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…