Let the good times roll … and in Cajun country, they’re all good times.
I made a very important discovery on a recent trip to southwest Louisiana … these folks are having more fun. They have clear priorities: music, dancing, food, friendship. Sure, we all have to work, but life is not just about work. There must be “joie de vivre.”
Case in point, the Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge opens its front doors every Saturday at 7:30 a.m. though the line outside forms at least a half-hour earlier. To score a good table, people drive over at dawn or stay overnight in nearby Lafayette. They come for the fabulous shrimp etouffee over poached eggs, or crispy stuffed boudin (Cajun sausage), a basket of warm, sugary beignets on the table and mugs of chicory coffee. But mostly they come to dance.
It’s Zydeco Breakfast — the all-time-most-perfect way to start a weekend.
A Shot Glass of History
I didn’t know much about “Cajun Country” before I went and certainly did not appreciate the complex history of the Acadians, driven from their homes in Nova Scotia in 1755, eventually settling along the bayous of southwest Louisiana, a land not easily accessible to the outside world for almost 200 years.
Acadian territory covers most of southwest Louisiana, west of New Orleans across the lower portion of the boot-shaped state. A good place to begin exploring is Lafayette, only 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. Lafayette is a thriving university town rich with Acadian history, historical sites, small museums and art galleries. Its Acadian Village, a living history reconstructed Cajun bayou community, is a can’t miss, as is the Children’s Museum of Acadiana.
For the family, Lafayette is also a good base. Either individually or through guided excursions, there is plenty of outdoor recreation: hike or bike the many trails; golf; swim; canoe or kayak the bayous. I found the latter a most “I’m not in Kansas anymore” experience … especially when meandering past alligators.
Downtown Lafayette offers continental cuisine in elegant surroundings as well as a vibrant music and bar scene. My personal favorite was Pamplona Tapas Bar, where the visual presentation was almost as satisfying as the exceptional tapas and meals. Every taste was a surprise and delight.
Other Lafayette favorites are Blue Dog Café (where the art rocks), Café Vermilionville, Charley G’s, Don’s Seafood & Steak House and Trynd. And a visit is not complete without an evening of regional food, live music and dancing between courses at one of the tried-and-true halls: Prejean’s, Randol’s or Mulate’s.
Top off any evening with a cold brew at the Blue Moon Saloon, a back-porch venue known internationally as a honky-tonk where the politicos and artistes all rub up together on the tiny dance floor.
Cajun music is best experienced live, seen as well as heard. It all started with people making music without instruments, using household utensils and voices. The washboard, clackers and spoons were and still are as important as the fiddle. There is rarely any sheet music, nothing written, and every musician, every village, has its own flavor.
Some differentiate “pure Cajun” from Creole, which took Cajun and stirred in some African drum, then accordion, different beats. And that tumbled together into “la la” a Black-Creole blend unique to central Louisiana, and then Zydeco, rich with strains of blues and soul.
Around Acadiana, music has evolved like regional dialects, pieces and phrases and tone and pitch all taken from different places, French and African and country and folk. It is as mixed as the people who created it. All I know is that I cannot hear it without starting to twitch, my hands and feet moving of their own accord.
They start the playin’ and a girl just gotta dance.
If you speak French or make the effort to learn it or revive your memory of it, a trip through Acadiana can be even more rewarding. Cajuns have a fierce determination to preserve their language and culture in a land that often treated them as second-class. Approximately 45 percent of the population speaks French as a second language and there are more than 26 bilingual French immersion schools, with more coming.
From the tourist perspective, there are weeklong day camps for children in the summer. For example, the Louisiana Folk Roots Cajun and Creole summer day camp for ages 8–14 focuses on music instruction in a cultural immersion environment. Put the kids in camp 9–5 and have some grown-up time. Or immerse yourself in camp for grown-ups. The same organization offers courses in different instruments, dancing, cooking and more. The whole family comes together for nightly concerts and dances.
I thought boudin was “just sausage.” Big mistake.
Boudin (pronounced boo-da-n) is the haute cuisine of Acadiana, and “boudiniers” are revered. In general, boudin are “links,” different kinds of casings stuffed with beef or pork or combinations, with rice and spices and other ingredients, made according to long-held recipes. From the pig’s blood used to create the blackness of Boudin Rouge to Shawn’s (Shawn’s Cajun Meats Too in Delcambre) alternative use of chicken and unique infusion of pure cane syrup, boudin elicits intense loyalty. Mike’s Country Meats in Duson, for example, features boudin balls, a crisp shell around his closely guarded recipe. Local travel officials have even created a travel route focusing on unique boudin specialty shops. See www.cajunboudintrail.com for the complete map.
But it was the crawfish etouffee, shrimp jambalaya and seafood gumbo that had me drooling. This is a world where the fish is flopping-fresh and any dish can be improved by tossing a handful of shrimp on top.
Most regional dishes involve a roux, a sauce rich with spices and peppers and squash and whatever happens to work. Black-Creole “iron-pot” stews and gumbos are made with okra, beans, peas, rice, sausage, chicken, seafood. The dish maque-choux (yummy!) mixes fresh-off-the-cob-corn with diced peppers, onions and tomatoes. Fish is cooked a hundred different ways and in as many sauces. And, of course, there is the rice and gravy — meat drippings and juices slowcooked, with garlic and spices, always a deep brown. Sure, those Texans have white gravy, but Cajuns think it goes better with wallpaper.
And you can never go wrong with the daily Blue Plate Specials (also called Meat Plus Three) featured in almost every café and town in southwest Louisiana.
I’d never spent time in Louisiana outside of New Orleans. But I find myself thinking about returning, pulled by the joyous music, the satisfying food and, most of all, the welcoming people. There was often a little “lagniappe,” a little something extra, on the table at dinner. It was unexpected, a taste, a welcome.
Which is how I felt about my time in Lafayette, in Cajun country.
Every day contained a “lagniappe.”
This article was originally published in the Lawrence Magazine in 2011.