Dancing, dining and daiquiris in Cajun Country

10/12/2013 12:00 AM

10/09/2013 2:20 PM

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.

Having availed myself of two Cajun specialties, I was in need of some exercise, however minimal. Visitors who are curious about regional history — I conveniently classify it as “B.D.” and “A.D.” (Before Daiquiri Huts; After Daiquiri Huts) — can drive south through expanses of pale green sugar cane and sumpy rice fields to St. Martinville, one of the oldest towns in Louisiana, a half-hour’s drive southeast of Lafayette.

Here you find the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site (named after the romantic poem called Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in which he depicts the Acadian diaspora). Set among massive live oaks, pear trees and emerald lawns is a historic village representing Cajun life in the early 1800s, where an ethnic gumbo melded Spanish, French, Creole and African-American settlers. Our buoyant tour guide, who described herself as Debbie “Once you get me started I can’t stop talking” Savoy, left no historical stone unturned.

Charming little St. Martinville is a quiet place, so I was surprised to happen upon an inviting cottage-like restaurant called St. John. Enriched by local artwork and good air-conditioning, it was said to be renowned for its crab cakes. They are good indeed, but with a bit too much filler for my taste. Better is the seafood gumbo, made with a dark roux, a browned mixture of flour and oil, and the fried alligator.

For a taste of traditional Cajun cuisine and old-time music, sung in French to the accompaniment of fiddle, guitar and button accordion, I dropped in at Prejean’s (pronounced PRAY-john), in Lafayette, a big, open barn of a place whose logo is a stuffed 14-foot alligator called Fred. His kinfolk, fried or grilled, are worth trying. Also order the excellent gumbo, combining crab, shrimp and crawfish and the catfish Prejean (battered and fried catfish slathered with a rich and flavorful shrimp etouffe, a thick, spicy shellfish stew).

If, like me, you can’t get enough of that Cajun and zydeco groove — even if you are a congenitally bad dancer — one of the hot spots in Lafayette is Blue Moon, a small, partially open-air honky-tonk connected to a small guesthouse that features a first-rate roster of regional bands nearly every night. Another place to check out is the restaurant and dance hall Randol’s, a longtime local favorite, with a giant pine dance floor, music nightly and a traditional Cajun menu. For a real old-time experience there is 58-year-old La Poussiere Cajun Dancehall, in nearby Breaux Bridge. (It does not serve food.)

Open Saturday and Sunday nights, it is something to see. Upon the first strain of the fiddle, everyone storms the dance floor, ages 8 to 80, with little girls waltzing atop Grandpa’s shoes, and young couples swooshing in graceful circles.

On Saturday morning you must drive 45 minutes north to the dust-specked town of Mamou, home to one of America’s greatest bars, Fred’s Lounge. Doors open before 8 a.m., and the $3 beers flow as a Cajun band performs a repertory of French songs going back to the 18th century. If you arrive at 9 a.m. chances are you will have to wedge your way in the door. Dancing seems obligatory (a sign on the wall entreats customers to refrain from two-stepping atop the jukebox). If you are lucky, Tante Sue de Mamou, who founded the bar in 1948 with her late husband, Fred, will join the band and belt a couple of plaintive love songs.

If you have time for one last meal — and who doesn’t down here? — check out the year-and-a-half-old Steve n Pat’s Bon Temps Grill, a small, convivial spot in southeastern Lafayette. Owned by two local brothers, it raises the bar for weighty Cajun fare with some first-rate grilled dishes like a massive pork chop stuffed with tasso (slices of spicy, heavily smoked pork) and apples, and terrific grilled shrimp with a Worcestershire-tinged cream sauce set over jalapeo-spiked grits.

On Sunday morning, nervous because departure time was near, I implored a friend to take me to a nearby daiquiri hut. You can’t miss Daiquiris Supreme — its 30-foot-high sign on Johnston Street proclaims its supremacy in a recent tasters’ poll. Half a dozen cars preceded us on the steaming asphalt. (Keep in mind that it’s illegal to sip daiquiris while driving.)

“Flavor?” inquired a young woman in cutoff jeans.

There had to be two dozen varieties. Unable to make such a crucial decision on the spot, I waved my arm, as you would in a fancy restaurant, and declared, “As the chef prefers.”

The chef preferred strawberry.

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