My dear friends Katey and Marshall and I were planning a trip to the Big Easy when Marshall called wanting to move the dates so that we could join the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Cajun Country field trip to Eunice, Louisiana.I hesitated. I love New Orleans, but did I really want to explore rural Louisiana?
I’ve had a difficult relationship with the South. When I was younger I thought that since I grew up in Texas, I was Southern, but then I met my college roommate Beverly who grew up in Georgia. When I told her Texas was the South, she giggled, patted my hand and said, “oh, you’re so cute.”
When my sister started at the University of Mississippi, I gradually learned that Beverly wasn’t being patronizing – the South is a whole different world and I wasn’t particularly comfortable in it.I’m not naive. I know there is racism everywhere and there are many ways to be wrong, but every visit to see my sister resulted in an incident or encounter of overt racism that was more uncomfortable or blatant than the previous.
The final straw for me was when we were refused entry to a bar on her graduation night because there was a black man in our group. Fortunately, my sister was wise enough to not tell me why were turned away or about the unpleasant slur some girls called us in the parking lot until after we were in the car because I promptly came unglued. After that incident, I avoided traveling to the Deep South whenever possible.
Now Marshall wanted to go spend two days in the middle-of-nowhere Louisiana. I hemmed and hawed, but he pressed, and he’s my friend, so I caved. And, he was right.
The Southern Foodways Alliance did a fantastic job preparing us for the trip with an extensive reading list. I decided an open mind would lead to an open heart and dove into the pre-trip reading. I started with two of Marcelle Bienvenu’s books as I knew she would be one of the speakers on the trip. I really enjoyed Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cooking for the historical background and perspective on the area and the cuisine and I fell in love with her stories of growing up in Cajun Country in her “Who’s Your Mama, Are you Catholic and Can you Cook a Roux?” cookbook.
I read Hungry Town by Tom Fitzmorris and countless articles about Cajun culture. I suddenly had a much better understanding of my dear friend Jenna who grew up in Labadieville, Louisiana (yes, it’s as small as you think) and will drive across town to eat something delicious before she will dine on something mediocre. I was beginning to understand the important elements of Cajun cuisine – fresh ingredients, prepared with care to create complex, layered flavors – and get a better feel for the area.
For two days, we explored the food, music and history of the area surrounding Eunice. We learned about crawfish, the meat and three (sides) lunch and the difference between gravy and smothered. We listened to Cajun music and zydeco and learned that they are indeed different. We sipped Carolina moonshine from a Ball jar and taught diners at our table who were from north of the Mason Dixon line how to peel crawfish. We ate the most amazing breakfast biscuits with boudin balls from the French Press in Lafayette as we drank our morning coffee in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express. You can check out the play by play of our adventures on our Tumblr blog.After two days in New Orleans, we were primed for our Cajun Country field trip when we arrived at The Mowata Store just outside of Eunice, Louisiana. You would never suspect that the quaint cabin next to the gas station was the perfect place for an introduction to Cajun boudin sausage – fragrant, rich and spicy. As we listened to Bubba Frey recount the history of boudin and how he makes it, I felt myself being pulled into the rich tradition of the food.
But, the most incredible part of the trip was the company. From the attendees to the business owners to the restauranteurs, I met some of the nicest, kindest people I have ever become acquainted with on this trip. They were big hearted, caring and real. It was lovely. I asked a few of our companions about the issue of racism, always careful to couch it through my personal experience and qualms. One fellow traveller said, “Well, it’s (the racism) always there, and it’s not right, so, the best we can do is be different than that.” I agree and it put things in perspective for me.
I realized that by going on this trip, I was seeing the South, or at least this part of it, through the eyes of the Southern Foodways Alliance crew who they truly love this place. I won’t forget those negative experiences and will never condone racism or prejudice, but, by experiencing the traditions, culture and food in the center of Louisiana, my eyes and heart are now open so that I can appreciate it for what it is – a beautiful place and the heart of one of the most unique cuisines in our country.
I may never fall in love with the South, but I think we can become good friends, and maybe that’s enough. Since I’ve been home, I’ve cooked countless Cajun dishes from the “Who’s Your Mama?” cookbook and have grown to truly appreciate their seasonality dishes and the incorporation of fresh ingredients.
A few weekends ago I celebrated one of my favorite traditions, watching Longhorn football with friends, by thawing out some of the boudin I brought back from The Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana and whipping up a batch of Maque Choux (creamed corn). I figured one good tradition deserved another