When Eunice icon Johnson’s Grocery closed in 2005, it was the end of an era for the family-run market which has a legitimate claim to being the first shop to sell boudin commercially. Arneastor Johnson opened his grocery in 1939 with a small ice-box for milk, which he updated to a refrigerated meat cooler right after World War II. He sold pork and beef locally ranched on the Cajun prairie, smoked in the homemade smoke house behind the grocery, and started selling boudin, which at that time was solely a product of family boucheries. Arnestor’s four sons, Wallace, Steven, Matthew and Joe grew up in the market and became experts in the prairie arts of smoked meat: pure pork sausage, pork sausage with garlic, “mixed” (pork and beef), mixed with garlic, beef sausage, turkey sausage and andouille, ponce (smoked, sausage-stuffed pig stomach,) tasso, bacon, ribs and beef jerky. While the meat market at the back of the shop was a destination for those familiar with the quality of the Johnson family sausages, the grocery struggled, as mom and pop places do, and finally went under, unable to compete with the Wal-Martization of America. “A lot of the customers we built on were friends,” Wallace Johnson, told The Ind three years ago. “A lot of them passed away. Nothing lasts forever.”
Wallace’s daughter, Lori Walls, is about to make him eat his words. “I really missed the sausage,” she says, standing in the quirky aluminum-clad building her husband, Greg Walls, an intern architect and contractor built for her. Johnson’s Boucaniére, an homage to her father, opens today. Located on St. John Street, right down from St. John’s Cathedral, Lori is smoking her own sausages, tassos and jerky, prairie-style in the heart of downtown Lafayette. She’s been working on her recipes while her husband built the small shop. Her uncle Matthew helped with seasoning, and Wallace taught her how to stuff sausage. “When I make sausage at the house,” Lori says, “my dad’s there every time.”
The smokehouse at Johnson’s Boucaniére is a far cry from the small smoke shed behind Johnson’s Grocery. Up in Eunice, the smokehouse Arneastor Johnson built was a closet-sized cinder block affair. Wooden dowels, smoked to a charred black over the years were draped with ropes of sausage, then an oak fire was lit in a little metal pan on the dirt floor, the door was sealed, and the meat smoked for hours. On a clear day with little humidity, the smoked meat came out deep, succulent red. Customers came for some sausage for their beans or sauce piquant and usually left with a link of Johnson’s signature boudin, a warm baked sweet potato from the basket near the register, and if they were lucky, a cup of the strong coffee the Johnson brothers drank in the morning, hand dripped in an old white porcelain pot in the shop’s kitchen.
Lori has tripled the size of the smoking operation here in Lafayette. Her smokehouse has four compartments, each with its own metal firebox and sealed with a shiny stainless steel door. But she’s still burning oak, as her family did. Up front, the floors and counters are gleamingly modern, but an old garde mangé or pie safe her great grandfather built to hold the family’s food in the days before refrigeration graces a corner. Another familiar sight is the grocery’s wooden vegetable bin, worn smooth by the daily touch of hundreds of hands, which holds another Louisiana tradition, Zapp’s chips, to go along with the daily offering.
Lori’s generation has had to learn a new business model in order to keep the old smokehouse traditions alive. She’s serving lunch. Sausage poboys, pulled pork sandwiches and a daily plate lunch special are the newest addition to the downtown noontime scene. Today’s menu, she suggests, may be red beans and rice, made with her own sausage of course. She’s planning a sausage and tasso sauce piquante soon. And Friday, look forward to meatballs and spaghetti, made from her own fresh garlic sausage recipe. Wallace Johnson is a modest man, it’s hard to get him talking about himself usually. So when he praises his daughter, it means a lot. “I’m very proud of her,” he says.
Johnson’s Boucaniére, 1111 St. John, phone 269-8878.