Jun 032008

I write to you today a different man than I was scant more than a week before. I have grown. I have matured. I have expanded my horizons and waist size. I have consumed a whole bayou’s worth of crawfish. I have, my friends, eaten my way through Acadiana.

Looking out towards the Gulf at Big Lake

My friend John, a Cajun-bred college chum for whom I played the drums in an alt-country band that spectacularly imploded under the weight of several aged-19-years egos, and who will allow me talk his ear off about cooking in exchange for home-cooked food, had the bright idea a couple months ago to go on a gustatory pilgrimage from Austin to the homeland around Lake Charles. And so it was that the weekend before last he, his girlfriend Kristen and I set out on a voyage to the crawfish-scented heart of Cajun country for a three-day binge on the fried, buttered, drowned and smothered Continental-cum-crustacean cuisine of those long-expelled French Canadians. In southern Louisiana, God bless it, the roux is dark, the people are Catholic and the arteries explode by 55. We were determined, kike and swamp kike alike, to sacrifice our circulatory systems on the altar of étouffée and andouille. And we did. Lord, we did. I would have taken pictures, but I’m unable to bring myself to take pictures of food anywhere outside my own kitchen. It’s tacky. So use your imagination, kids.

I should note that despite their frequent confusion in the popular imagination, Cajun cuisine (originating among the exiled Francophones of south-central and southeast Louisiana) and Creole cuisine (originating among the culturally and ethnically mixed Creoles of New Orleans) are fairly distinct, even though they share several dishes. Creole cuisine draws heavily from aristocratic French haute cuisine with distinct Spanish and African influences; Cajun cuisine evolved out of peasant French cooking traditions, and was insulated from the pernicious influence of the yellow-bellied Spaniard while picking up foods, cooking techniques and culinary vocabulary from the local Indians. It’s easy to spot the differences: if the dish in front of you has tomatoes, hot peppers or beans, it’s Creole. If it has something that was recently clubbed to death in a swamp before being heavily cayenne peppered and served over rice, it’s Cajun. If it features blackened anything, it’s Emeril food, and thus neither Cajun nor Creole. Know the difference and you’ll never utter the phrase “spicy Cajun red beans and rice” again.

The trip marked both my first time in Lake Charles and my first time back to my old southern Louisiana stomping grounds since 2005; my planned return back then was forestalled by the series of unfortunate meteorological occurrences which precipitated my luckless Israeli odyssey. The landscape had changed a bit thanks to a couple of lovely Cat 5 ladies, but the feeling of content stagnation that hangs over Louisiana like August humidity hadn’t changed a bit. I was surprised to realize that I had missed it.

We stayed on the shores of Big Lake in a nicely-appointed beach house on stilts (called, modestly, a “camp” in the local argot) owned by John’s rarely-glimpsed father, a prominent local attorney and sports novelist who spent the weekend tourneying about the immaculately manicured artificial hills of the Lake Charles golf course with the son of Bing Crosby. Bing himself showed up in the form of a vinyl copy of White Christmas John’s stepmom had perched on the end table in the living room; Son-of-Bing remained unseen, although John’s grandmother, an eccentric of the very finest variety, told us over her restaurant water glass-sized vodka on the rocks that we hadn’t missed much, as she had always preferred Frank Sinatra anyway. She also invited the three of us back next month to witness the creation of her crawfish bisque, an event of apparently quasi-religious significance in the family.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our first order of business upon arrival was to attempt to eat our weight in crawfish. The local seafood shanty obliged with enormous steaming platters of the ugly little bastards. It’s a lot of work to eat five pounds of crawfish; a fat specimen still only yields about a cocktail shrimp’s worth of meat, and you have to pry off the tail to get to it. But put down enough beer and, like most everything else, what started out arduous quickly becomes a good deal of fun. So between us John and I dismembered ten pounds of Acadiana’s finest edible aquatic bugs. For dessert, we each had a big plate of crawfish étouffée. Kristen, a vegetarian who had, at least for the weekend in confirmed meat country, essentially given up the green-conscious ghost, went experimental with a dish of oysters in a heavy yellow cheese sauce, which almost managed to transcend the oddness of its conception and arrive at “good.” Ten pounds of crustacean, half a dozen bottles of beer, good company and a view on the water at sunset all conspired to create a ferocious dinner. And that was only the first night.

The next day our ragged and insatiable party was joined by John’s little sister, back in town from college, and we swung by a popular 24-hour diner to shovel down the world’s most Southern breakfast, to which any written description does not do justice. Imagine, if you will, a baked potato. Then imagine that said baked potato had been buried under a mountain of grilled chicken and melted cheddar cheese. Then imagine that the grilled chicken and melted cheddar cheese were really only theoretical constructs anyway, because they had been rendered completely invisible by a Biblical deluge of cream gravy. Then imagine there were some grits, and also that your heart stopped out of spite for your brain. Simply breakfast.

The day meandered towards a vague plan to go mucking about in the wetlands, or at least on the paved trails leading through the wetlands, in order to see some of the native game, known in the common parlance as “alligators.” Such dangerous business demanded further dietary fortification, so we stopped at a roadside shack to pick up some cracklings (gratons), deep-fried cubes of pork skin with meat and gristle still attached, a Church-sanctioned form of mass suicide on the part of the Cajun people. Those were good, although perhaps not good enough to justify the three months every single one removed from my life expectancy. The same shack also equipped us with crawfish pistolettes, sweet and flaky rolls filled with stewy crawfish goodness, essentially a portable version of crawfish étouffée.

Southern Louisiana wetlands, it turns out, look essentially like wetlands everywhere else, although they are significantly hotter and full of large relict reptiles. I mused that if Purgatory existed, it must look much like a Louisiana wetlands state park: endless expanses of marsh grass and cattails on either side of an asphalt path leading to nowhere to in particular. It’s not Hell, but it ain’t like there’s a Ramada neither. The gators were disinclined to put in an appearance, much to the dismay of John’s sister, so we piled back into the car and turned back towards relative civilization. Then we saw some out of the car window, sunning in the little canal by the road. So let that be a lesson: if you want to see nature in Louisiana, be it alligators or neon-clad canal-fishin’ locals, stay in the car.

On the way back, we hit up a gas station – America! – for yet another local delicacy, boudin, a delicious goo with aspirations to sausage status made out of swiney mystery meat, rice and herbs stuffed into a casing. And then? Well, then we went to dinner. John’s aforementioned grandmother treated us all to a grand feast at a seafood restaurant, which made up for its inferior crawfish with great deadly piles of fried shrimp, fried catfish, fried oysters and fried stuffed crab. We washed it all down with Abita, which if memory serves may well have been fried.

Heading back on Memorial Day, which locked up Lake Charles solid, we chanced upon an open restaurant/game animal processing facility a town or two over for what would be our last Louisianan hurrah: jambalaya, gumbo and an armful of local sausage and filé powder to stock the kitchens back home. A fitting and gut-busting end to three days of unrestrained binging.

Necessarily, my first order of business upon returning was to track down a source of live in-season crawfish, Louisianan andouille and tasso in Austin. Louisiana isn’t that far away, but it’s enough of schlep that I worry all that plaque might start to clear up if I don’t learn how to make Cajun suicide cuisine myself. It’s pretty easy: you just gotta start with a whole stick of butter and go from there…

Jun 022008

I’ll admit it: I like beer. I’m not making a bold statement; pretty much everyone in the world, except for people in those countries that cut off hands for minor criminal offenses, is fond of the stuff. When even the Turks have a national brand, you have a popular beverage on your hands. But while everyone likes beer, some drinkers are bound and determined to turn beer from a pleasant and universal diversion to a grim and sober ratings game in which beers are ruthlessly lined up and measured, after which any found to be somehow deficient or not Western European in origin are scorned and summarily eliminated.

I know, the concept sounds German, but this growing beer snobbery seems to be chiefly an American concern, a way of overcompensating for the grave sin of allowing our very worst beers to take over the world. The Germans are not beer snobs, because they don’t have to be: their tap water is 8 proof and their children are weaned on Löwenbräu. The first word of 48% of German children is “Reinheitsgebot” (the first word of the other 52%, of course, is “lebensraum“). In America, though, we have as little use for subtlety as we do for A-cups and open borders. We discovered a few years ago that much of the world’s beer isn’t pale amber and made from rice, and goddammit, we’re gonna buy it all and we’re gonna like it better than anyone else likes it. Because we’re the best.

And so we now have the cerevisaphile, a new class of connoisseur created when the overflowing barrel of national wine pretension sloshed over into the beer aisle. These are men – and make no mistake, this is an entirely male pursuit – who gingerly decant their beer, time the duration of its head with a stopwatch and make elaborate tasting notes between sips. (“Hoppy character, smells of wheat with distinct notes of yeast and an overwhelmingly liquid mouthfeel.”) But our boy Newton wasn’t wrong, and unsurprisingly the American beernaissance has given rise to a vociferous cadre of counterrevolutionaries, clinging with grim determination to the boozy soda water that slaked America’s thirst throughout the century of its ascendancy. For every dude who wants you to know that he can tell a weizen from a weizenbock, there are three who think he’s a queer for not drinking Old Milwaukee.

In a perfect world, these types would be relegated to bars, liquor stores and automotive sporting events, but unfortunately, our noticeably imperfect world has Tim Berners-Lee in it, and so every single one of these people has migrated to the Internet. Especially to beer ratings sites, where they gleefully share tasting notes and accusations of pansy-assedness. And it is those sites – specifically, RateBeer.com – that are the focus of this series of posts.

The idea is simple: I pick a terrible but much-loved American beer, the kind churned out by our major breweries and enthusiastically consumed at barbecues, sports games, pool halls and racialist power rallies all over our fair land, and then I scour RateBeer.com’s review pages for the beer for both a pretentious, overcomplicated cerevisaphile takedown and an indignant, often barely coherent glowing 5-star endorsement. Basically, I’m looking for the worst possible way to express two very basic ideas: in the former case, “It sucks”; in the latter case, “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

We start, fittingly enough, with Pabst Blue Ribbon, a beer of aggressive mediocrity which has not only retained its faithful following among the blue collar but entered the anemic embrace of those trendy Williamsburg types, who think pretending to be poor is the very apogee of arch irony (it’s funny, you see, cuz they’re not). So without further ado, the best of RateBeer.com on the most middling of American beers:

Overweening Cerevisaphile Sez:

Pours a clear straw sort of color with a quickly dissipating head leaving no lace, bubbles flying up from the bottom. Mostly a grain smell, pretty clean, with a hint of floralness. Grainy in taste, but not in a bad way, a little bit of corn, and only a touch of hops. Taste almost dances on your tongue with the amount of carbonation. I imagine this as a great beer with many different foods. Higher carbonation, but seems to be a nice addition to this one. Light to medium body, I expected very light body, but having a little something there is nice. I usually don’t save any room for macro’s in my fridge, but I may be able to squeeze a little room for this.

I’m not sure if the PBR demographic, or anyone else, is concerned with how much “lace” the stuff leaves. Or at least, nobody goes to the mini-mart and carefully considers the optimal lace-to-price ratio of all the beers sold in individual tallboy cans out of the cooler full of crushed ice.

Overburdened Cracker Sez:

Okay so you’re layin on a beach, minding your own buisness when all of a sudden…BAM!!! you get hit in the crotch with something…it’s an ice cold PBR. You crack it open & take a sip and all of a sudden the Doobie Brothers show up and they’re playin “China Grove” and it rocks…hard. You’ve just experienced Liquid Cold Sunshine that gets better each and every time. Natty Ice and Genny Cream Ale are for fratboys…Pabst is for the distinguished alcoholic.

Okay, that’s actually kind of funny, but…maybe I’m conceited, maybe I need to get the redness of my blood checked, but a product that interrupts a pleasant reverie with testicular pain and an appearance by the Michael McDonald Clearinghouse Players doesn’t get five stars in my book. That is such a beer commercial conceit, though: a man pops a beer in the overbearing drabness of the real world and is magically transported to a hoppy carnival land where real men play some real MOR rock while fake blondes shake some fake tits. That, son, is America. It’s too bad that doesn’t really happen. It would force the hipsters to move on to a new beverage of choice (Olde English eight hundos? Molson Lite? Pulque?), unless of course they find the Doobie Brothers somehow ironic.

Next up: Schlitz!

Jun 012008

I learned something today. I learned that Tony Chachere’s, the seasoning blend of salt, salt, salt, salt, salt, cayenne pepper, garlic and salt which is, along with Crystal hot sauce, de rigueur on every Louisiana table, was actually invented and marketed by a guy named Tony Chachere from St. Landry Parish.

This came as a surprise. I had always assumed Tony Chachere was an imaginary corporate focus group food mascot, like Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima or Rachael Ray. I thought that somewhere deep in the bowels of ConAgra marketing research drones had built the perfect ersatz Cajun, cartoonized and outfitted with a chef’s hat and glasses scientifically proven to drive consumers to heavily season their food with the company’s proprietary lab-tested spice blend, which they then could spin off into a whole product line of similarly branded food-type products.

But I was wrong. He’s real, man. He’s real. Look at him:

Once upon a time, somewhere deep within the dark beating heart of the swamp, specifically Opelousas, the real live Tony Chachere stood whisking a skillet of dark brown roux, plotting and waiting for the moment when he would convert it into a container of no-fuss just-add-water powder and in so doing conquer America (Note: Soul and Gone does not recommend making roux out of powder, unless the powder happens to be flour which you then add to heated oil, drippings or butter.)

But really, what next? Is someone going to tell me that Paul Prudhomme is real too?

(More on Cajun food coming up…)