Hog Heaven: Cooking and Eating Our Way to a Healthier Coast
More than 400 people convened at Docville Farm in Violet, Louisiana on November 18th for the first annual Cook-Off for the Coast. This tailgate party raised awareness of coastal restoration efforts—a cause close to southern Louisianians' hearts and homes. As Jessica Vallelungo, Career and Technical Education Coordinator for the St. Bernard Parish Schools and a St. Bernard native, tells it, “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the erosion. I’ve seen the changes in the landscape, especially post-Katrina. The first time I came back, I was shocked at the change that had happened in such a short time.”
Six amateur cook teams, including Vallelungo’s Chalmete High School Owls, battled it out in a wild boar cooking competition. Each cook team was provided with 20 pounds of USDA-certified boneless butchered wild boar legs from Charlie’s Sausage. Judges included St. Bernard Parish’s First Lady Laura McInnis, NASA Rocket Scientist and BBQ Pitmaster Howard Conyers, and Poppy Tooker, host of the NPR-affiliated radio show Louisiana Eats. The teams were judged on taste, originality and presentation. Team Valero took first place with their Hog Nachos, but Team Isleños’ Smoked Hog Jambalaya was the crowd favorite.
Wild hogs are an invasive species that are detrimental to coastal wetlands. They dig into levees, trample coastal plants and outcompete native animals. “The wild boar are wreaking havoc on [our] system,” explains Katherine Tommaseo, Director of Tourism for St. Bernard Parish. Fortunately, as Chef Nathan Richard of Cavan sees it, these instinctual hog behaviors “make it even better to eat.” Tooker, who won the Elite Airboat Hog Hunting trip in the silent auction, will soon be doing her part for the coast.
For those who’d had their fill of swine, cooking demonstrations highlighted coastal-friendly seafood. Chef Richard prepared Snapping Turtle Bourguignon, Chef Philippe Perola of Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em served up Asian Carp Cakes, and Chef Robert Vasquez of Briquette shared his recipe for Wild Catfish Tacos.
Folks headed for home—or straight to the LSU vs. Tennessee game—with full bellies, reflecting on what the coast means to them. As hometown hero Happy Johnson, Chief Resilience Officer for the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development explained, “The coast is our heritage. It’s our land. It’s everything that makes Louisiana a very special place, and so we need it for the seafood that we love to eat. We need it for a shield from storm surge. And we need it for shelter in terms of habitat.”
Cook-Off for the Coast was hosted by the St. Bernard Parish Coastal Division and co-sponsored by Restore the Mississippi River Delta along with the Meraux Foundation; Culinaria Center for Food Law, Policy and Culture; Propeller; Water Works; and Louisiana Sea Grant. In total, the event raised more than $4,400, which will be granted to St. Bernard Wetlands Foundation in support of tree planting to help reduce impacts from storm surge and flooding, as well as improve water quality and create habitat for fish and wildlife.
Jasmine Nielsen is a food writer and nonprofit management consultant. She teaches in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies and consults with organizations in New York City and New Orleans.