We've made it to Lafayette in Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country, and there's a big list of foods I have to try here, so the best place to start is with breakfast. Now, these 'tummy time' postings can be a little misleading. Pam and I are being quite good about breakfast, often eating bowls of cereal and fresh fruit for two days out of three, and on the third day we hit the local diners. At the diners and cafes Pam usually orders oatmeal – good old porridge – and it's available everywhere and is pretty good. On the other hand I dive into the world of American ethnic foods again and again, putting my body and tastebuds on the line in the interests of scientific tummy timing. Here goes....
Should you ever stay in Lafayette, do enjoy breakfast at Dwyers on Rue Jefferson, it's a fine place to start the day, and quite cheap. It was almost packed when we wandered past, but there was a spare table for us.
Breakfast Number 3 there consisted of two eggs (sunny side up, yum) with sausage patties and biscuit. It was the biscuit which I was interested in. Now, biscuits in Australia are what Americans call cookies, and the American 'biscuit' most closely resembles an Australian scone. I've heard that in some American restaurants biscuits are bland, dry and hard as a rock (just like a badly made scone). I was in luck this time round, as the chef in Dwyers' kitchen was a very good cook.
My biscuit was light and airy, perfect for dunking into eggy leftovers on the plate. 'Biscuits and gravy' is a popular dish here, and I presume it could be nice if very well cooked, and pretty dire if not, but I suspect its popularity is all in the gravy.
On our first morning in Lafayette we had breakfast at The French Press, a trendy cafe that cost twice as much as Dwyers and was not really any better. We loved breakfast at Dwyers. This time, at the French Press, I decided it was time to try some grits. From the photo above you can see good old sunny side ups again, plus the rounds of sausage (a large diameter, coarse, country-style, peppery sausage). The grits is the yellow stuff in the bowl.
The grits are a white porridge underneath, and for the life of me I cannot imagine what anyone sees in grits. Talk about bland! I could only eat about two to three spoonfuls of the stuff before I gave up. Think of it as semolina without the charisma. Pam also had some grits (with eggs and bacon) and she said that her grits were also bland, but the addition of something sweet might help, because the cheese didn't do much for it. I don't think I could bother experimenting: tick grits off the list, Jamie, and move on, I say (but any helpful tips from US readers will be gladly appreciated).
Moving on from breakfast I am delighted to report that we had lunch in a cheesy American Diner at last. Mel's Diner on Johnston Street, Lafayette.
We both had burgers at Mel's, and they were fine, the iced tea was nice too but it was the decor we were there for.
We enjoyed a more interesting lunch at Opelousas, which is about 20 miles north of Lafayette. A local cafe advertised that it had created the 'multi-award-winning Pearl Harbor Salad' which has won a couple of salad-making competitions in the area. As you can see from the photo it's a curious mix of nuts, broccoli florets, salad greens, chicken breast chunks, bacon pieces, mandarin sections, strawberries, feta cheese, almonds, sunflower seeds and ramen noodles. With a balsamic dressing on the side, it was very nice indeed.
Also in Opelousas we delved into some deeply ethnic, tasty and probably very unhealthy treats. Ray's and Billy's is a local institution, specialists in boudin balls and cracklins.
We were there Saturday morning and the queue was long yet patient. Everyone except me knew what they wanted and had been there before. You could tell I was the tourist, I was the one taking the photos. When I finally made it to the counter I threw myself on their mercy and explained that I didn't have a clue what to order. "No problems, honey" the nice lady drawled "I'll just fix you four cracklins and two boudin balls, that'll be $3.55, and you can come back for more if you want to."
Cracklins are baked pieces of pork belly, tossed in spices first then baked till quite crunchy on the outside, but still with enough give that they won't break your teeth. As long as you aren't a pork hater, these are of course very delicious indeed, but we felt very saintly only gobbling down these four. A long term addiction to these is possible and probably always ends in heart attacks.
Boudin balls are deep-fried balls of boudin sausage stuffing. The Cajun style of Boudin isn't a pure meat sausage at all: it is a mix of pork and rice. However if you Google 'boudin' you'll find there are white, black, red and all sorts of other variations of boudin to be found. Pam only had one bite and I polished off the rest, and after that I didn't feel like eating anything else for lunch that day. Like all Cajun foods they're spicy, with a glow of cayenne pepper lingering for quite some time after eating them.
Let's move on to dinner now, and the nicest venue for dinner, by far, was McGee's Landing, at Henderson. The best way to show you the view from this pleasant dining room is one of my pan shots, so here goes...
McGee's Landing offers up a classic Cajun menu, which includes a lot of deep-fried seafood, but they also made the best Gumbo I have tried here in Cajun Country (this is the third one I've tried in three days). Gumbos can be seafood, shrimp, chicken or sausage, but I've been sticking to the seafood gumbos. As you can see it's a dark brown colour, as they all are, because the basis for all gumbos is a roux of very slowly cooked flour and butter that, if properly done, forms a deep dark brown flavour base to which all the other ingredients are added. All the gumbos I've tried have been very good. They can be served as large bowls of soup, but all restaurants offer gumbo in a cup, like this, with a bowl of long-grain rice on the side. Looking around the restaurants, most people were enjoying a cup of gumbo as a starter. Being a Cajun food, of course it's mildly hot and spicy.
One of the notable things about cookery around here is that it's competitive. As we drove down streets, walked through towns, we saw posters here and there for all sorts of 'cook-offs' of various ingredients. As soon as we have breakfast this morning we're off to the Gumbo cook-off at nearby New Iberia, but pictured below are some of the other cook-offs happening in Cajun Country right now.
Okra is a major ingredient in some, but not all, gumbos (in fact 'gumbo' is the alternative name here for okra). All these cook-offs are also a street festival and music festival at all times. They're serious about them. This Okra cook-off was just a one-day event, but the Gumbo Festival in New Iberia is a three-day event!
Yikes! Poor little blighters. Hopefully they can read and know to skee-daddle from Opelousas on that weekend.
After we have our fill of competitive gumbo and zydeco music today in New Iberia, we're driving north and staying in Natchez, Mississippi for two nights (before heading down to New Orleans). Natchez is right on the Mississippi River, there are lots of big old plantation homes to ogle at and hopefully they make a mean mint julep up there as well. Once we get there I can tell you all about Cajun and Zydeco music, as well as the many amazing venues they have built all around the region for the community to get out there and enjoy great music and food.