The speaker asked, ‘In Louisiana, when you know someone really well, into what door of the house do you enter?’ In unison, everyone in the room replied ‘the carport.’ ‘And into what room do you first enter?’; again, everyone, ‘the kitchen.’ From that moment, I knew I was home.
I hadn’t been back to Louisiana in two years. I was deeply contemplating returning to grad school. However, due to a recent turn of career events, I have chosen to stay in New York a little while longer.
When I was seriously considering/planning returning home, I happened upon an organization known as The Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism. Their annual conference was to be held in October, on food branding in Louisiana, the Friday before Festivals Acadiens. Should I, shouldn’t I? I bought my ticket to stay a little longer, and to be able to spend time with my family.
When I purchased my plane ticket, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be simply a precursor to my big move. But life has a way of making you feel completely out of control of your own destiny. So my pre-grad school trip became simply a time to learn a little bit about what was going on in the culinary world of Louisiana, to spend quality time with those I love, and to ground me a little bit from the craziness of New York.
At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. My flight was due to leave from JFK at 12:30. Everyone boarded the plane, and about 20 minutes later were asked to deboard due to mechanical difficulties. While no one was really sure of the exact details, we all waited in line to be boarded on another flight. My turn in line came up, and I was told that we would be leaving in 10 minutes. No one had reboarded yet, but how was I to know the depth of inefficiency that awaited us? I kept the flight I was on, but was rebooked for another connecting flight, just in case. As I stepped out of line and off to the side, a conversation ensued regarding a small, but apparently, very important mechanical piece that they didn’t have at JFK, but instead housed at Laguardia. Hence, someone was off to grab this little part from LGA, and drive it back to JFK. Could be 20 minutes, could be 2 hours. Who knew? Most of us sat down to watch TV and wait. Keep in mind that none of us knew if we could go eat or not. Everyone’s main concern was not missing out on vital information regarding our flight.
Realizing we weren’t leaving anytime soon, I stood back in line to change my outbound ticket. This is when we realized that our flight was being cancelled, and we were all being rebooked on the 3:50 flight. There was now a long line, and it was about 3:00. With only one steward rebooking flights, two others running around, and one refusing to help anyone, it looked hopeless.
A few minutes later, they got their act in gear. However, since the ticketing machine decided to take a nap, after waiting in this long line to get rebooked, we were then told to go to another gate, to stand in another line, to wait for our boarding passes – for this flight only. For connecting flights, we would have to stand in yet another line to receive those at the next destination.
We finally boarded and took off for destination #1. When in the air, and able to watch TV, is when I discovered that a plane, Corey Lidle’s plane, had crashed into an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Mechanical difficulties on our Delta flight, or precaution? Still not sure, but I did get a sense of the worry and sadness hovering over the city that day.
Once in Atlanta, I grabbed a BK burger (shhhh…don’t tell anyone), checked in for the connecting flight, and preceded to purchase Internet access for $4.95, only to hear an announcement a few minutes later that our gate had changed. Put computer away, grabbed everything, took the train to the appropriate gate, sat down, popped open the laptop…Internet not available. Superb.
I had already missed my early connecting flight, was really looking forward to $1 burgers at The Bulldog (which I missed due to my flight adventure), and could have been very upset. While I did get a bit testy at one point, the time in Atlanta prepared me for going home. Most people in the airport around me, waiting for the flight to Lafayette, were speaking French. I ended up having conversations with several people including one woman whose husband raises alligators and frogs for consumption, one priest who had just returned from Ireland where a woman claimed to have the image of the Virgin Mary on her wrist, and one guy who is due to send me samples of his homemade candies and wine.
My good friend Carolyn met me at the airport, we stopped off at The Bulldog for a beer (no $1 burgers Delta, do I hear compensation???). Then, on a tour of downtown and search for something to eat, we ran across Artmosphere. ‘Food served until 2am’. Yay, food.
A friend once mentioned Artmosphere, though it didn’t exist when I was still living/studying in Lafayette. I, hence, felt the need for a little nosh and live music. Though one might expect me to head straight to the gumbo or étouffée, my first real meal back home proved to be a non-traditional treat.
Reggie, the acoustic cover-one-man-band genius was keeping the crowd in tune. Long hair, Alice in Chains t-shirt, and guitar in hand, Pearl Jam, Metallica, and Nirvana flowed from his lips and fingertips. Young ladies and gents sat around smoking cigarettes, knocking back beers, and spouting requests. Very relaxed, and something Lafayette has needed for years.
We didn’t order anything complicated, just a couple of appetizers/bar-food nibblies. ‘O Queso Dip-n-Chip’ for $4.89(dip of cheddar, cream cheese, Velveeta, cream, salsa, and jalapeños with chips), and ‘Art a Deal Yeh’ for $5.49 (a grilled basil tomato tortilla filled with artichoke hearts, feta, garbanzo beans, walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, lime, and olive oil, and served with balsamic and what Carolyn called a ranchy-dilly sauce), and I sipped on a vodka martini with feta-stuffed olives. Yum. Ultra salty, but yum.
Beryl Kemp is the owner, and a blessing to Lafayette at that. Crawford – corporate man by day, Raccoon Records t-shirt-wearin’ laid back barman by night – is part of her somewhat Socialist system team (pooling tips, everyone gets to work different jobs), and was quite a joy to have as a guide/storyteller. His story is (completely his story, may or may not be true, but pretty darn good) that once upon a time, Beryl (Berry) discovered a house in Austin for sale that she just had to have. So little by little she had this house separated, shipped to Lafayette, and placed on a piece of land in between downtown and campus. Time passed, and Berry forgot about this dream house she had shipped in pieces until one day (April 11, 2003), a light shone from on high, and illuminated its grandeur all neatly pieced together, ready for her brand new bistro-esque establishment. OK, I may have forgotten or added a few things in there, but that was the just of it.
They use no fire in their kitchen (I peeked), only electrics (toaster oven, microwave & such), and create delicious pièces de résistance. I would definitely have gone back to Artmosphere for more had the following days and nights not have been so food-filled. Indeed.
And yes, indeed it was. Thursday’s lunch was spent at my favorite shrimp po-boy place ever, Olde Tyme of course. Valerie, Olivier and I spoke French, chowed on shrimp po-boys and Zaps, and reminisced about olde tymes.
A light dinner with Mom and Carolyn that night changed from Olive Garden to Café Vermillionville. Why, because it’s so wonderful. The first and only other time I had eaten there was when I was a food columnist for my university’s paper. That was a few years ago.
Café Vermillionville was Lafayette
, Louisiana’s first historic inn. Many a tale could tell from love, war and death. Essential Anglo-French design, with a balance of marble and cypress hugging the interior. Simply a beautiful place to be.
We chose the bar rather than the restaurant for a more casual atmosphere. Sarah, our bartender, is a bright and beautiful young woman from New Orleans, finishing up her degree in Lafayette, and dreaming of relaxing Island days and nights. She provided the quintessential Louisiana atmosphere as we spoke of hard times in New Orleans, politics and past and future loves. A dirty vodka martini or two later, we decided to dig into our meal. Crawfish Beignets (Louisiana crawfish tails blended with cheese and a bacon mire poix laced with a spicy creole mustard aioli), Lump Meat Cheesecake (spices and vegetables set in a cream cheese filling with jumbo lump crabmeat), and Pan-Seared Crab Cakes (Louisiana Lump Crabmeat Cakes Panéed and served with a Lemon Dill Beurre Blanc) started things off juuuuuust right. For a true Louisiana twist, I also opted for the Turtle Soup (dark and spicy soup with, yes… turtle meat). Mom went for the Roasted Corn and Crab Bisque, which was quite lovely as well. We ended up splitting a ‘Study of Duck’ to taste. Pecan smoked maple leaf duck breast, duck confit and tasso wontons, Louisiana Mayhaw glaze, pecan and dried cranberry risotto, garnished with sweet carrot soufflé. Overall, I didn’t find it as perfect as the first time, though it was still a beautiful experience. Especially when Shawn Boudreaux, a former waiter (mine the first time) showed up and joined us for a drink. Good times… good times.
Our entire Friday day was spent at the conference (The Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism). I wasn’t sure how many people were to show up, but I was on a mission to uncover the true essence of what was going on in Louisiana food culture.
The room was somewhat small at the Acadiana Open Channel Office in downtown Lafayette. I had hoped it to be bigger with a greater attendance, but that did not change my desire to take a seat. Actually, the first thing I did was to grab a cup of coffee and purchase two books: Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine by Marcelle Bienvenu, Carl A. Brasseaux and Ryan A. Brasseaux; and Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?: A Cajun/Creole Family Album Cookbook by Marcelle Bienvenu. Mom later bought me Cooking with Cajun Women: Recipes and Remembrances from South Louisiana Kitchens by Nicole Denée Fontenot (also one of the speakers). Thanks, Ma!
Seated at the table were several interesting women: two from Cameron Parish, and one from Rayne, Louisiana with a Bed & Breakfast, Maison Daboval. The latter was bright and bubbly, and broke out into French every once-in-a-while with one of the Cameron women.
After coffee and cookies for breakfast, Carl A. Brasseaux, the Director of the Center gave his welcoming remarks and introduced the Keynote Speaker, Charley Goodson, owner of Charley G’s restaurant, recently inducted into the Louisiana Restaurant Association‘s Hall of Fame, and a true believer in the pure, traditional goodness of fresh Louisiana products. Charley recounted his background in the industry, expressed passion for Lafayette, and spoke about the rise in awareness of Louisiana restaurants. ‘EatLafayette‘ is one of those ways in which Louisiana restaurants are helping to spread the word. A four-week celebration during the early summer, it showcases Lafayette restaurants in order to help boost the community and its awareness on the surroundng food culture.
Next on the agenda was a coffee break followed by ‘History on the Table’ moderated by Food Writer Sandra Day, and hosted by panelists John Laudun (Folklorist at UL-Lafayette), Nicole D. Fontenot (Historian and Cookbook Author – see title above), and Sandy Kaplan (Restaurant/Wine Columnist and Publicist). What seemed to be a main point of conversation for this crew was not to only focus on Cajuns, but to remember about all of the other many cultures and groups in Louisiana. And if you want anything to be done, you have to go out there and make it happen. Well put.
Another coffee break later, and it was on to ‘Everybody’s Business: The Industry of Food’ by moderator Geoffrey Stewart and panelists Jeb Wright of Crystal Rice Heritage Farm, Dickie Brennan of Dickie Brennan & Co., and Si Brown of Bruce Foods. They gave an interesting overview on the industry sides of agricultural, restaurant and wholesale/manufacturing. Mark Herbert of Senator Mary Landrieu’s office also spoke out on the changes and needs of the Louisiana food industry, and how they are looking to improve it. I hope to provide more information on this at a later date.
We Louisiana natives do love our food; so when the lunch bell rings, it doesn’t have to ring twice. Lunch was provided us by T-Coon’s, a Lafayette hotspot. Barbecue Brisket, Fried Catfish, Rice Dressing, Green Beans, Potato Salad, and Bread Pudding were not to be missed. And believe me, I did not miss a one.
The nice hour & a half lunch break gave us time to dine and discuss just in beforefor ‘Sending the Right Message: Louisiana Food Perception’ began. The moderator and panelists for this discussion were Susan Silver, cookbook author Marcelle Bienvenu (see books listed above), Marti Harrell of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, and Louisiana State Representative Sydnie Mae Durand. With some pretty powerful women on this panel, the comments and delivery were not lacking in spirit. One particular comment was that olive oil was not an option when making a roux, nor would you make a roux in a wok. Now, really. They also spoke of when to harvest rice as opposed to crawfish, organic chickens being raised with cattle, and told stories on how they used to catch crawfish when crawfish weren’t a big deal in Louisiana – by picking them up off the road en route to the other side. When someone in the room questioned crawfish season pertaining to months with ‘r’s’, the entire room responded ‘No, that’s oysters.’ Do Louisianian’s know their food or what? Sydnie Mae Durand also mentioned a ‘Cajun Seal of Approval’ that they are trying to get passed for all chefs interested in calling their food ‘Cajun’. Any chef would have to study Cajun cuisine in Louisiana before being allowed this seal. But once they had it, they could be considered the real deal. I will definitely be looking into that one a bit more.
Just a side note, if you happen to be traveling down to Louisiana around Tuesday, November 7, don’t miss out on the Crawfish Farmers Expo at the Rayne Civic Center. 8am to 3pm. And, of course, lunch will be served.
Although we had only finished lunch an hour and 15 minutes prior, it was now time for a coffee break before the demos ‘Tasting the Louisiana Brand’. I need a nap just thinking about it.
Chef Tony Zeringue of Bruce Foods introduced how to inject the sauce (Creole Butter Sauce, to be exact) into a turkey in order not to lose any of the buttery goodness. Don’t hit the bone, and alternate directions with the syringe. Season liberally with Cajun Shake inside and out, and cook to 170 – 175 degrees at an oil temp of about 350 degrees. It will continue cooking when taken out of the oil. It usually takes about 3.5 minutes per pound. Wrap in foil to allow juice to fully soak through in the turkey, slice, and serve.
Kitchen manager of Prejean’s, John Greene stirred us up a mean Shrimp Diane over rice. Not too spicy, but with a nice kick.
Pat McGlothlin of Tony Chachere’s brought us Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya from a mix along with ‘The Basics of Creole Cooking’ cook booklets. Even though it was from a mix, I must confess that it was pretty darn tasty. It’s Tony Chachere’s after all.
Chef Fred Nonato from Tsunami whipped up the least traditional Louisiana fare adding sugar and rice vinegar to make his sushi rice sticky. He also informed us that ‘sushi’ actually means ‘with rice’, and that jambalaya could even be considered sushi. Not sure how many people bought that one. But the sushi was de-lish, and we were all pretty much rolling out of there right about then. How could we keep eating? It was on the program. And we love our food.
After a nice little nap, Friday evening dinner was destined to be Charley G’s. Opened in 1985, Charley Goodson‘s creation is a classic upscale spot brimming with warmth and coziness. Walking in the door, with piano in full form, was like walking into a dinner club straight outta New Orleans. Smoky aroma reminded me (and manager Shawn Boudreaux) of a friend’s kitchen in the French countryside, minus the chilly drafts seeping from the windows. Charley G’s exudes comfort and class with a casual down-home Louisiana atmosphere. Formerly part of the kitchen team at Café Vermillionville, and of Tibbs in Destin, Metro Bistro in New Orleans and Charley G’s in Metarie, Charley has chosen to focus all his passions on Charley G’s of Lafayette.
Uptown New Orleans’ Hunter Brown was our waiter for the evening. Though determined to continue nursing school at age 22, his food service career began at age 16 and includes starring roles at Upperline Restaurant, Palace Café, Court of Two Sisters and Commander’s Palace. Not too shabby for such young blood. Charley G’s sure is gonna miss ya.
Starting off with a Kangarilla Road Syrah and a Napa Simi-Cabernet, mom and I didn’t think it was humanly possible to force any more food into our bellies, let alone allow anything even closely resembling some sort of fork-like tool approaching our lips. However, with the smoky aroma and glass of wine, somehow our palates and stomachs opened wide, to some extent. First on the table were crispy oysters fried in Louisiana pecan batter, served with sweet potato pommes frites, capers, and tomato salsa. Melt-in-your-mouth crispy outside with a creamy center. Now, I’m not usually much of an oyster kinda gal, but these were sheer perfection.
Next on the menu was a tasting of 3 soups: Clear Asian Soup with shiitake mushrooms, ginger and noodles; a sweet, smoky and spicy Sweet Potato and Tasso Bisque; and my favorite, Smoked Duck & Andouille Gumbo, deep and delicious with a dark roux. Carol ‘Pops’ Boudreaux is the main man behind the gumbo, previously of Café Vermillionville, he is the recipient of the Louisiana Living Legends Award. Not too shabby, eh?
For the final savory options, a tasting menu was presented including a salad with blue cheese, red onions and a raspberry vinaigrette; a small veal chop portion with shiitakes, prosciutto, and truffle oil risotto (That risotto… talk about comfort food heaven!); Pan-seared sea bass with corn maque choux, crispy fried okra and a Creole mustard vinaigrette; and Blue Point Crab Cakes with Haricots Verts (only the best crispy-creamy combo crab cakes in the world!).
Warm and dense white Chocolate Bread Pudding soaked in a white chocolate sauce finished the meal along with a dark roast cup of Mello Joy.
So who do we thank for this lovely dinner? Several people, actually. However, the main chef, Charley G five-year veteren, Holly Goetting, gets a standing ovation. One of Louisiana Cookin‘s 2005 Chefs to Watch, she earned a cooking spot at The James Beard House in New York City. Born and raised in Lafayette, she attended UL-Lafayette originally as an interior design major. But her culinary passions cried out, and she continued on and graduated from John Folse’s culinary program at Nicholls State. Working in Maine and Colorado didn’t give her the satisfaction she seeked, so Holly returned home to her Lafayette roots. Good thing for the patrons of Charley G’s. What would we do without her?
Saturday was yet another day. And lucky for us, Festivals Acadiens was alive and well. What to eat for lunch? You must be kidding? Nope. Alligator-on-a-stick, a Bud, and a small dish of Shrimp Creole. I shared with Mom, of course. Just enough to hold me over until Burger Inn in Oakdale, my grandmother’s town. And then of course Coushatta Casino buffet with just about everything you could ask for, on Sunday. I think there were so many things on my plate that I forgot what was what. Gluttony at its best? Maybe just a tad. The other days included my grandmother’s homemade biscuits and fig jam in the mornings, Shipley’s donuts in Alexandria with Mom, Sonic, Chick-Fil-A, and Chili’s. It’s all about appreciating all the many different aspects of food culture, right? Maybe a little break on the meals is in order right about now. Oh, wait, I forgot about the lovely steak Shane, Gita, Michael and I shared at Wolfgang’s here in New York on Saturday night. And as of Thursday I will be at the Salone del Gusto (food expo) in Turin, then at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, and then meeting friends for a couple of weeks in Pareeee. Moderation, moderation, moderation. Anyone recommend a good spa?
Louisiana was wonderful. I ate some good food, met some great people, was able to spend time with friends and family, and I hope to continue to bring you long-winded and detailed information on my state in the very near future.
A few links to check out:
2007 Marquis de La Fayette Celebration
America’s Wetland Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana
Greg Arceneaux Cabinetmakers, Inc.