New Orleans

New Orleans is the best-known city in Louisiana thanks to Hurricane Katrina. However, the New Orleans portrayed by the media in aftermath of the storm is not the true New Orleans. There’s a lot of grit in New Orleans, but there’s a lot of good too. I will highlight a few New Orleans staples in upcoming posts, but first I’ll give an overview of the city.

The Crescent City is loud and boisterous. It’s not ashamed of its debauchery or it’s history. Every opportunity for celebration is seized. I came across this random parade on a trip to New Orleans last year.

New Orleans is the home of many prominent Louisiana musicians including Fats Domino, The Neville Brothers, and Louis Armstrong.

You’ll hear street performers play on many of the street corners, and quite a few of them are really good. I once saw a man in New Orleans playing two guitars and a bass all at once and all in time. He’d hammer the guitar frets like he was playing a piano, and he had one guitar slung in front of him and one behind him. He played the bass with his toes. I still don’t understand how he learned how to do that.

New Orleans is home to many good eats and eclectic shops. In my opinion, I think New Orleans is the heartbeat of Louisiana. The resilience of the people of New Orleans after Katrina, and their determination to rebuild their battered city speaks a bit about the Louisiana people as a whole. We love our home and our culture.

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Tabasco

Tabasco is made and bottled on Avery Island, LA Photo from biteofthebest.com

Tabasco is probably one of the furthest reaching pieces of culinary Louisiana. You can find Tabasco at nearly every grocery store, Chipotle, and even prepackaged military rations. Tabasco was first made in the 1860s and is now sold in more than 160 countries. And it’s all made on Avery Island in south Louisiana.

Avery Island is actually a large salt dome island in the Louisiana marshes. When Edmund McIlhenny decided to make his own pepper sauce, he used  peppers that he grew on Avery Island and salt from the island. The simple formula of red peppers, salt, and vinegar was such a hit that McIlhenny dropped his work as a banker and devoted his work to his pepper sauce.

The Tabasco website says that Tabasco is “a word of Mexican Indian origin believed to mean “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” It’s a fitting word, especially given how humid south Louisiana is.

Today Tabasco, comes in seven different varieties and is made in much of the same way that it was 140 years ago. Avery Island has a visitor center where you can observe how Tabasco is made and sample everything Tabasco related–even Tabasco flavored jelly beans! The island also has a 170 acre garden filled with exotic plants that visitors can explore. It’s a wonderful place to see a piece of Louisiana history.

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Crawfish Boil

Food is central in south Louisiana, and the crawfish boil is a good example of how food brings Cajun folks together. A crawfish boil is similar to what other folks in the south call a low country boil, but I’ve found that nothing else in the south tastes quite like a Louisiana crawfish boil.

A crawfish boil is a big ordeal that takes all afternoon to prepare and eat. The crawfish needs to be fresh, so they need to be bought the day of the boil. The main things you need for a crawfish boil are:

  • a large pot with a strainer basket between 65-80 quarts
  • a larger propane burner
  • a 140 quart ice chest
  • crawfish boil seasoning

The first thing we’ll do is set the water boiling and add the seasoning because it takes awhile to bring so much water to a boil. Crawfish boil seasoning contains salt, cayenne pepper, paprika and a few other spices. After that, we open up the crawfish sack and put all the crawfish in the ice chest. We then fill up the ice chest with water to clean the crawfish. This helps to clean the dirt off the crawfish, and it also helps to purge the crawfish’s system. After the water gets dirty, we dump it out and then refill the ice chest. Three rinses usually suffice.

Crawfish aren’t the only thing eaten at a crawfish boil. In addition to crawfish we also boil red potatoes, onions, corn on the cob and mini sausages. Those are boiled first as a precursor to the crawfish.

Once everything is boiled, we serve the crawfish on large plastic trays and then go at it. Everybody sits around a patio table for a few hours just peeling, eating and talking. We usually mix together a dipping sauce with mayo, ketchup, garlic and onion juice, and cayenne pepper for the crawfish. The sauce is always mixed to taste, and I’ve never used a recipe for it.

Crawfish boils bring everybody in the family together, and they are one of the things about south Louisiana that I love most. The closest thing that I’ve found to a crawfish boil in Georgia is a shrimp boil, but I definitely miss eating crawfish.

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Crawfishing, pt 2

There are two types of crawfishing, deep water and shallow water. Deep water crawfishing takes place in rivers, while shallow water crawfishing typically takes place in specially dug ponds. My uncle uses a specially fitted aluminum boat to catch crawfish. The wheel is run by hydraulics and pulls the boat forward.

The crawfish boat is specially suited to work in shallow water

Crawfish nets are usually out of rubber coated chicken wire. The net has a plastic top with a small lip that allows the fisherman to pull the net out of the water. Connected to the top is a wire cylnder that lead to the larger base of the net. The bottom of the net is made with three flues that allow the crawfish to go into, but not out of, the net. A metal rod runs from the plastic top to about six inches past the bottom of the net. The rod is there so the the net can be stuck into the ground and not fall over.

The crawfish net is specially suited for shallow water crawfish ponds

The nets are baited with a piece of fish, crawfish bait (large pellets that look like rabbit or chicken feed), and hard corn. The fish and bait attract the crawfish into the net, and the hard corn helps ensure that the crawfish will stay and eat for awhile. The nets are arranged in rows in the pond. To pull the nets, the crawfisheman will start with a net that is already baited and drive the boat over to the first net. He’ll then pull the first ne out of the water, stick the new net in it place, and dump the crawfish into a five gallon bucket. As he’s moving to the next net, he’ll re-bait the first net and just repeat the process as he goes along.

The sorting tray is used to take out old bait and to stuff the crawfish into sacks

Once he’s filled up a few buckets, he’ll pause to dump the crawfish into the boat’s sorting tray to pull out the old bait and fishbones, and to stuff the crawfish in to sacks. He will, of course, be thick rubber gloves to protect himself from the crawfish pinchers. A full crawfish sack can weigh up to 40 pounds and can cost $50, depending on the price per pound. The catch of the day can be sold to restaurants, processing plants, and to families wanting to have a crawfish boil. I’ll talk later about the crawfish boil and other ways that crawfish can be eaten in a later post!

A sack of crawfish can weigh up to 50 pounds

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Boudin and Cracklins

Boudin is an another essetial Cajun food group. Yes, it is that important. Pronounced boo-dahn, it is a fairly simple food with old origins that. Boudin essentially a mixture of pork meat, rice, onions, bell peppers and seasonings that are cooked together into what some people know as a rice dressing. After everything is cooked down, the mixture is put into thin casings and boiled. After that, it’s ready to eat.

NOLA Cuisine has a pretty good recipe for boudin. My only critique is that you should definitely put the mix into casings, otherwise you just have rice dressing. I’d also only put the meat through a grinder, not the whole mixture. Everything else sounds très bon!

Boudin makes a quick and tasty snack. Photo from Nola Cuisine

In the old days all the people of the town would get together for a boucherie, a butchering. They would slaughter a couple of pigs and work like a big family to clean the meat and cook. They would make boudin and use the pig intestines for the casing (synthetic casings are used today). They would also make cracklins, which are fried pork skins.

Today there are many boudin and cracklin shops all over south Louisiana. Some places are known to have much better boudin and cracklins than others, and some folks take their boudin quite seriously. Apparently, the issue of what town could be called “Boudin Capital of the World” became a cause of disagreement within the Louisiana House of Representatives.

If you’re ever in Louisiana, Don’s Specialty Meats in Carencro has what I consider to be some of the best boudin around. Some places put too much rice in their boudin because they’re trying to save money, but Don’s has a good mix of meat, rice, and spice. If there is one food from Louisiana that I miss when I’m in Georgia, it’s boudin.

Don’s in Carencro makes their boudin hot and fresh. Photo from thenewsstar.com

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Acadiana

The year is 1755, and the Catholic French living in Nova Scotia are being exiled for their refusal to bend the knee to Protestant England. They fled and settled in what is now south Louisiana. The region where they settled is now known as Acadiana, a 22 parish region that makes up a large portion of Louisiana.

A parish is typically the area of jurisdiction for a Catholic church, and since the church was central in those days, everything was formed around it. We say ‘parishes’ instead of ‘counties’ in Louisiana because of the large role of Catholicism in the lives both the French and Spanish colonists in Louisiana. The Acadiana flag symbolizes the French and Spanish heritage of the Acadiana region.

The Acadiana flag represents the region’s heritage

The Acadians brought their culture with them, and adapted it to the Louisiana landscape. Catholicism is still deeply rooted in south Louisiana, and even our way of cooking harkens back to Acadian way of life. The map bellow illustrates how widespread Acadiana is.

Acadiana makes up most of south Louisiana

It’s important to know that Acadiana is a specific region. Although the culture of Acadiana may bleed over into other places in Louisiana, Acadiana has a distinct culture and flavor of its own.

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Zydeco

Merriam Webster defines zydeco as, “popular music of southern Louisiana that combines tunes of French origin with elements of Caribbean music and the blues and that features guitar, washboard, and accordion.” We call it chanky-chank music sometimes.

As I’ve written before, you just need to hear south Louisiana. The culture is largely spoken, not written, and the beauty of our culture is in the accents, the music, and the language. This video does a good job of explaining Cajun music, and the old man talking at the beginning is the perfect example of how the older folks in Louisiana sound.

There are other examples of Cajun musicians, including Hadley Castille, who is a fairly famous fiddler in south Louisiana.

“The Cajun music is sort of like singing the blues, dispelling the bad times for the good times.”

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