Here's how the nightmare begins: I'm in a doctor's office, awaiting the results of some test. The doctor enters the room, shakes his head sadly and tells me that I will die very soon unless I immediately cut sausage from my diet.
"What kind?" I ask the dream doctor.
"Doesn't matter. All kinds," he says.
"Isn't there another way? Couldn't I just quit drinking? Take up yoga?"
"No, it's the sausage. It has to go," my tormentor tells me.
Then I wake up -- shaken but relieved that it was just a bad dream -- and I head straight for Creole Country.
Like artisanal bakers or cheese makers, Creole Country is a sausage maker that transforms raw ingredients into food as rich in local heritage as it is in flavor -- and all the things that the doctor in my dreams would warn me against. There are ropes of hot pork sausage singing with cayenne, paprika and garlic; plump andouille carrying the smoky taste of the Cajun prairies with chunks of coarsely ground pork shoulder; chewy, brick-red tasso; blocks of spicy head cheese looking like thick, brown gumbo captured in aspic; moist boudin, fiery chaurice, alligator sausage and crawfish sausage and enough other varieties to make this small, neighborhood business a veritable tasting room of the charcuterie traditions of south Louisiana.
Some Creole Country products are sold at local independent grocery stores and all of them are available for sale at its plant, although a visit is far from your normal retail experience. The business is practically hidden in the shell of a converted shotgun house on a Mid-City backstreet (512 David St.) and -- like calling on someone at home -- visitors need to ring a doorbell to get in. Still, there's a good chance people who have never even heard of the brand name have sampled its creations, as have plenty of guests at downtown hotels.
Creole Country's sausage goes into gumbos, tops pizzas and is added to pasta and soup and stuffing at a long list of restaurants, including many of the Brennan family establishments, the Creole grande dames Arnaud's and Broussard's, the down home-style eatery Mother's, take-out booths in the French Market, the Sheraton, Hilton and Royal Sonesta hotels and the local World Trade Center's Plimsoll Club to name just a few. Hunters bring fresh deer here to be turned into custom batches of venison sausage, and chefs across town entrust their own proprietary sausage recipes to Creole Country for production.
The business is run by Vaughn Schmitt, an affable, burly New Orleans native who exudes goodwill -- even if it often takes the form of gentle sarcasm or feigned fury as he jokes around with the five other people who work with him. He is heir to the sausage legacy begun in 1979 by his parents, Fabiola and Frederick, who were known as Fab and Ricker. Fab was a native of Church Point, a hotbed for great Cajun sausage, and Ricker had been utilities director at New Orleans City Hall during most of the 1970s. After he retired from civil service, the couple took a two-week crash course in sausage making at Oklahoma State University and promptly began tutoring themselves on the more robust sausage recipes of south Louisiana. In 1984, Creole Country was chosen to represent local savories at a booth at the World's Fair in New Orleans and later it had a retail outlet at the Lakeside Mall in Metairie, which has since closed.
Ricker died in 1995, while Fab died at age 81 in April, the same month Creole Country reopened after Hurricane Katrina.
"She waited till we got the place open again, then she left," says Deanie Bowen, Schmitt's business partner.
The business took about 4 feet of floodwater after the levees failed, but there is no trace of the damage inside now. The company's client base is a different story, since many of the restaurants it supplied are still closed. On a normal day before the storm, Schmitt usually shipped 1,200 pounds of finished product; a good day now might see 750 pounds of the stuff leave his doors. But the recipes survived, which is all Schmitt says he needs to rebuild his business.
"Thank God my mother wrote it all down for us, step one, step two, like that," says Schmitt.
Schmitt has stuck to faithful renditions of his parents' recipes but expanding the product line means playing in the test kitchen. This is a simple affair with a cluttered table, a short fridge and an electric range of the type you might find in an under-furnished apartment. The test kitchen also qualifies as the Creole Country hospitality center, where Schmitt or Bowen often throw on an apron to cook samples of their staple products or new recipes for regular customers who drop by, potential clients on a tour or delivery men making their rounds. Whenever they do, a chocolate Labrador named Buster emerges from the office upstairs, confined on the stairway by a baby gate and licking his chops as the sausage cooks tantalizingly a few feet away. Buster was watching the day Schmitt came up with his recipe for a trimmed-down andouille made with turkey instead of pork.
"I made some for the Elmwood Fitness Center, I guess they're trying to stay healthy," Schmitt says with tolerant bemusement. "But really, you just season it the same way and it's nice and sweet and moist."
Tasting a couple of coins of the sliced turkey andouille over Creole Country's stove reveals that it is indeed. I hope I can remember to bring up this leaner sausage the next time that doctor comes to haunt my dreams.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Vaughn Schmitt and Deanie Bowen hang out with the links at Creole Country.