Our 500 po boys survey of the best sandwich makers in greater New Orleans continues apace as we visit Vance Vaucresson, the scion of a family whose sausage-making roots extends all the way back to the 19th century.
Zella Palmer, director of The Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture, recently booked Mr Vaucresson to conduct a demo on his family’s 7th Ward forcemeat business at Dillard University .
Little did we know that along with a seminar on sausage making we would get a tranformational lecture on Creole culture and the importance of community stakeholders maintaining a presence in a rapidly changing New Orleans.
Vance Vaucresson’s grandfather, Robert Levinsky Vaucresson, was a French Polish Jew who married a French woman of color and established himself as a businessman in New Orleans over a hundred years ago. He went into business for himself at St Bernard Market (now Circle Foods) as a butcher back when entire carcasses of animals were brought in the back door before being carved into steaks, chops and roasts, and sold out the front.
It was hard, backbreaking work but the business was successful and eventually was moved into a stand-alone structure at 1950 St Bernard Avenue where it enjoyed a multi-year run before migrating further down St Bernard into the former Belfield’s Pharmacy on a plot of land known as ‘The Point’
This was the home of Vaucresson Meat Market, run by Robert Vaucresson and his daughter Mildred’s husband a Bordenave.
When the elder Vaucresson passed away the business was left to his son, Robert Anthony (Sonny) Vaucresson. The entrepreneurial spirit led Mr Sonny and his friend Larry Borenstein (and investor Beansie Fauria) to open Vaucresson Cafe Creole in 1966 at 624 Bourbon Street, the present day Pat O’Brien’s. A then-unknown Orange Kellin played the restaurant for tips and Cannonball Adderley was reportedly a regular eater.
The opening did not come without controversy as Jim Crow laws and rampant racism were in abundance in the New Orleans of that era. “All Hell broke loose” Mr Vance related to the crowd at Dillard.
The Bourbon Street Merchant Association was so alarmed that they held a meeting at Court of Two Sisters. One man demanded “Where’s that nigger?” and when Sonny Vaucresson rose from his chair Mr Borenstein wryly observed “That’s the new nigger on Bourbon Street”
The man fled the room.
Mr Vaucresson was light-skinned and the man had had many interactions with him but never knew he was talking to a Black man.
The man’s embarrassment was so acute he high-tailed it.
Musicians, politicians, gentry and common folks all ate at Mr Sonny’s restaurant. Indeed, Jazz Fest would be founded by George Wein at Vaucresson Cafe Creole. Wein soon inquired as to whether Vaucresson would be interested in vending food at the event which led to the 7th Ward sausage maker’s multi-decade run as the only original food business still operating at the massive music festival.
Vaucresson Cafe Creole shuttered in 1975 but the indomitable Mr Sonny charged ahead and by October of 1983 had opened a new sausage factory at St Bernard and North Roman Street in the 7th Ward, the family’s historic home.
Schwegman’s was the dominant grocery chain in New Orleans at that time and soon enough the Vaucresson line of sausages was stacked deep in the coolers at all their local markets.
Robert “Sonny” Vaucresson passed away in the Fall of 1998 and with his death the mantle of the business was passed on to son Vance who nearly 20 years later is still at the helm of his family’s concern.
Mr Vaucresson is a potent force in the kitchen weaving tales of the history of the 7th Ward into his family’s narrative while simultaneously grinding great hunks of hog meat and stuffing them into natural casings. A pair of student helpers are enlisted so Mr Vance can take the fresh sausages onto the patio where twin fires are blazing underneath big skillets.
Our conversation continues on the topic of Creole foodways, and Dooky Chase, Li’l Dizzy’s, and Sassafras are all mentioned as being contemporary standard-bearers of the form. I inquire as to who the modern Creole butchers are and am informed that there are none. The tradition is currently extinct. If that doesn’t raise your hackles nothing will. New Orleans is awash with butchers and meat markets but there are no practicing Creoles in the field?
Perhaps 20 minutes after the veteran sausage man began the project the crowd queues up for hot po boys. I take a small bite so I can inspect the grind and mull over the flavors. It’s not everyday you get to experience a sausage with such rich lineage. The farce has been expertly seasoned and cooked leading to a fine po boy.
The link is tucked into a Gendusa French loaf then garnished with fried onions and peppers. I dream of a skift of Blue Plate mayonnaise to tie all the flavors together.
It’s Alsace. It’s Creole. It’s 7th Ward. It’s a hot fire under a Winter sun. It’s a family’s life wove into a food that’s specific to a tiny place in a big world.
It’s Vaucresson sausage.
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In the photo captioned “A Dillard Student…..” we have since learned from Zella Palmer that the young man’s name is Anthony Bennett. He is a sophomore in Public Health from Vacherie, LA. He is also an Honors Student and Mentor on campus.