Acadiana: Happiest Place on Earth
This is Joe Poitier, the very best dancer on the floor this morning at the Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. And if you had seen how good these dancers were, you’d know that I’m really saying something by calling Joe the best. He is there every Saturday, dancing with all the ladies, they tell me. Read below the jump for my report from my Saturday road trip to Cajun country.
So, James showed up at my house in St. Francisville right after six this morning. You have to get to the Cafe des Amis before 7:30 if you want to get a seat at the zydeco breakfast, he said. Cafe des Amis is in Breaux Bridge, about 70 miles away, so we had to get an early start. Breaux Bridge is so close, but it really is another world away. St. Francisville is a town on the east bank of the Mississippi, in English Louisiana. French Louisiana begins on the other side of the river. The cultures are significantly different — so much so, in fact, that I have never been to Breaux Bridge.
Boy, has that ever been a mistake, but one I enjoyed making up for. On Saturday mornings, the Cafe des Amis in downtown Breaux Bridge features a zydeco band for a few hours. You can have breakfast and listen to music, and dance if you want to. This morning’s band was Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners. Here is a video clip of Leroy and his band playing the zydeco breakfast at Cafe des Amis a couple of years ago:
Listen to that and look at that. It was just like that this morning, except the dance floor was more crowded. Anyway, James and I arrived before the band started, so we found a seat at a communal table. We started with drinks and coffee, and split a big beignet stuffed with boudin and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I texted this picture of me eating the glorious thing to Julie, who texted back, “You look like you’re drunk on pork fat.” Well, yeah, kinda:
Then we ordered our breakfast entrees: for James, a tasso (spicy smoked pork) and onion omelet; for me, and omelet with crawfish etoufee. We both had andouille grits. There are no words! Actually, there are words, but Calvin Trillin has used them all up in his rapturous writing about the food of this part of the world. I sat there under the high ceilings of the cafe, next to the red brick wall, eating that fine food and thinking that I was in a pretty good place for a Saturday morning. But I was off the mark. I was, in fact, in the very best place on earth this Saturday morning, as I realized the moment the zydeco band started. It is impossible not to smile when you listen to this music. The dance floor instantly filled up. A tall, muscular black man with a straw cowboy hat stood out — that’s Joe Poitier, above — as the best dancer, but really, nobody was even a mediocre dancer here. There were old dancers, middle-aged dancers, young dancers, black dancers two-stepping with white dancers, dancers who looked like lawyers, dancers who looked like farmers. It was a “here comes everybody” kind of morning. After we finished eating, we moved to the bar. James, who, unlike Your Working Boy, can dance, found a partner and off they went. I stood with my elbow on the bar, drinking an icy Abita Turbodog, and letting the joie de vivre roll over me like cane syrup on a stack of pancakes. James came over and said, “Here it is 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and you’re on your second beer. This is living.”
Yes, this is living. Why would you want to live anywhere else? After the 2000 census, I read somewhere that the region of America that has the least out-migration is Acadiana, the Cajun country. People just don’t leave this place. When you see how you can spend a Saturday morning here, it’s not hard to understand why they remain.
Take a look at this bizarre decor at the Cafe des Amis. Russian Orthodox icons! Have you ever?
After we’d had about as much beer and dancing as a couple of middle-aged guys could stand, we went back out onto the Main Street, and tried to navigate to Poche’s (PO-shays), a Cajun meat market outside of town, where we intended to fill our cooler with boudin, chaurice, andouille, and all kinds of good things. On the way there, we stopped at a particular shop to see if the owner, an acquaintance of James’s, was there. He wasn’t, but we got to talking to the saleswoman. Turns out she’s from a town near to St. Francisville. She moved to Acadiana 20 years ago, she said, “and I’m not moving back.”
I asked her why it was so easy to find places like Cafe des Amis and its zydeco breakfast here in Acadiana, but 70 miles to the east, you don’t see these places. “It’s totally different over here,” she said.
How? I asked.
“These people, they live to eat, to drink, and to have fun. And to be Catholic,” she explained.
There is an entire worldview, an entire culture, in those two lines. The lady said that she’s not Cajun, but she’s been adopted by the Cajuns, and she doesn’t ever want to leave. The nearby city of Lafayette, she said, is smaller than Baton Rouge, but it’s got so much more life in it. “You’ve got to come back for the Festival International in Lafayette,” she said. “It’s the greatest.” OK, sold.
James and I said our goodbyes and headed out of town to Poche’s. On the way, we stopped at a gas station. James went inside to buy a Coke, and when he came out, he said three old black men were standing around inside the market, speaking French. (Did I mention that Leroy Thomas sang mostly in French?) Even though I grew up in south Louisiana, it was the English part, so it’s so unusual to me to hear black people speak French. In fact, aside from zydeco musicians singing, the only black-skinned people I’ve ever heard speak French were African francophones. And there it was this morning, in a gas station outside of Breaux Bridge.
Poche’s was nothing fancy, not remotely. But it was a treasure trove of Cajun gastronomy. James and I loaded a big ice chest with sausage, boudin, and seasoned pork roast. James bought a link of fresh hot boudin, and had torn into it before he had his seat belt fastened. The heavy bruised sky burst open with a torrential downpour as we motored down Highway 31, trying to find our way to Lafayette, and Johnson’s Boucaniere, where we were going to have lunch. By the time we saw the sign outside of Johnson’s, the skies were still gray, but the rain had slacked off:
Greg Walls, the owner and master meat smoker, greeted us, and told us after we finished our lunch, he would show us his smokers, which he designed and built himself. James and I each had the rib plate. These aren’t real ribs, but rather slices of beef butt, slow-roasted for five to seven hours, and served with homemade barbecue sauce on the side. They’re so tender they fall apart if you merely stare at them hard. Look at this, would you? Just look:
Greg brought out some of his pulled pork and his brisket for us to taste. It was delicious, but by this time, my head was starting to swim. The boudin that came with the rib plate was more peppery than I’ve had it at most places, which I like. I wanted to have more, but by then I couldn’t possibly have eaten another thing. Fat and happy, that was me.
Greg took us out in back of the restaurant to show us his smokers. There is no incensed altar in all of Christendom more glorious than the perfumed smoky meat closets behind Johnson’s Boucaniere. Here is Greg with a rack of his homemade sausages:
I don’t know if there’s much that can make a man feel more satisfied with his vocation than to know that you make your living cooking delicious food and making strangers happy with it. That’s what Greg does. It’s hard work, but man, to be able to be that kind of artist! In some parts of the country, you have to pay a lot of money to have a dining experience as thoroughly sublime as eating smoked meat on the wooden side porch at this little joint in Lafayette. Sated and silly with delight, we drove east, back across the Atchafalaya Swamp to our homes in the hills. I think these Cajun people are among the richest in the world, because they know how to eat, and they damn sure know how to live. I am not prepared to be gainsaid on this, or at least not until I have slept the day’s repasts off.
UPDATE: Now that I’ve awakened from my nap and eaten another of Greg’s smoked ribs, I feel moved by the Spirit to make two religious observations. First, this slow-smoked meat is an excellent metaphor for the regenerative work of sanctifying grace on a human soul. These ribs haven’t been cooked as much as they’ve been thoroughly converted by the holy smoke, which suffuses every tender fiber of their being.
Second, I think I’m ready for the vegan agonies of Great Lent. No, really. It’s time.