. He is a Creole chef from Louisiana. I am a Jewish lawyer from Long Island. I have neuroses that define me. He is capable of a marvelous devil-may-care abandon. Once for Mardi Gras, he costumed, not unconvincingly, as the Kool-Aid man, eventually losing his voice to hundreds of boisterous yawps of “Oh Yeah!” I went as an ’80s jogger.3 Within a week he bet me that I would gain twenty pounds in our first year living together.4
Jason isn’t a foodie in the mold of the late Brillat-Savarin. What he is, quite simply, is a master of Cajun and Creole cooking. You have not lived until you have had his jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée, red and white beans. Add in his crawfish boils, and I have literally seen this man cook more than 1,000 pounds of nonkosher food. However, these celebrated dishes do not necessitate pork, though sausage often features prominently. Jason’s passion for pig goes beyond pork’s relationship with traditional Southern Louisiana cuisine.5 The pig, for Jason, was inextricably intertwined into the fabric of his community of friends and family. His innate respect, even reverence, for this animal led me toward fulfilling Brillat-Savarin’s maxim. And for a period on one year, I was what I ate.
On Sunday evenings, we held a “family meal,” during which our neighbors would all come together to enjoy the communion born of shared consumption. One such Sunday, I had friends in town, and it was Jason’s turn to cook.6 On the menu was a trifecta of treif: pork loin stuffed with boudin (dirty rice pork sausage), wrapped in a patchwork of bacon. My friends, Long Islanders all, were inspired not only by the food but by our tradition. Oddly enough, in breaking with a tradition I never truly held, I participated in the formation of another that suited me well.
In the spring of 2012, Jason and I traveled to New Roads for his family’s Easter dinner. The back seat was occupied by a cooler containing the almost complete remnants of a full pig, roasted only the day before in our backyard.7 Our friends’ Easter celebration had not resulted in its consumption, and so Jason was gifted a porcine passenger for our trip the next day. Once the meal was done, Jason revealed his treasure to his Uncle Pete. I had heard of Uncle Pete and was eager to meet the man who taught Jason what he knew about traditional cooking. With alacrity, Jason and his mentor swung the pig by its hooves onto an outstretched folding table. Pete, hacksaw in hand, made swift work of his specimen, butchering specific cuts as he earmarked them for future meals. Gob smacked, I drew playful derision from Jason. Without looking up from his work, Pete stopped me dead. “I know it’s all sort of a funny thing for you to see. But back in the day, when there were a lot of us living farm next to farm, it was a community. And slaughtering a pig was a big deal. You would all get together and decide whose turn it was to give one up. So I just hate to let it go to waste.”
“You’ll eat all of that,” I asked?
“Sure. We’ll let you know when.”
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Indeed. It takes some time before one earns a place as a local member of the community. For me, that process is taking place one meal at a time.
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1. Interestingly enough, also verboten are the osprey and the bearded vulture. This prohibition is one of those rules that reveals something about the past. It truly is a head scratcher that God had to step in and stop his people from eating an animal popularly known as the bearded vulture. Another example of such rules is the Third Amendment to the United States Constitution, one of America’s vaunted Bill of Rights, which prohibits the quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner’s consent. Apparently, that used to be a problem.
2. This odd name achieved a modicum of fame when used as the title for a fictional film project spearheaded by the lead character Vince in the HBO series Entourage.
3. We also differ on baseball. I am an avid fan of the New York Yankees, and for some godforsaken reason, Jason, a Louisianan, favors an unmentionable team from Boston.
4. There is an open dispute as to whether this bet was originally pegged to ten or twenty pounds. That said, I did not eclipse ten, stopping only at eight. I owe my victory to the gym membership that I purchased only a few weeks after our wager.
5. We celebrated Jason’s birthday with a baseball shaped piñata filled with packaged sausage and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The power of his swing was only matched by his delight at the discovery of the orb’s contents.
6. Incidentally, it was almost always Jason’s turn to cook. We celebrated his moving in by giving him the privilege of cooking us grits and grillades.
7. The roasting took place in a contraption known as a Cajun microwave, which was constructed from scratch just the day before. Just Google it.