“Laissez les bon temps rouler!” is an expression you’ll hear often throughout the parishes in southern Louisiana. Translated it means, “Let the good times roll.” More than a sentiment, it’s a true representation of the joie de vivre spirit that is Cajun culture. Lafayette, the state’s fourth largest city, is considered the center of Acadiana, the heart of Cajun Country. With its colorful heritage, rich culinary influences and infectious music, this town is all about showing visitors a “two-steppin’, toe-tappin’, taste-temptin’ good time!”
I have always had a fascination with Cajun culture and decided that a trip to Lafayette would give me an opportunity to find my “inner Cajun.” According to the locals, there are three ways to become a bona fide Cajun: by blood, via a ring or through the backdoor. The latter involves living the Cajun way of life and celebrating all things Cajun. First and foremost, you are required to have a favorite boudin. A unique regional specialty, boudin consists of a combination of cooked rice, pork, onions, green peppers and seasonings, which is pulverized in a meat grinder before being stuffed in a casing. It’s then steamed and consumed, typically on-the-go due to its convenient portability factor. Once you have committed to your favorite boudin, you must defend it to the world, wear the t-shirt, put the bumper sticker on your car and basically treat it in the same manner that a rabid fan does with his/her football team. To emphasize the importance of this beloved Cajun staple, Lafayette holds the Annual Boudin Cook-off each fall, with boudin eating contests and a people’s choice award for the best boudin. The event also features several unique boudin dishes made with a more creative flair, including boudin burgers, boudin pie, boudin-stuffed Cornish game hens and even boudin egg rolls.
Learning about the region’s cuisine is a must for visitors, as food plays such a significant role in Cajun culture. Few things in this area garner the amount of attention as food preparation and mealtimes. Meals are shared as a means of bonding and celebration. And recipes are passed down with traditional dishes held in high esteem. Through food, families maintain a sense of generational continuation. For a culinary tutelage where you can experience the flavor of Louisiana, check out Cajun Food Tours. Owner/guide Marie Ducote will introduce you to Cajun treasures like boudin, crawfish, gumbo, cracklin’ and more, while regaling you with information about the history and culture of this special part of the country. Her rallying cry of “Allons manger!” or “Let’s go eat!” primes your taste buds to sample another delight at one of the six stops along the tour.
At Cajun Market Donuts, for example, you’ll taste boudin stuffed kolaches, a pig-in-a-blanket type concoction, along with the company’s melt-in-your-mouth glaze and cake donuts. For homemade court bouillon, a seasoned type gravy with crawfish, catfish, shrimp, rice, tomatoes and roux, you’ll dine at T-Coons, a well-known establishment under the helm of founder David Billeaud, a sixth generation Billeaud from Broussard, Louisiana. Billeaud’s Acadian family is of French ancestry, one of many who were sent from France to colonize the Maritime Provinces. There the colonists created an almost mythical paradise called “Acadia,” and flourished until the mid-1700s when the British expelled and exiled them from Canada. Families were separated in cruel fashion, with tens of thousands of people forced onto boats and set out to sea. Nearly half perished before getting to land. Fast forward to the Louisiana Territory now under Spain’s rule. To attract farmers, Spain offered free land, which lured the Acadian men to the area. They sent word of a “new Acadia” and others came to settle along the coast of what eventually became South Louisiana. The migration formed a melting pot of cultural groups, each with its own practices and influences. As time passed, the name “Acadian” became “Cajun.”
Cajuns cooked–and still cook hearty dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and other one pot meals containing an abundance of seafood, veggies, rice and spices. They use whatever is available locally. Anything that swims, flies, walks or grows in the vicinity is fair game for being thrown into the mix. It’s said that a true Cajun cook adds “everything but the kitchen sink” when it comes to creating a good meal. “Creole” is another term you’ll come across regarding the cuisine in southern Louisiana. It’s used to describe the French colonists who settled in the area and introduced traditional French foods like breads, sweets and sauces. Common Creole dishes that evolved over time include étouffée, sauce piquant, bisque and beignets. Cajun and Creole food share many commonalities and it’s often difficult to clearly sort out the specifics of one cuisine from the other. Know that whatever you eat is guaranteed to have plenty of flavor!
For more boudin, as well as some cracklin, you’ll stop in at Nunu’s, a specialty meat market, boasting twenty-seven different varieties of sausages. To the uninitiated, cracklin, also known as crackling, cracklins or gratons, is a popular snack consisting of seasoned pork skin, fat and/or meat that has been fried, cooled and then re-fried until “popped.” Nunu’s is also known for its own brand of Cajun seasoning (a recipe that’s a long held secret), which is available for purchase. It’s a staple in many southern Louisiana kitchens.
At Fezzo’s, chargrilled oysters and fried alligator bites are on the tasting menu. Most folks liken the latter’s taste to that of a mix of chicken and fish, with a chewier consistency. You’ll find gator nuggets on the menu in a number of eateries, as this is a dish that definitely has its devoted groupies. Fezzo’s is a Cajun tradition in Lafayette and also serves up gumbos, bisques, fried and grilled fish platters, flame-grilled steaks and pasta dishes.
The po’boy is another beloved regional specialty and BJ’s reputedly has the best in town. Those sold at this shop are actually made by Old Tyme Grocery and include either fried seafood or some type of meat with tomatoes, mayo and lettuce, which is then stuffed inside homemade bread and served on butcher paper. The roots of this sandwich date can be traced to the late 1920s when transit workers went on strike in New Orleans. The picketers would ask the Martin brothers, who were local restauranteurs, if they could “spare a poor boy a meal?” The brothers took pity on the workers and gave them a sandwich of yesterday’s bread containing some meat and veggies. These became known as po’boys and the name stuck.
Your final stop on the tour will be for something sweet at Papa T’s Café, where you’ll sample the restaurant’s famed bread pudding. If you’re not a fan of this dessert, I dare you to try it anyway because this is bread pudding like you’ve never tasted before! Papa T’s uses French bread and his sauce is made of dark brown praline. It’s love at first bite when it comes to this decadent creation!
Though you may want to spend all of the time eating your way through this foodie town, know there are plenty of other activities in which you may want to participate during your stay. To get a dose of history, check out the Acadian Cultural Center, one of six sites of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve which represent a treasure trove of south Louisiana’s historical and cultural riches. The center in Lafayette tells stories of the origins, migration, settlement and contemporary culture of the Acadians and other area groups. It offers ranger programs, films, exhibits and events including music, story-telling and dance, while exploring the mysteries of the Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana’s wildest place.
Your next stop should be at Vermilionville, where you can learn about the Acadian, Native American and Creole cultures within a hands-on, living history format. This unique folklife park sits on a picturesque 23-acre site next to the banks of the Bayou Vermilion. It boasts nineteen attractions, including seven restored original homes with more than thirteen local artisans who provide demonstrations of several essential crafts performed by the early settlers. You’ll have opportunities to interact with the artisans as they spin, weave, carve, make corn husk dolls and play music with traditional instruments.
The Avery Island experience is another popular excursion for visitors, especially those who are aficionados of hot sauce. The site, which is actually a salt dome that extends some eight miles beneath the earth’s surface, is the home of the world-famous TABASCO pepper sauce. Manufactured by the Mcllhenny Company since its invention in 1868 by Edmund Mcllhenny, the sauce has legions of dedicated fans from all parts of the globe. It has been featured in pop culture and film and has been a staple in military mess kits for years. Today, the business continues to be owned and operated by Mcllhenny’s descendants. A self-guided tour of the place allows you to view artifacts from the founding family and to learn how Edmund created the sauce to give the bland food of the Reconstruction South some pizzazz and excitement; witness the growing process of the pepper plants from seedlings to mature plants,; visit the mash warehouse for a peak at the TABASCO aging process; view and smell the aromas of the stirring vats; and learn about the company’s bottling and shipping process around the world. For actual tastings, head to the general store and try the various TABASCO flavors, which run the gamut from Buffalo style and Habanero to Sriracha and Raspberry Chipotle.
The island is also the site of Jungle Gardens, one of the world’s most beautifully preserved nature sanctuaries. It was here that Edmund Mcllhenny’s son Edward ensured that future generations would have a place to enjoy and study the wonders of nature. Of note is the large collection of camellias and azaleas. Acres upon acres of colorful varieties carpet the landscape, while English hollies line the hedges of the roads and groves of evergreens and massive live oak trees create an Eden like environment. Then there’s the wildlife, with alligators, white-tailed deer and snowy egrets commonly sighted. Not surprisingly, Jungle Gardens is a birder’s paradise with hundreds of species of resident and migratory creatures. And there’s even a giant Buddha statue dating back hundreds of years, a gift to Edmund. It’s the centerpiece of the Chinese Gardens, a tranquil spot that evokes serenity and peace.
Music is the heartbeat of Cajun culture and it is tightly woven within the fabric of Lafayette. The area’s music scene is vibrant and eclectic with a host of live music venues, dancehalls, jam sessions, concert series and music festivals. On any given night, you can find live music in town at restaurants, cafes, bars and lounges, and if you’d like to strut your stuff on the dance floor, there are numerous opportunities. Don’t fret if you don’t know how to do the 2-step or jitterbug Cajun style, as you can always pick up the fundamentals at one of the free dance lesson sessions offered around the city.
If you’re interested in the instruments themselves, particularly those used in Cajun and zydeco music, make sure you visit Martin Accordions. For over thirty years, this family-run company has built handmade, single row, diatonic accordions for musicians worldwide. The shop tour and Cajun music presentation, which is available for groups of fifteen or more, is not only educational, but loads of fun. During the tour, you’ll go on a musical journey through the years with an emphasis on the timeline of accordions and learn the differences between Cajun and zydeco styles and their influences. Junior Martin, the patriarch of the family, is joined by his daughter Penny and grandson Joel, who each contribute to this fascinating presentation. An hour of Cajun and zydeco music is included, along with time to explore the factory and the different custom accordions on display. The Martins play a variety of instruments in addition to the accordion, such as the pedal steel guitar and the scrub or washboard. The latter serves as a percussion instrument and is played with spoons, whisks and other metal kitchen utensils to create different sounds.
Southern Louisiana is known for its natural beauty. To explore this unique environment, take an airboat tour with Basin Landing. You’ll get up close and personal with ancient mossy cypress trees, majestic bodies of water and of course, the infamous gators of the Atchafalaya Basin. This basin is the nation’s largest river swamp, containing almost one million acres of the country’s most significant bottomland hardwoods, swamps, bayous and backwater lakes. Established in 1984, the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge has helped to improve plant communities for endangered and declining species of wildlife, waterfowl, migratory birds and alligators.
The area has an aura of mystery and eerie beauty to it that enchants visitors unaccustomed to such a special landscape. Spanish moss hangs low to the water, presenting a backdrop of lace drapery, while black willow trees stand as silent sentinels. The moss was a big industry at one time; collected and used for insulation in homes and to stuff mattresses and pillows. The black willow was known for its medicinal uses, particularly as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory homeopathic treatment. One minute you’ll be mesmerized by the gentle swaying of the leaves in the wind; the next, you’ll be startled by an Asian Carp doing flips in the water boat side. You’ll slowly mosey into nooks and crannies, while spying snowy egrets and herons standing motionless in the reeds. And in the open sections of the basin, Captain Craig will put the pedal to the metal and race at exhilarating speeds for a stretch.
The experience is more than a boat ride, as you’ll get a commentary from your captain about the area and the creatures that inhabit it. The gators, of course, take center stage and at times, they’re well camouflaged and difficult to locate, as they lurk beneath the surface of the water. But Captain Craig knows where to find them and soon, they’ll magically appear in all their prehistoric-like glory. Most folks are fascinated by gators, as they have such a spooky quality to them. Their eyes, in particular, are most unnerving, as they have a cold, predatory glint and convey a “take no prisoners” attitude. These creatures can get up to eight feet in length in the basin, though most of the ones we saw were four or five feet long–plenty big enough for me!
Stretch your legs with a walk around pedestrian-friendly, downtown Lafayette upon your return. If you notice a lot of people with smiles on their faces, it’s not some charade they’re playing to convince you they’re happy. It’s the real deal. Just a few years ago, a Harvard study determined Lafayette to be the “Happiest City in America.” Folks in this Louisiana town genuinely like where they live and enjoy life with gusto. They also welcome visitors with open arms, eager to share some of their warm Cajun hospitality.
The city’s central core is full of shops, galleries, museums and eateries, as well as parks and open spaces for concerts, performances and festivals celebrating the Acadiana of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Take note of the outdoor gallery of public art, where you’ll find sculptures and murals from local and internationally renowned artists that enhance the cultural experience in the district. For a look at the work of some of the state’s most talented artisans, step inside Sans Souci Fine Grafts Gallery, the home of the Louisiana Crafts Guild. You’ll find one-of-a-kind traditional and contemporary Louisiana crafts in a variety of media, such as pottery, jewelry, glass, textiles, metal and wood. The gallery is housed in one of Lafayette’s oldest structures, a quaint, 1880s building.
If you haven’t had your fill of gators, head to nearby University of Louisiana, Lafayette. In the middle of the campus is Cypress Lake. Originally a grove of trees, the area was flooded during WWII as a water reserve that could be used to extinguish possible fires from air attacks. Today, it’s a beautiful lake, home to alligators, bullfrogs, turtles and an abundance of fish, birds and cypress trees. UL Lafayette has the distinction of being the only university in the U.S. with a managed wetland on its campus.
When it comes to accommodations, Lafayette has a number of options, from chain hotels to inns and boutique properties, such as the top-rated Louisiana Cajun Mansion Bed & Breakfast. Nestled in the heart of Cajun Country in the picturesque town of Youngsville, just minutes from Lafayette, this five-acre estate has a lush park-like setting. It’s exquisitely decorated for comfort, elegance and relaxation with a large living room, spacious sun room, quaint sitting areas, romantic wine room, infinity pool and patio with grilling kitchen. Each of the rooms is well-appointed with plush beds and sumptuous linens. You’ll wake up to a homemade Cajun breakfast each morning that’s guaranteed to be delicious and hearty. And innkeeper/owner Sandra Booher is a wealth of information about all things Cajun and a great resource about the sights and attractions in the area. She will regale you with stories of her youth, speaking French with her grandparents and cooking with her grandma. The recipes passed down to her are the subject of a soon-to-be-completed cookbook that Booher plans to give to each of her guests.
As to finding my “inner Cajun,” you’ll be delighted to learn that I was officially declared an “Honorary Cajun” after visiting Lafayette. This designation entitles me to “have boudin for breakfast, go dancing to Cajun and Zydeco music every night, eat as many crawfish as I can peel and celebrate life every day through the music, food, festivals and people of South Louisiana.” Mission accomplished!