Friday, November 9, 2012

Living it Up in Southwest Louisiana

The Rouge et Blanc Festival - just one of 75 annual festivals held each year.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Southwest Louisiana and Lake Charles along with other travel journalists and food writers. It was truly an amazing experience and I'm smitten. Can I just say that Louisiana people know how to have fun? They know how to eat, too! The tour was focused on Cajun food culinary experiences available in this part of the state. When I told people I was going to Louisiana, most replied enthusiastically, "Oh, New Orleans?" And it's true -- it's the first place most (outside of Louisiana) think of when you name the state. However, there are many other wonderful towns and cities and Lake Charles is one of them. It's situated about four hours west of New Orleans near the coast only a few miles from the Texas border. In fact, I flew into Houston and caught a short flight back east to Lake Charles. It's a little bit Texas, a little bit Louisiana, and a lot Cajun!

Who are the Cajuns?
You know I dig this stuff, so time for a history lesson. The Cajun people are descendants of the Acadians, a French ethnic group, who were forced out of Canada (what is now Nova Scotia) in 1755 because of their Catholic faith. They ended up settling in the swampy "no man's land" of Southwest Louisiana. Because of their isolation living on the bayous and vast prairie lands, they retained much of their language and culture. They adapted to their new environs by living off the land. Seafood, game, rice, sausage (that utilizes the whole hog) and of course a little spice are at the heart of Cajun cuisine.

Scenes from the Pintail Wildlife Drive - a glimpse of the beauty of the bayou.

Cajun Food
We had the opportunity to dine at some local Cajun restaurants and meat markets. On the menu: gumbo, po' boys, fried seafood, boiled seafood, broiled seafood, crawfish, gator, cracklins and boudin. A humble sausage of pork and rice, boudin is a staple of Southwest Louisiana food culture. In fact, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has developed a Boudin Trail that highlights restaurants and delis where you can sample the local delicacy. Boudin deserves a post of it's own, so I'll get back to that, but as a tease, look at this platter of meatiness.

Boudin and cracklins at Famous Foods Market.

The food was all delicious. The gumbo in this part of the state is made from a roux of oil and flour. Creole cooking, which originated in New Orleans, typically uses butter to make the roux. Cajuns did not have easy access to butter - hence oil or lard was a choice of necessity. I tried the gumbo at local favorite, Seafood Palace, and it was divine. They also brought out a huge tray of steamed crabs for us to admire. We split several appetizers like fried gator bites (yes, real gator meat) and the light and fluffy Crawfish Pistolette pictured below. It's a Southwest Louisiana speciality.

On the menu at Seafood Palace.

Another Louisiana speciality is King Cake. This sweet ringed yeast cake is traditionally eaten on Epiphany, Three Kings' Day or Twelfth Night - depending on what you call it. The religious holiday falls on January 6 and honors the meeting of the "Three Wise Men" with baby Jesus. The holiday is also officially kicks off Mardi Gras. The cake's oval shape is said to represent the unity of all Christians. It's also traditionally decorated in the carnival colors of green, yellow and purple. Nestled inside each cake is a tiny plastic baby. Whoever finds the baby is obligated to bring the cake to next year's celebration.

It doesn't have to be January 6th to get a King Cake in Louisiana. We visited a small grocery store in nearby Sulphur, Louisiana and decorated our own in the back storeroom. Misse's Grocery has become well known for their King Cakes and they ship them out across the country any time of year. Mine was delivered to to my family in Georgia the very next day. The boys were so excited and almost devoured it before I got home!

King Cake decorated by moi.

A Land of Celebrations
King Cake goes hand in hand with Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is as big of deal in Lake Charles as it is in New Orleans. Lake Charles has over 50 krewes and is the second largest celebration in the state. Lake Charles is also the only place in the state where the public is invited to see the ornate costumes of the royal courts from all the local krewes in one place. It is very family-friendly and accessible from what I hear. If you can't make it to Lake Charles during Mardi Gras, you can visit the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu year-round. The museum features the largest costume display in the world. The ornate costumes, most handmade by local residents, are truly incredible.

Liberace would have approved.

There are 74 other festivals in Lake Charles each year besides Mardi Gras. We had the chance to attend the second-annual Rouge et Blanc Food and Wine Festival. It is held on the grounds of the historic 1911 City Hall in downtown Lake Charles. It's pictured at the top of this post. The festival features food and wine from local restaurants, casinos and distributors. It was so much fun --  maybe a little too much fun!

This lobster toast was fabulous. And I love the wine glass holding plates they gave us for our samples.

There are so many other stories to tell, but I think I will stop here for now. Expect a few more posts on Louisiana soon! I want to try my hand at some Cajun gumbo -- and I want to tell you more about boudin, casinos, horse racing, zydeco and all the many ways my new Southwest Louisiana friends celebrate the joie de vivre - the joy of living.

1 comment:

  1. An informative and interesting article. I appreciate your mentioning the "family friendly" Lake Charles Mardi Gras because I'd like to take my teen grandchildren but not if it's crazy like in N.O. or Galveston. You did a good job of listing the dishes of the region. My dad was from Cameron, LA and I grew up "next door" in Port Arthur, TX. Although my father's family wasn't Cajun we enjoyed all the foods of the region.