Story and photos by Babbie De Derian

Louisiana Embrace your bliss

South Louisiana’s Culinary Melting Pot

The area in and around Lafayette is the indisputable center of all things  Cajun and Creole: from pork chop sandwiches to beef jerky, boudin balls, specialty sausages, cracklin, smoked meats, curried and stuffed  chicken, chili dogs, crawfish boils, plump fried oysters and other  regional specialties.  My recent visit cleared my culinary confusion. I  discovered the words Cajun and Creole are not interchangeable, even  where food is involved. Many Cajun and Creole dishes are based on a roux and use some of the same ingredients such as cayenne pepper, okra,  sweet potatoes, squash, beans, corn and sassafras (bottled as filé, a  topping for gumbo). Boudin is a combination of cooked rice, pork,  onions, green peppers and seasonings pulverized and stuffed into a  sausage casing. and then steamed. Everyone has a favorite boudin recipe, many handed down for generations.

However, differences do exist between the two types of cuisines. The word Creole has many meanings, but here it implies a cultural mix of West-European, African, Caribbean and native Indian. To most south Louisiana blacks,  Creoles are of a multiracial heritage with African and Caribbean roots.  These Creoles have produced zydeco music and a distinctive cuisine with  ties to Acadiana, New Orleans and the American Southeast. Many regional  African-Creole traditions were preserved by black Louisianans with a  variety of "iron-pot" delicacies - greens cooked with fatback,  Caribbean-style cowpeas and rice, gumbos with pork sausage, chicken  giblets and seafood, and a host of stews forming a style of cooking,  using the humblest ingredients and resulting in the richest flavors.

Louisiana Stew

Creole cuisine got its start in the early 1700s in New Orleans and eventually  found its way along the bayous of South Louisiana. In the 1790s,  thousands of French colonists fled Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti) for New Orleans to escape the terrors of the slave rebellion led by  L'Ouverture. The refugees strongly influenced local cuisine by bringing  their distinctive Caribbean spice combinations and cooking techniques.

Louisiana Deep Fried Chicken

Around the same time as the Caribbean refugees were arriving, the French  Acadians who were expelled from Acadie (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada) arrived in South Louisiana. Settling in remote areas away from New  Orleans, this geographic and cultural isolation led to the development  of a distinctive cuisine.

The  Acadians were farmers, so their early cuisine was based on corn, rice,  root vegetables, chicken and pigs. The bayous and wetlands along which  they lived provided an abundance of rabbits, turtles, finfish,  shellfish, ducks and geese. The Acadians learned to use corn from the  local Indians, stewing it with sweet peppers, onions and eventually  tomatoes to create maque-chou. They also dried the corn, ground it and  cooked it in a skillet to make coush-coush, a traditional breakfast  food. The area's African-descended inhabitants contributed okra for use  as a vegetable or to add to gumbo.

Louisiana Fresh Pea Dish

Several other cultural groups contributed to the culinary melting pot of South  Louisiana. The cooks for English, Scottish and Irish plantation owners  used what was grown and raised on the plantation as well as delicacies  that arrived at the port of New Orleans from the Caribbean and Europe.  St. Martinville and other towns near Lafayette had French settlers who  arrived from France or the French West Indies.

The French Press, located in the old Tribune Printing Plant, is open for  breakfast, lunch and special events. Many original details have been  preserved, including the floor, door and water system. Chef/owner Justin Girouard’s culinary career began at Stella's in NOLA; he went on to  study in France and returned to Lafayette to open French Press in  December 2009. Nominated for a James Beard Award in 2011-2015 for chef  of the South, his creative enticing menu made it difficult for me to  settle on one dish. Sharing was the answer: Cajun Benedict: made with  crunchy toasted French bread, Herbert's boudin, American cheese and two  poached medium eggs was topped with chicken, andouille gumbo and fresh  scallions. The Corn, Crab and Crawfish Benedict: two corn maque choux  crab and crawfish cakes with Canadian bacon, two poached eggs and  hollandaise was served with a choice of breakfast potatoes or cheddar  grit; mini pancakes: filled with bacon, a fresh boudin ball and sweet  cane syrup were also served with potatoes or grits. The lunch menu  challenged my appetite, especially the meatloaf sandwich served with  fresh tomatoes, onions, arugula, sun dried tomato mayo and melted swiss  on toasted 12 grain.

Zydeco Breakfast at Abacas Restaurant, delivered several gastronomic  surprises, including a “make your own Bloody Mary Bar”. Owner Robert  Fruge, a hands-on entrepreneur, and a true Southern gentleman, grew up  on a horse farm, went to law school and then decided it was more fun to  socialize with customers that stand before a judge. His portfolio of  restaurants and special event catering venues reflects his charming,  warm and winning personality. My compliments to Chef Joe Lewis for the  best beer battered fried chicken I've ever eaten and an exceptional  buffet of local dishes that included: shrimp scampi over angel hair,  stuffed pork roast, smothered turnip tasso & peas, back of the Bayou Gumbo and his signature sweet potato cane syrup bread pudding with  raspberry sauce.

Louisiana Bloody Mary

Dat Dog, a colorful bar with locations around the city and live music a few nights a week, has their own modern take on Cajun and Creole fixins.  Their bizarrely creative and colorful menu of Haute Dogs House Specials, Dat Burgers and Dat Chicks put a smile on my face, as the menu  promised. They serve a wide variety of sausages, including traditional  German, alligator, duck and vegan with a choice of 31 toppings: their crawfish etouffee dog, made with crawfish sausage is served with sour  cream, onions, tomatoes and creole mustard; the Guinness Special, Irish  Guinness sausage was served with andouille sauce, onions, cheese, bacon  and yellow mustard. There’s even “the son of a saint dog”: hot sausage,  andouille sauce, grilled onions, tomatoes, “chick” sauce and  creole mustard.

Louisiana Dat Dog

Blue Dog Café, another popular local restaurant, serves Cajun cuisine and  Louisiana fusion. Artist, and one- time partner, George Rodrigues  was internationally acclaimed and compelling “Blue Dog”€ paintings stare out  longingly from the walls and behind the bar. Since George’s s death, son  Eric runs the restaurant. You may also want to pop into The Blue Dog  Gallery.

Olde Tyme Grocery, a  favorite with locals, gave us a taste of the Murphree family’s Best Po  Boys in town. It was fascinating to watch their unique shrimp machine  butterfly the dozens of pounds of shrimp they serve daily.

Later that evening, Don’s Downtown, a seafood and steakhouse, one of  Louisiana’s original Cajun Restaurants, established in 1934, served up  platters of crawfish, fried oysters and crab cakes, made from original  family recipes. 

Thanks to the  preservation of local traditions, and the creative talents of young  Internationally trained chefs, Cajun and Creole Cuisines continue to  evolve, and even merge, into what might be called "South Louisiana  cuisine.".

Not-to-be-missed: The Festival Acadiens et Creoles, the 2nd weekend in October, celebrating the food, music and culture of the  Cajuns and Creoles of South Louisiana. And if you can’t make this, the  Annual Boudin Cook-Off, also in October, brings top boudiniers together  to show off their skills. 

There’s no doubt about it, Lafayette Louisiana has mastered the art of “stirring the culinary pot”€.

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