Before my first trip to Cajun country, down in Southeastern Louisiana, I read books on Cajun folklore by Barry Jean Ancelet. I watched a documentary on the courir de Mardi Gras, in which men mounted horses and tore through the countryside, plundering smokehouses for sausages to cook a community gumbo. Inspired by Paul Prudhomme’s cookbooks, I even learned to blacken redfish in a butter-slicked cast iron skillet. None of that prepared me for what I would find.
In the 20 years since, I’ve danced in an okra patch at the annual Zydeco music festival and drunk cocktails with umbrella swizzle sticks in a ruined 1930s casino. I’ve spent the night in an old railroad hotel, where the keeper invited me to finger the bullet hole left in the bar after a recent scuffle. On a countryside boudin crawl, I learned to suck boudin from its innard sleeve and determined that I prefer the subtly hot links from Bubba Frey’s store, sliced into rounds, mounded on crackers, and topped with fig preserves. I’ve tasted sugarcane syrup made by Charles Poirier in a backyard sugarhouse in Youngsville, and I’ve sworn off maple syrup since.
I’ve watched couples waltz at nine in the morning at Fred’s Lounge (above), a shot-and-beer bar in Mamou, where proprietor Tante Sue, her face framed by a halo of gray curls, took healthy swigs of cinnamon-flavored schnapps from a bottle and squeezed her chest in time to the music as if playing an accordion.
These were not my people. That I knew. But I wanted desperately to be in their number. And I desperately wanted to belong to their place. And that is why I keep going back.
John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, is the author or editor of a dozen books. This appeared in the May 2014 issue.