When I arrive at the hidden farm tucked down a dirt road on Wadmawlaw, there's still mist coming off Bohicket Creek. But even at this early hour, the farm is a whirl of activity. Five dozen chefs, many familiar faces, roam around the property, some set up mise en place on card tables, others hook up cowboy cauldrons, all in preparation for the blood letting that's about to go down. Yes, I said blood letting. That's what we're all here for. It's Tank Jackson's second annual Blood on the River: A Lowcountry Boucherie, and in mere moments a 300-pound Ossobaw hog will be shot and slaughtered, kicking off the next 12 hours of butchering the likes of which this city slicker has never seen.
But let me back up. Jackson's Blood on the River wasn't conceived as a giant butchering tutorial.
"Originally it was gonna be a farm party. You know, make people aware of our products," says Jackson who, in addition to raising heritage breed hogs for his Holy City Hogs Farm, also raises cows, goats, and chickens for eggs. But that was before Jackson met Cajun chef Toby Rodriguez. An expert in traditional Cajun butchering, for the past two years Rodriguez has led the Blood on the River attendees (all but a few invited guests) in how to breakdown a pig from snout-to-tail. That's what I witnessed last year.
After said Ossobaw was shot in the head (twice, the first shot missed), chefs jumped into action, carrying the giant carcass to a raised wood table. From there, Rodriguez directed the crowd on how to scrape the pig's fur clean. Removing fistfuls of corse black hair to the oddly appropriate sounds of Zydeco music, the knife-wielding volunteers made quick work of it. The pig, who had just an hour before been snorting in the back of a horse trailer, was swiftly shorn pink, his chest cavity sawed open by Rodriguez standing above.
It was one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I've ever had. And I never thought I'd say this but it's one I'm eager to experience again on Sun. Oct. 23 when Jackson's third Blood on the River takes place.
This year, however, will be different. Rodriguez is touring with his own boucherie, so Jackson's brought in another celebrated chef, Thibodaux, Louisiana native Nathan Richard of New Orleans' King Fish restaurant. Richard will lead this year's butchering event.
"And I lucked out because John Folse — a 70-year-old chef out of Louisiana — asked to be a part of it too," says Jackson.
Needless to say, Folse is much more than a 70-year-old chef out of Louisiana. He's a living legend when it comes to Creole and Cajun cuisine. A few highlights of his esteemed career: he opened his acclaimed Lafitte's Landing Restaurant in 1978; he hosted the PBS show "A Taste of Louisiana with Chef John Folse & Co.;" he's written 10 cookbooks; and he was the first non-Italian chef to prepare a Vatican State Dinner in Rome. His nickname, the dean of Cajun cuisine, is more than earned. And he's the perfect person to join Jackson's cadre of culinary whizzes for this year's event.
Folse was born in St. James Parish in 1946. The third of eight children, he was raised by his father after his mother died when he was 7.
"John Folse lived the boucheries," Jackson says. "His daddy was a trapper in the Louisiana swamps. He told me one of his fondest memories as a kid was when his Grandmama would send them to the porch and on the porch was a basket that was full of hog lard. They'd keep their sausages inside it submerged. So when somebody wanted a sausage, they had to go and reach their hand in there to get the sausages out."
Folse's father never remarried, but, according to the Clarion Herald, he had help raising the kids from Mary Ferchard, his African-American neighbor. Folse grew up calling her St. Mary because, he said, "she was a gift from God." She was also one hell of a cook, and encouraged Folse's culinary interests. And for his part, Folse will share the traditional Acadian preparation of how pigs were processed before the days of refrigeration. But that's just part of the event schedule.
The weekend really kicks off Saturday when Jackson says it's 100 percent workshop. "The cow, the goats, the turkey, the rabbits, the lambs, we're gonna kill all that stuff on Saturday then do the butchery demonstration," he says. Suffice it to say, this is no relaxed farm party, it's a real deal, two-day, hands-on, get in the guts, culinary education. So fittingly the guestlist reads like a who's who of the Charleston F&B scene."Robert Stehling from Hominy is going to come out Sunday morning and after we shoot and clean the pig, he'll have a breakfast he's going to prepare with some of our pork," says Jackson. Craig Deihl of Artisan Meat Share and Cypress will be on hand, likely involved in butchering the pig. Then there's Chef BJ Dennis who is going to do a traditional Gullah Geechee presentation on vegetable cultivars.
"It's all about whole animal usage," says Jackson. "All restaurants have to be slave to the bottom dollar. Our food system is broken. I can't blame that just on chefs. There are a lot of chefs out there who really care, but their space might not be big enough to break down a whole cow. There are financial limitations. Some of the chefs who come to these events have never shot a gun or killed an animal. For them to take part in the taking of a life, they leave with a greater respect of a whole animal. They'll leave wanting to try something different. Whether they can do it on a regular basis or not, when you serve food and you're in a high speed setting, you're just trying to turn and burn, oftentimes you forget that what you're turning and burning was a life form and breathing at some point just like you and me. It's about respecting the animals and appreciating that when you put it on a plate — appreciating where it comes from and how it lived."
There are a handful of tickets left to the Sunday portion of Blood on the River. Tickets are $250 and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.