If there are four things the Cajuns I've met love to do, it's tell stories, eat, drink, and have fun. I have intimate experiences with this: My best friend's husband, Chris, is one of them. Merrily living the expression "never let the facts get in the way of good story," Chris and his Southern Louisiana family take delight in spinning a yarn as inflated as it is funny.
I don't mind the fudging. Listening to them, I laugh and laugh, enjoying yet fearing the gleam in Chris' eye that accompanies his expressive brand of Southern accent. Invariably he will persuade me to join him in some ridiculous caper that we'll both recount with fantastic embellishment later on. It doesn't hurt that a cold beer and maybe some Louisiana-style boudin or boiled blue crabs usually enhance his persuading.
You will get a taste of that tradition if you're heading to New Orleans to cheer on the Eagles against the Saints on Nov. 18. Nola is Louisiana's always-simmering pot of jambalaya, where Cajuns — descended from the French and French Canadians — ethnically mix with African Americans, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Haitians, Native Americans, and of course, Creoles, whose European-colonist and African-slave ancestors were born in the territory.
But be warned: You will not get immersed in authentic Cajun culture unless you venture out of the city and visit any one of the hundreds of bayous that meander through the southern part of the state. A 45-minute drive southwest of the Superdome lies a bayou whose people claim it as the heart of where Cajun Country beats. I'll let you decide whether that's true or just more Cajun math, but if there's a place that represents Louisiana's gulf region better than Lafourche Parish (pronounced Lafoosh), I'll race you down there.
This past spring, Lafourche Parish officials launched the Cajun Bayou Food Trail to help visitors navigate a 100-mile stretch of almost-off-the-grid local eateries that help give Louisiana's deep south its famous flavor. We're talking the homiest of dining destinations — checker-clothed tables, servers who call you by a pet name, and no animal fast enough to escape a frying pan. These are multigenerational spots with legendary regional reputations … and frequently without a website or even Facebook page to steer out-of-towners in their direction.
The trail map and passport — available for download at lacajunbayou.com/foodtrail or at any of the 21 participating restaurants — don't leave out the rest of what puts the Cajun in Cajun Country. By visiting the parish visitor center at the intersection of U.S. Route 90 and State Route 1 or its website, lacajunbayou.com, you can also find out where to dance to live modern zydeco, stuff your gills at a crawfish boil, feed a wild alligator, or try the King Cake Ale at Lafourche's only brewery.
"There's no denying that food is truly one of our standout experiences in Louisiana's Cajun Bayou," says Timothy Bush, president and CEO of that organization. "Our food has a story that's rooted in traditions and told by the wonderful storytellers who are such an integral part of Cajun culture."
In April, I spent three days in the parish capital of Thibodaux and driving down and back up the bayou. I took precious few breaks away from gorging myself to visit the Mudbug Brewery, Bayou Lafourche Folklife and Heritage Museum, Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building, and E.D White Historic Site sugar plantation (via boat from the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center), and to spend a morning feeding a baby gator on a swampy boat trip with Capt. Clyde McCulley.
If you're looking for a Cajun out of Central Casting, McCulley is your man.
"I demonstrate Cajun bayou life when you go out to see what it's been like for the past 150 years for a person to feed their families by fishing, crabbing, and duck hunting. I tell them the whole story," says McCulley, a 66-year-old lifelong resident of Des Allemands, the town where his tours start.
(You might want to leave time after docking to have a cold lager or a pickled quail egg with the captain at the rickety wooden bar nestled within his Cajun Museum of historic artifacts. I wish I could have stayed to pick fresh-caught crabs with him on the dock, but many lunches and dinners awaited me elsewhere.)
A few highlights, in order of when I visited. Some are cash-only — that does not mean debit cards — or alcohol-free or both:
Cher-Amie's. You know that quintessential down-home spot I described above? It most closely reflects Cher-Amie's, which I almost sped past because only a small sign calls it out as a restaurant and not a shotgun shack. My first (and second and third) taste of locally popular Bang Bang Shimp — fried and coated in sweet chili sauce — allowed me to skip prawns for my initial entrée of the trip and move on to mahi Cher-Amie style that came blackened, topped with lump crab and grilled oysters and served with buttered green beans, a baked sweet potato, and garlic bread. Yeah, I pretty much ate every stereotypical Cajun critter for my first lunch. And I had 10 meals to go! (15628 W. Main St., Cut Off; cheramies.com)
Cajun Pecan House. Do you need to buy souvenirs? One stop at the Cajun Pecan House and you're set. The overwhelming clutter of nuts made me feel that the walls, ceiling, and floor of the shop had barfed up sugar and tree nuts … but in a good way. Months later, I discovered two bags of confections I'd bought and forgotten about. Of course I ate them. All. In five minutes. Barf. (14808 W. Main St., Cut Off; cajunpecanhouse.com)
Spahr's Seafood. Ah, Spahr's Seafood. The Thibodaux branch of a local chain pours what might be the best hot sauce in town. It still kills me that I lost the bottle I bought for a dollar. Go for dinner when you have time to relax, ask Miss Sandy to make you her famous Bloody Mary, and order gumbo and the appetizer sampler, which comes with a bunch of fun fattening stuff, like hush puppies, crawfish pies, and some addictive crawfish cream sauce. You could eat light off the grilled protein menu, but, really, why would you? (601 W. Fourth St., Thibodaux; spahrsseafood.com)
Bubba's II PoBoys. You could spend your whole time at Bubba's II PoBoys admiring the Yankees memorabilia that takes up just about every inch of wall. But, again, why would you, especially considering that you can eat every conceivable kind of po'boy (hello, crawfish) or anything else you can fit between two slices of bread. Order at the counter, expect to be good-naturedly teased, and pick up a set of plastic cutlery before you sit down. (212 E. Bayou Rd., Thibodaux; bubbasiipoboys.com)
Navigating the trail by car is easy. Navigating it any other way is impossible. Route 308 runs along the east side of the bayou and the more leisurely Route 1 runs along the west. Both provide scenery of the houses, boats, and businesses where residents live and work — though the recession, a rapidly receding shoreline, and the retraction of industry have left behind pictures of poverty that are anything but pretty.
Cajun and Creole foods differ. Though both cultures prepare roux, for instance, Creole dishes tend to include more ingredients, spices, and components that would have cost a lot in the 1700s. Think about it this way: Creole cooking developed among upper-class New Orleanians; Cajun food comes from the country.
Prepare for seafood. Lots of it. It might sound obvious, but as you drive toward the western part of Cajun country, around the city of Lafayette and Amelia Island, home of Tabasco, you rise to higher ground and, hence, more trapping of land animals.