It was 10:30 on a Saturday morning at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge, La. Breakfast may have been winding down at this small-town eatery in the heart of Cajun country, but the music and dancing were in full swing. In fact, the place had been hopping for two hours -- with barely a moment's breath between its bouncing beat. Spoons clinked in coffee cups, and waitresses carrying platters of eggs weaved between dancers.
I was washing down my crawfish étouffée with a spicy Bloody Mary while watching 76-year-old Antoine twirl around the crowded dance floor with a woman half his age. "This is a phenomenon," said owner Dickie Breaux as he sat on a bar stool overseeing the action outside the kitchen. Young, old, black, white, fat, thin, toned, tattooed -- all were dancing together at his nationally recognized zydeco breakfast in a town of 7,554 that could be considered a phenomenon itself.
Located 129 miles from New Orleans, Breaux Bridge may be a small-town country cousin to the Big Easy, but it offers its own bite of rich cultural flavor and homespun hospitality. It also makes a perfect base for exploring the surrounding area known as Cajun country.
Around here, "music is everywhere, every day," local Elizabeth English told me with pride. You can sit in on authentic Cajun jam sessions over at the Coffee Break, chow down at a crawfish boil where a band plays nightly, or simply dance from morning to night.
Often called Acadiana, Cajun Louisiana consists of 22 parishes, or counties, including Breaux Bridge's St. Martin Parish in the southwest part of the state. Home to many of the French Canadians run out of Nova Scotia after Britain took control in the 1750s, the French connection is still strong here -- and not just in locals' accents. Street signs say "rue"; restaurants like Chez Jacqueline boast fine "French and Cajun cuisine." At the town's tiny Champagne's Bakery, a hand-painted sign spells it out even more clearly: WE SPEAK FRENCH.
But this is French culture without an attitude or little dog in sight. When I stopped in at one of the numerous gas stations selling the local spicy sausage called "boudin," the first thing the girl at the counter asked me was, "Where y'all from?" As I opened the door to leave, instead of saying good-bye, she hollered: "Welcome to Louisiana!"
Music and food intertwine
Visiting here is like visiting another country -- but a country where the past isn't found on cobblestone streets or historic statues; rather it curves through the air on fiddle and accordion melodies, drenches your taste buds with its spicy zest of living -- and more often than not, does both at the same time. Music and food are as intertwined here as the moss that wraps around the trees in the bayous -- even when you're not expecting it.
On Saturday night I drove to Eunice (in the heart of the Cajun prairie) and the restored Liberty Theater. Originally a vaudeville palace dating from 1924, the theater hosts the Rendez-vous des Cajuns, a 90-minute variety show broadcast live on Saturday nights (think "A Prairie Home Companion," Cajun-style). The music was fantastic, but I missed half the bad jokes and most of the banter that took place in fast French Acadian patois. What I did comprehend was that they were celebrating the birthday of the evening's performer, D.L. Menard (considered the "Cajun Hank Williams").
When they ended the show by serving up homemade jambalaya and pineapple upside-down "birthday" cake, I also understood that everyone was invited to partake. I never thought there would be enough to feed all the folks in the jam-packed place, but it was like the loaves and fishes Bible story. I was almost last in line, yet there was plenty left to allow my plate to be heaped high with the best jambalaya I have ever eaten.
Swamp tours and full plates
Jambalaya is a staple in Louisiana, thanks in part to the area's abundant rice fields. But the eerie and mysterious bayous and swamps that form much of the country's landscape still have the most haunting appeal for visitors.
Numerous jaunts and excursions are available, but I chose to go on an Atchafalay ("say it kind of like a sneeze," I was advised by a local) Swamp tour with McGee's Landing owner David Allemond, who was born and raised there. Before we left on the tour, he gave me my first lesson in the art of eating crawfish at his dance hall/restaurant/bar on the levee, demonstrating how you grasp the crawfish head in one hand, the tail with other hand (no knives and forks here) and then squeeze and twist gently until the meat twists out. A true Cajun (I discovered I was not) will also suck the juices from the head.
Although business has started to slowly pick up, it's been tough since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans in 2005. "People thought we were gone, too," Allemond said. Then he brightened as we readied for the swamp tour. "Growing up here was like being Huck Finn," Allemond reminisced fondly before we roared off in his airboat to tour the swampland he knows by heart. We didn't come eye-to-eye with a 'gator that day, but seeing a huge flash and splash of one as it leaped in the air to snap at a bird a short distance away was more than enough excitement for this Midwesterner.
In Cajun country, I learned that alligators are not only to be seen (and feared), but they are to be fried and grilled. When I dined at Prejean's Restaurant, a popular Cajun eatery in Lafayette, the menu included alligator, as well as crawfish enchiladas, shrimp po-boys and seafood bisque. Dessert was a slice of spice-rich gateau de sirop, or syrup cake. I was happily satisfied with a bowl of their dark and rich smoked duck and andouille gumbo served with the traditional plop of rice in the middle.
Driving around the region you could easily spend weeks tasting the various gumbos and seafood available at cafes where waitresses say, "Thanks, baby" no matter your age and where at least three hot sauces (including a house-made option) grace each table. Signs abound at small markets and gas stations for "boiling crawfish" (Breaux Bridge is Crawfish Capital of the World), "fresh boudin" and "cracklin's" -- those deep-fried Southern delicacies, something like pork rinds. On my way to St. Martinville to see the oak tree that Longfellow immortalized in his famous "Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie," I even picked up a sweet potato pie at an outdoor walk-up window.
The good news is that in Breaux Bridge you can easily work off those Cajun calories by dancing from morning until, well, morning. Regulars like Antoine told me that his weekend dance plan often starts at places like Café des Amis' Saturday zydeco breakfast. When the music stops there, he heads to dance hall/restaurants like Crawfish Town and Mulate's or wherever the best band may still be playing.
I was told that nobody misses the music and dancing at Whiskey River Landing. It's open only on Sundays from 4 to 8 p.m., and when I got there at twilight there was a boatload of cars and trucks already parked on the levee. Strings of Christmas lights twinkled against the water and outlined the ramshackle building. Smoke billowed out every so often from a covered grill where sausages were cooking. As its lid was opened and closed, spicy rushes of aroma filled the air.
Inside, hometown zydeco favorite and 2008 Grammy Award-nominee Geno Delafose was performing. (The Grammy Awards added a Zydeco/Cajun category this year.)
The place was packed, and every so often a loud cowbell clanged through the steamy din. "That's when the bartender gets a tip," a guy on a nearby bar stool explained to me. Someone ordered me a drink. Someone else asked if I wanted to dance. I did.
We moved through twentysomethings and silver-haired couples, while the French words of the song were translated by my partner. With his own thick French Acadian accent, I still couldn't understand much of the story. But by the second twirl around the room, the words had melted away, and then there was only the music.
Donna Tabbert Long is a Minneapolis writer. ...