Not a decade ago, Louisiana sausages were regional treats, the Cajuns snacking on hot boudin, cooks along the river seasoning their gumbos with andouille from a few local butchers, and New Orleanians sandwiching their hot, smoked and Italian sausages in French bread.
Today, andouille is a household word in California and might just as easily be heard in Baltimore or Kansas. Boudin, too, has reached the masses, and sausages generally have gotten hotter and more highly seasoned nationwide as part of the fallout of the Cajun craze of the '80s.
"There's all sorts of variety today," says John A. Manda, president and chief executive officer of Manda Fine Meats in Baton Rouge. Smoked pork was the basic ingredient of sausage made for years in Louisiana. "I don't remember anything else until about five years ago," Mr. Manda says.
Now Mr. Manda distributes a variety of sausages in 26 states as the local taste for the spicy food items has spread throughout the country. "Ours are more seasoned than sausages from other parts of the country, and people love flavor; I don't care what they're buying," he says.
Louisianians flavor their sausages with many seasonings -- green onion, cheese, barbecue sauce. And the changes haven't stopped there. Most sausages are getting leaner, some with only 10 percent fat; many with a fat content of 15 to 25 percent. (New labels cite percentages.) And many are made partly of chicken or turkey in addition to pork and beef. Mr. Manda says that sausage sales are booming, perhaps partly because they're now leaner.
And Louisiana chefs share credit with Cajun/Creole cooking shows on television for making sausages best sellers. "John Folse, Justin Wilson, Paul Prudhomme have made [Louisiana sausages] popular," Mr. Manda says.
Vaughn Schmitt, a member of the family that owns Creole Country, a Louisiana sausage factory, says that andouille and tasso, a smoked seasoning meat, are popular in pastas and other upscale dishes in restaurants everywhere.
Mr. Schmitt cites health concerns as a factor in his business. "I'm selling more turkey than I used to," he says. "People come in here with heart problems, and they can order 10 pounds of turkey sausage with no salt." Mr. Schmitt, who makes heart-healthy sausages for a local hospital, says allspice and other seasonings are used in place of salt, and "it still tastes good."
In the world of sausage making, Peter Giovenco describes himself as a sort of "subcontractor." The St. Rose butcher takes in wild game from hunters and makes sausage from it -- turtles, alligator, rabbit, seafood, duck, rattlesnake. "I do what most people don't want to do," he says. "If somebody wants wine and cheese or nuts or raisins in it [the sausage], I'm the guy that's going to do it."
Mr. Giovenco combines pork and the wild game of choice with Louisiana seasonings that he blends himself. The seasoning, he says, "makes all the difference in the world." In addition to pepperand spices, Mr. Giovenco usually adds onions, green onions and parsley to sausage. Some Italian sausage calls for anise or fennel seeds, depending on what the customer wants.
A Louisiana butcher for 29 years, Mr. Giovenco says the differences in sausages have long varied from community to community.
"Italian sausage varied from Chalmette to Baton Rouge. Everybody had their own idea about how to make it. Some put parsley and green onion in it, some put anise, and others, fennel seeds.
"Boudin was made for years primarily by country people. It's the same thing as Cajun rice -- just cooked rice, pork and liver. They slaughtered a hog and used the casings to stuff the sausage. Theydidn't throw away anything."
Even the snouts were used back then, and rice was used to pad the meat scraps and liver that produced boudin, he says.
Andouille, he recalls, was "a souped-up smoked sausage with about a 5 to 95 ratio of fat to lean." A highly seasoned product, it was made in the country, especially in the LaPlace, La., area. Dubbed the Andouille Capital of the World, LaPlace still is the home of some of the best andouille, although the sausage is now made throughout the state and in other states as well.
"In Louisiana we don't have rules when it comes to food," he says.
Maybe nutria sausage, Mr. Giovenco says.