Whenever I visit Cajun country, in southwest Louisiana, the land of crawfish, gumbo, gator steaks and “les bons temps” personified, my first stop is at a cultural icon that, in itself, elevates this region to the status of an American touristic treasure: the drive-through daiquiri hut. This was my intention on my last trip; however, the plane was late, and I had pressing business to address midday — sampling “boudin balls” (deep-fried rounds of pork and seasoned rice). Boudin in these parts is what lobsters are in Maine, or crabs in Baltimore. And you find them everywhere — in butcher shops, in delis, at food stands, even at gas stations. More on these — and the daiquiris — in a moment.
Acadiana, as the region is called, is a fertile swath of swamps, bayous and rolling plains along the Gulf of Mexico. It runs west of New Orleans to the Texas border. This may well be the last cohesive cultural enclave in the United States, having preserved — or still attempting to preserve — its own language (a sort of 18th century French with a lot of diphthongs thrown in), its own music, a celebrated cuisine and a proud and welcoming temperament that is immediately evident to those who travel here.
I have been drawn to Acadiana for the past 20 years, above all for the food and music. Indeed, after hearing for the first time the buoyant, locomotive rhythm of zydeco, I returned to New York City and started a band of my own — totally ersatz, but a great deal of fun. Considering that the main attractions are within a 20-mile radius of Lafayette, the unofficial capital city with a population of 125,000, you can easily cover the highlights in a long gastronomic weekend.
A little history: The original Cajuns — or Acadians, as they were called — were French Catholic settlers in greater Nova Scotia in the early 1700s. In the ensuing years Britain and the French brawled over the territory, and it changed hands several times, with Britain prevailing midcentury. The Catholics had little affection for King George II and refused to pledge allegiance, for which they were promptly given the boot in two mass deportations. Some returned to Europe, others to French-speaking southern Louisiana.
The best times to visit Cajun country are spring and fall, not only for the benign weather but also for the endless festivals put on by towns and cities, nearly 400 in all. Highlights include the Crowley Rice Festival, Oct. 17-20; the LaPlace Andouille Festival, Oct. 18-20; and the Rayne Frog Festival, Nov. 6-10.
For my boudin fix I paid a visit to the Best Stop market, in Scott, which has been a family business for 27 years. Its refrigerated shelves hold various types of homemade Cajun sausages, smoked meats, prepared foods and all manner of edible curiosities like “chaudin” (stuffed pig’s stomach) and Cajun-style stuffed beef tongue. Robert Cormier, the semiretired founder of the shop, told me he goes through 12,000 pounds a week of boudin sausages and boudin balls. In my intemperate history of boudin ball tastings, I rate his tops — crunchy outside, creamy inside and with an afterkick of peppery seasonings. If you dare, take home a grease-stained brown bag of cracklings, those gastronomic leg weights of deep-fried pork skin.
Do not overindulge on these specialties, for it is now time to head into Lafayette for a nonpareil po’boy at a quaint little market called Olde Tyme Grocery. Most everything is good — shrimp, catfish, barbecued ham, poultry — however, I recommend the po’boy stuffed with plump, crunchy fried oysters.