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On Comet, On Cupid, Andouille! 

Skip the Yule log, get some sausage for the holidays By Ian McNulty Jacob's is one of the renowned sausage makers in LaPlace.

Bailey's

513 W. Airline Hwy., LaPlace

(985) 652-9090; www.baileysandouille.com

Jacob's

505 W. Airline Hwy., LaPlace

(985) 652-9080; www.cajunsausage.com

WJ's Smokehouse

769 W. 5th St., LaPlace

(985) 652-9990

< One way I've found to make Christmas gift shopping a little easier is to buy some old standbys that come pre-wrapped. Of course, these particular gifts are wrapped in butcher paper. A gift of sausage will not win you any praise from someone who might have been expecting an iPhone or a Lexus. But in those cases when it really is the thought that counts rather than the mercantile value, you could do a lot worse than a foot-and-a-half run of andouille. It is a distinctively Louisiana creation, an artisanal product that carries a heritage and a history, and if the timing of your gift giving is on you might get fed in the bargain.

The holiday season is peak andouille time. Sausage makers work full bore from Thanksgiving through New Years to satisfy both gift lists and grocery lists. Cool weather and family holiday gatherings cry out for big simmering pots of gumbo, beans or jambalaya, and andouille can work transformative magic on these dishes, especially when it comes from the right place.

The right place is LaPlace, the town just upriver from the Bonnet Carré Spillway that has bragging rights as 'Andouille Capital of the World." Louisiana has more than its fair share of food-related world capitals, and some of these claims might reflect hometown pride more than hard production figures. But in LaPlace, at least, the andouille crown certainly seems to fit. On one block of Airline Highway in the center of a busy suburban shopping strip, two different smokehouses " Jacob's and Bailey's " turn out thousands of pounds of andouille each week as the holiday season hits high gear. About two miles away, still another smokehouse, WJ's Smokehouse (the initials stand for Wayne Jacob's, though it is not affiliated with Jacob's), seasons the air with its own ambient aroma. For someone who appreciates going to the source, the 30-mile drive to LaPlace from New Orleans is well worth the trip.

Sausage makers in LaPlace say the local andouille prowess comes from the confluence of cultures in their community, part of the River Parishes region known as the German coast.

'Our andouille basically is a German sausage with a French influence, and LaPlace was settled by many Germans," explains David Rauch, owner of WJ's Smokehouse.

German immigrants arrived in the area in the 18th century, bringing their robust sausage making traditions with them, and they developed the regional andouille over the years with their French neighbors. In France, the sausage called andouille is made with tripe and chitterlings. But Louisiana's hybrid interpretation is a meaty mix of lean pork chunks, plenty of pepper and a whole lot of time in the smoker.

A recent foraging trip with stops at Bailey's, Jacob's and WJ's yielded several pounds of andouille and triggered an impromptu group tasting around my kitchen table. These country creations are practically a different species from the andouille brands commonly found in New Orleans grocery stores, and their defining feature is the intensity of the smoking. The procedure differs from shop to shop, but a LaPlace andouille will invariably be smoked for hours, with some makers keeping them over the smoldering wood for up to 12-hour shifts. That smoke really cannot be taken lightly. Even the menus that I brought back with me from the shops smelled of delicious smoke after sharing a bag with the tightly wrapped sausage during the car ride home, like some kind of olfactory advertising ploy. Every time I opened my refrigerator door, I half expected Jacob's andouille, the smokiest of any we tried, to set off my smoke alarm.

The smokiness translates into a mouth-filling flavor that lingers long and can completely suffuse a dish lucky enough to share its company. Bailey's andouille had more of a campfire smokiness to it and tasted most strongly of black pepper. WJ's provided the spiciest example, with the bite of pepper leaping out across the palate from the overall curtain of smoke flavor.

The casings on these andouilles crackle delightfully when crisped on the grill or in the broiler and each one we sampled showed excellent composure. A slice reveals different colors, from pink to brick red to burgundy in the different pieces of meat pressed together. You can easily pull a slice apart into plump, individual components with your fingers.

'Like a fine Italian marble," one friend remarked, examining the striation of white fat glistening between distinct chunks of meat in one slice.

These smokehouses produce much more than andouille. From whole smoked chickens to beef jerky to hogshead cheese, cracklin' and boudin, their menus cover a carnivorous cornucopia. WJ's also has an inexpensive casual restaurant under the same roof as its retail butcher operation, and one serves as a convincing endorsement for the other. It's hard to pass up a cup of gumbo when you know its andouille was smoked on premises, and after finishing a serving most people seem drawn to the retail counter for a pound or so of the stuff to take home.

WJ's even binds these smoky bundles with string, which is not exactly wrapping ribbon but is good enough for such a gift. After all, the delicious smell will give away the nature of the contents long before it is unwrapped.

click to enlarge IAN MCNULTY
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