“Alligators outnumber people by 10 to 1 in Louisiana”, says Jeff Richard of the Louisiana Office of Tourism. As I step out of the van onto the natural marshland of Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours in Bell City, Louisiana, I find myself carefully surveying the ground for alligators. I’m on a food tour of Louisiana and I’m hoping I will be eating more of the food than will be eating me.
The truth is, alligators are naturally timid and fearful animals making them more afraid of humans than we are of them. “The chance of winding up eaten by an alligator or even bitten by one”, explains Jeff, “is extremely rare”. But humans eating alligators? “Tastes like chicken”, laughs Jeff as we’re munching on Gator Bites at Randol’s in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Navigating a Louisiana menu is like being dropped into a foreign land. The area was settled by Nova Scotia Acadians then ruled by the Spanish and European French before Napolean sold to the Americans. Regardless of who ruled the land, the area was rich with trade and wealthy aristocrats who imported African cooks that had to please their masters by cooking the foods they liked. But no matter how hard they tried, African ingredients would always find their way into the ruling cuisine with dishes like Gumbo, Jambalaya, Boudin, Ètouffée, Pistoulette and Fricassée.
The French Canadians, or Cajuns as they were known, were hunters, trappers and fishermen. Their cuisine was rustic, one-pot meals like Fricassée, Boudin and Ètouffée, but most of all, they contributed the Cajun Trinity of yellow onions, celery and green bell peppers that replaced the traditional French mire poix of celery, onions and carrots.
Creole cuisine on the other hand is a mélange of culture, music and food from all influences that include not only Spanish, French, African and Acadian but also the German bakers and Italian canners who came later. It was the Italians who put tomatoes into a can that is now the identifying ingredient between the two styles of cuisine. Tomatoes were only used in Creole cooking, so if Gumbo is tomato based, you will know it hails from Creole roots. If the Gumbo is roux based, it is Cajun.
Back at Randol’s we chowed down on bowls of Gator Bites, Jambalaya, Corn and Crab Bisque and fresh oysters. Randol’s is not only a restaurant but a seafood distribution company so the seafood is especially fresh.
The Corn and Crab Bisque was creamy rich with spicy jalapenos, sweet corn, lightly sweet crab and layers of flavours that filled the palate. Jambalaya, the southern version of a Spanish paella was both creamy and sticky with paprika spiciness and various textures of meat and seafood that soothed the soul and comforted the psyche. Giant, salty oysters were squirted with Tabasco sauce and sucked off their shells to slither down our throats. They were glorious. One was so large I had no choice but to chew only to discover it was harbouring a tiny pearl.
In Lake Charles, Steamboat Bills serves up a mean crawfish Ètouffée. The concept is based on smothering, a popular culinary technique brought by the French Canadians. The bottom two-thirds of a wide bowl are filled with rice and over top they smother the rice with a thicker than normal stew filled with seafood. In Steamboat Bills case, it’s loaded with the most popular fish in the south, crawfish.
You can find crawfish fresh in season (February to July) and farmed throughout the year. The sweet shrimp-like white flesh can be found everywhere and in everything. Hackett’s Cajun Kitchen is a Lake Charles institution serving up crawfish boudin. Boudin looks like sausage but is really stuffing in a casing. White rice is a major crop in Southwest Louisiana and at Hackett’s only Louisiana rice makes it into their boudin. The cooked rice is mixed with parsley, diced meat (could be pork, any type of seafood, alligator and even liver). To this they add the Cajun Trilogy and a secret blend of spices.
Hackett’s is a simple little shack and the most unlikely place to inspire anyone to stand in line for hours, but the people of Lake Charles, Louisiana do. They all come looking for boudin made fresh every morning by Hackett’s Boudin Masters.
I ate a lot of Hackett’s boudin. The crawfish boudin is light, silky and buttery with the sweet flavour of crawfish in every bite. The Spicy Smoked was rich and robust with mouthwatering savoury flavours that filled my mouth and travelled right down to my toes! Oh yum, amazing flavour experiences.
While rural Louisiana prides itself in traditional comfort dishes, New Orleans forges forward with cutting edge international cuisine – a modern day mélange of flavours.
French was and still is the strongest culture of all cultural influences and that’s why in New Orleans there is a French Quarter and not a Spanish Quarter. It’s here you’ll find the official donut of Louisiana, Beignets. These square, French-style donuts with no hole in the middle are piled high with icing sugar are served warm, soft and billowy. What makes these donuts ultra light is that they’re made with choux pastry so when they’re fried, they rise with steam not yeast. The best Beignets in all of New Orleans can be found at Café du Monde. If beignet perfection wasn’t enough Café du Monde pours mountains of powdered sugar over three beignets that you wash down with a warm cup of café au lait while street vendors serenade you with blues and jazz – a great New Orleans experience.
Ralph’s on the is recognized in Bon Appetit for it’s fine cuisine, I’ll remember it for it’s surprising flavour combinations liParkke Peanut Butter and Jam Foie Gras. It creams lusciously in your mouth after which the seared Mahi Tuna turns the sweet appetizer juices on my palate to earthy, rich, serious pleasure.
Being the party town, New Orleans has their own unique style of daiquiri. They’re like slushies with alcohol or as I overheard on the street, like a “7-11 slushie with booze”. You can get frozen daiquiris in a big gulp cup on almost every street corner. Fat Tuesdays in the new Riverwalk Outlet Mall boasts a wall of slushie machines, all churning different coloured and flavoured slushies – or no, they’re daiquiris! You can choose from dozens of different flavours and because you never really know how much alcohol is in them, they tend to sneak up on you. And yes, you can buy one and walk around anywhere sipping on a really cold, frozen, alcoholic drink. I wondered why this daiquiri shop was in a shopping mall instead of a nightclub but then, I’m living proof that alcohol really does encourage the shopping spirit.
So the early French Canadians were the first to settle the land that is now Louisiana and New Orleans and we brought with us delicious dishes that hold dear today but they have given back with Tabasco. That’s right, the one and only Tabasco factory is on Avery island just outside New Orleans and well worth the trip to the welcome centre for Tabasco ice cream, Tabasco chocolate and Tabasco sauces in over 30 different flavours.
Louisiana has an international culinary culture steeped in the ages and wrapped with southern charm. It’s a place where they love nothing more than to offer Canadians a taste of their own past.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.
Lynn Ogryzlo’s short list of where to eat and what to see in and around New Orleans.
Luna Bar & Grill
www.lunabarandgrill.com Lake Charles
Steamboat Bill’s on the Lake
www.steamboatbills.com, Lake Charles
www.mrbsbistro.com, New Orleans
Cafe du Monde
www.cafedumonde.com, New Orleans
Ralph’s on the Park
www.ralphsonthepark.com, New Orleans
www.leforetneworleans.com, New Orleans
Vermilionville, a reconstructed Cajun village
www.vermilioville.org , Lafayette
Mardi Gras Museum
www.tabasco.com, Avery Island
Creole Nature Trail
Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours
www.preservationhall.com, New Orleans
Langlois School of Cooking
www.langloisnola.com, New Orleans
Riverwalk Outlet Mall
www.riverwalkneworleans.com, New Orleans