Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tasting Cajun Life

To learn about the foodways of a culture or region, how would you do it? Nothing beats making a personal trip and tasting well-known examples, enjoying meals of typical dishes, visiting locations where food is grown or raised, and talking to local experts.

To learn more about Cajun food and its relevance to Southern culture, I joined a field trip conducted by the Southern Foodways Alliance to Louisiana. To contrast urban and rural experiences, the trip focused on New Orleans as well as Acadian towns, principally Eunice (the prairie Cajun capital of Louisiana), where the Arcadian Cultural Center depicts Arcadian migration and culture, including foodways.

Cajun cuisine is a cooking style of French-speaking refuges exiled by the British from Canada who settled in Louisiana. They adapted local ingredients (such as game meats, rice and crawfish) to rural French cooking and were also influenced by Native American, Caribbean, and other European cooking styles.

The trip was helpful to understand how simple Cajun food preparation is and learn more about unique cooking methods such as smothering (cooking a vegetable or meat in its own juices), sometimes known as étouffée, and the importance of other methods such as boiling (for example, crawfish). The visit also helped to appreciate more the importance of rice (the second largest agricultural export of Louisiana) and sugarcane in Cajun cooking.

Typical Dishes

Classic Cajun dishes include:
  • Jambalaya, a dish that contains rice, meat (such as chicken), seafood (such as shrimp), and vegetables (green peppers, onions, celery and chili peppers);

  • Gumbo, a soup that takes its name from a word brought from western Africa that means okra, which is used as a thickening agent and is a principal ingredient.
In addition to jambalaya and gumbo, I was also able to enjoy and learn more about:
  • Boudin, fresh sausage that is widely available and made fresh daily (becuase it doesn’t keep well for very long) with pork, rice, green onions, and spices and stuffed in a natural casing;

  • Cracklin, fried pieces of pork fat with a small amount of attached skin, flavored after frying with peppery Cajun spices;

  • Andouille, a spicy smoked sausage characterized by a coarse texture;

  • Beignet, a French-style doughnut, that is fried dough covered with powered sugar. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, beignets are square and usually served in orders of three.
Memorable Meals

Several meal experiences were memorable. Each meal gave a particularly insight into Cajun food and together made the trip truly representative of Cajun foodways.
  • Dinner at Calcasieu in New Orleans with chef Stephen Stryjewski (2011 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef: South). Boudin and crawfish pie were appetizers; Louisiana chicken and sausage gumbo soup followed as the next course; entrees (all served family style) were catfish courtboullion, onion smothered pork, shrimp and eggplant dressing, and smothered greens. Pecan pie with praline ice cream and whiskey sauce was dessert.

  • Crawfish feed at Hawk’s opened by Anthony Arceneaux, who has a reputation for serving the biggest, sweetest, and best seasoned crawfish. Established in 1983 near Rayne, La., Hawk’s proclaims to be in the middle of nowhere (it is because field trip members were not trusted to find it on their own by car and had to ride a bus).

  • Smothered lunch at Le Village, a Cajun country retreat in Eunice, La., that featured smothered rabbit, smothered okra, smothered cabbage, and rice smothered in gravy.

  • Lunch of boudin at the Mowata Store in Mowata, La., where owner Bubba Frey makes up to 400 pounds daily.

  • Breakfast of boudin, sugarcane syrup, and biscuits prepared by The French Press of Lafayette, La.

  • Rice dressing supper in Eunice, La. at Ruby’s Cafe, which has been preparing plate lunches since the 1950s, that also included pork loin stuffed with local sausage, coleslaw, okra, and bread pudding.
Rice and Crawfish Fields

Side trips to locations where food is grown or processed added to the understanding of Cajun cuisine:
  • Rice fields and production of Cajun Grain in Kinder, La., owned by Kurt Unkel, who plants, grows, and mills brown jasmine rice that is a mixture of jasmine and wild red rice.

  • Crawfish fields and operations of Craig and Troy West Crawfish in Mamou, La., who run one of the oldest commercial crawfish businesses in the state and supply clients from the Southwest to New York City.
Local Experts

Discussions with regional food experts helped to explain Cajun foodways so that the programs were more than just tasting events:
  • Paul Prudhomme, owner of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, a restaurant where I had a bowl of chicken gumbo for lunch, described the challenges of bringing rural flavors and cooking styles into a big city.

  • Jim Gossen, founder of Louisiana Foods (a leading crawfish wholesaler), explained how crawfish came to be farmed rather than fished.

  • Donald Link (also a James Beard award-winning chef), a descendant of Germans of Acadiana, described Cajun food as “the self-sufficient food of people who live in the country and eat what they can take from the land.” (Link is also co-owner of the restaurant Cochon and in-house boucherie with Chef Stryjewski.)

  • Bubba Frey explained why his boudin is so popular: He leaves out internal organs and uses very little grease. At the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center Kitchen in Eunice, he also demonstrated how cracklin is made.

  • Pableaux Johnson, writer and photographer, discussed the art and practice of smothering.
Tasting Cajun food (while also learning about Cajun history and listening to Cajun music) in Louisiana gives anyone a better understanding and appreciation of the importance of Cajun culture in the American South.

Note: Click here to see pictures taken during the Louisiana field trip.

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