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Secrets of Cajun Cuisine   

It was morning and the mist from Bayou Teche was lifting as I rolled down the gravel driveway at the home of one of Louisiana’s most beloved chefs. Over the next few days, I’d be soaking in what I could of Cajun culture – which meant I’d be doing a lot of eating. My host would be Marcelle Bienvenu, the best-selling cookbook author and former restaurant owner who spent a decade working with famed chef and TV personality Emeril Lagasse.

Bienvenu’s home is in St. Martinville, a town just outside of Lafayette, 195 km west of New Orleans. Founded by Acadians whose exile from Nova Scotia in 1755 was described in Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline”, this landscape veined with bayous is the spiritual heart of Cajun country and the perfect place for a crash course on its culture.

Genuine Heritage

 “True Cajun cooking is basically home cooking,” explained Bienvenu, whose   slim, stylish appearance is more Audrey Hepburn than Betty Crocker.  “It’s difficult to find in restaurants because in the past most people couldn’t afford to eat out. And when they did, they’d order fried food because they couldn’t afford deep fryers at home.” 

As a result, many people have a misconception that all Cajun food is deep fried. It isn’t. It is a rich blend of recipes handed down through generations of settlers – freed black slaves, Native American, Spanish, French and German.
At the heart of many recipes is a roux, the mixture of oil and flour that thickens and adds a nutty flavour to dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffee.
“There are as many gumbos as there are bayous,” said Bienvenu who traces her own heritage to an early Acadian family. “But they all begin with a roux.”
The secret to its deep mahogany color is steady stirring.

“You could fall down and die beside my Mama and she wouldn’t stop stirring her roux,” joked Bienvenu.    
While the gumbo simmered, we headed to Josephine’s Creole Restaurant, a nearby diner where plate lunches, a combination of hot daily specials, is a traditional favourite among working men. While larger restaurants, such as Victor’s in New Iberia and T-Coon’s in Lafayette, also offer plate lunches, Josephine’s is unique because it offers a black or “soul” version of Cajun cooking.    
 
“You got to get here early for the best selection,” said Josephine, the gregarious owner, as she doled out ladlefuls of smothered okra. In addition to raising eight children, she built a successful business by focusing on family recipes such as stuffed turkey wings, baked squash and slow-barbequed ribs.    

Unique Landscape

Later that evening on Bienvenu’s patio overlooking the bayou, we dined on jambalaya, chicken gumbo and delicious, but messy, crawfish. Then, as the sun set and the deep green shadows grew, we took a sunset cruise on the bayou. Surrounded by a lush landscape of ferns and moss-draped oak trees, it meandered past rustic cottages, water hyacinths and white egrets. 

From the vast swamp wilderness to the Gulf of Mexico, the steady flow of the bayous keeps the pulse of the Cajun spirit. The pace of life often seems as slow as the gumbo that simmers for hours. Yet, the early settlers who established homesteads along these watery channels that snake across the prairies, had to improvise when crops were poor, eating everything from alligators to crawfish dug from the muddy waters of the rice fields.

“We’d often use what no one else would eat,” said Bienvenu “Crawfish was considered a food for poor folk.”
These days, crawfish is considered a delicacy. At Myran’s Maison de Manger in nearby Arnaudville, fried catfish and crawfish poboys are local favourites. The historic town of Breaux Bridge even hosts an annual Crawfish Festival.

Another delicacy appears everywhere from restaurants to gas stations in Port Barre, located where Bayou Courtableau and Bayou Teche meet. Once a busy steamboat port in the early 1800’s, today it is best known for jalapeño corn bread and boudin – a sausage stuffed with rice, pork and spices.

Gumbo for Your Soul  

With delicious food in such plentiful supply, I began to wonder how Bienvenu kept her trim shape. I soon found out. The next morning, in Lafayette, Lil’ Nathan, a third-generation accordion musician, offered a primer on Zydeco dance music, an African based rhythm that grew out of Cajun, blues and jazz music.

“You got to live life to the fullest, ma chère,” he said, “With drums poundin’, everybody sweatin’ and your feet movin’ pretty soon you gonna be dancing.”

We didn’t have to go far to find authentic Cajun and Zydeco music as many local restaurants feature live bands. At Prejean’s in Lafayette, old-timers glide across the floor to the sound of fiddle, accordion and guitar. At Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, the good times even begin in the morning.    

But the favourite for late night action since 1947 is Slim’s Y Ki-Ki in Opelousas, one of Louisiana’s oldest towns. When we arrived, the music was pounding and the dance-floor hopping. Before long, we were dancing and working up a sweat.
Now I know the Cajun secret to staying slim.

Travel Planner

Lafayette Tourist Information: For events, accommodation and general information visit www.lafayettetravel.com
Louisiana Cajun Recipes: For Marcelle Bienvenu’s popular cookbooks and latest release “Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?” visit www.acadianhouse.com/acadianhousepublishingonlinestore/
Cajun Towns, Music and Backroads: Visit www.cajuntravel.com

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Michele Peterson Freelance Travel Writer
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