One fact that always astonishes about the Lewis & Clark Expedition is the sheer amount of meat consumed by the men. Because of the extreme physical labor, the men consumed an average of six pounds of meat every day on the trail, keeping the hunters constantly busy. Naturally, the meat consumption was not evenly distributed. During some segments of the journey, the Corps of Discovery was near starvation. Other times, they were free to gorge their depleted bodies on all the deer, elk, and buffalo they could hold.
But even in times of plenty, they were missing something that we human beings crave in our diet: variety. Which explains why in May 1805, Toussaint Charbonneau was a pretty popular guy among the men of the Corps.
Better known to history today as “Mr. Sacagawea,” Charbonneau was a Quebecois fur trader and interpreter who had spent most of his life in present-day North Dakota among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. By the time he met Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the winter of 1804-05, he had somehow come into the possession of two teenage wives, one of whom was the pregnant Shoshone kidnap victim, Sacagawea. Lewis & Clark realized that the young woman could be invaluable in helping befriend her people, who lived at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and help the Corps negotiate for horses and information.
To gain Sacagawea’s services, they had to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter, and the couple, along with newborn Jean-Baptiste (Pompy), joined the Corps of Discovery when it head west out of Fort Mandan in April 1805. Often depicted in fiction and art as a beat-up old cuss, Charbonneau was only 46 years old at the most (which still made him the oldest member of the Corps). Apparently possessed of a certain rascally charm, he nevertheless didn’t seem to have much on the ball for all his years in the wilderness. The ever-reliable Pierre Cruzatte threatened to shoot Charbonneau after a bone-headed panic on the river placed the boats in jeopardy, and Clark (who later became fond of Charbonneau), laconically records that he “checked” the older man for striking Sacagawea.
For his part, Lewis records multiple instances of complete exasperation with Charbonneau. I can only imagine the screaming ass-chewing encapsulated by Lewis’s words, “I could not forbear from speaking to him with some asperity.” He later immortalized Charbonneau with a not-very-glowing performance appraisal: “a man of no particular merit.”
But one thing you have to say about Charbonneau: he may not have been smart, hard-working, handsome, or a good husband, but the man could cook — no small asset on a two-year camping trip. His most memorable dish was boudin blanc, a traditional sausage pudding. On May 9, 1805, Charbonneau’s cooking and humorous antics inspired Meriwether Lewis to recreate the recipe in a flight of gastronomic ecstasy and comic inspiration that still ranks as one of his most memorable journal passages:
I also killed one buffaloe which proved to be the best meat, it was in tolerable order; we saved the best of the meat, and from the cow I killed we saved the necessary materials for making what our wrighthand cook Charbono calls the boudin blanc. and immediately set him about preparing them for supper; this white pudding we all esteem one of the greatest delacies of the forrest, it may not be amiss therefore to give it a place.
About 6 feet of the lower extremity of the large gut of the Buffaloe is the first mosel that the cook makes love to, this he holds fast at one end with the right hand, while with the forefinger and thumb of the left he gently compresses it, and discharges what he says is not good to eat, but of which in the squel we get a moderate portion; the mustle lying underneath the shoulder blade next to the back, and filletes are next saught, these are needed up very fine with a good portion of kidney suit [suet]; to this composition is then added a just proportion of pepper and salt and a small quantity of flour.
Thus far advanced, our skilfull opporater C—o seizes his recepticle, which has never once touched the water, for that would intirely distroy the regular order of the whole procedure; you will not forget that the side you now see is that covered with a good coat of fat provided the anamal be in good order; the operator sceizes the recepticle I say, and tying it fast at one end turns it inwards and begins now with repeated evolutions of the hand and arm, and a brisk motion of the finger and thumb to put in what he says is bon pour manger; thus by stuffing and compressing he soon distends the recepticle to the utmost limmits of it’s power of expansion, and in the course of it’s longtudinal progress it drives from the other end of the recepticle a much larger portion of the [blank] than was prevously discharged by the finger and thumb of the left hand in a former part of the operation.
Thus when the sides of the recepticle are skilfully exchanged the outer for the iner, and all is compleatly filled with something good to eat, it is tyed at the other end, but not any cut off, for that would make the pattern too scant; it is then baptised in the missouri with two dips and a flirt, and bobbed into the kettle; from whence after it be well boiled it is taken and fryed with bears oil untill it becomes brown, when it is ready to esswage the pangs of a keen appetite or such as travelers in the wilderness are seldom at a loss for.—
Boudin (pronounced BOO-dan) is still one of the distinct dishes of the Franco-American culture. Today it is one of the signature dishes of south Louisiana. People in Cajun country take their boudin seriously and there are as many opinions about what makes good boudin as there are stands selling it. Many of the recipes have come down for generations.
Besides links, boudin can also be formed into balls, deep-fried, and served as an appetizer. I once had this dish at the late, great, Crazy Cajun in Seabrook, Texas and it was the best thing I ever ate. Bar none.
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