Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Breaux Bridge and Clifton's Grave

We drove across on the Gulf Coast road, the green breakers pounding the brown sand to our right. After a while we headed north over the Cheniers, land composed of oyster shells, through lush grass and tall trees, fields of sugar cane, through Abbeville and up to Breaux Bridge. The town is named for the man who built bridge across the Bayou Teche, a slow-moving muddy brown stream that connects this part of the country with New Orleans and once served as the main trade route. We found our hotel, which was located in an old Creole cottage that had been saved from destruction and renovated and was now a truly beautiful little B & B, paired with the Des Amis Café just around the corner on the main street over the bridge. Tossing bags on a massive walnut four-poster, we sprinted for the café and food. Let the Boudin Odyssey Begin!

However, our first night we didn’t dive for Boudin, we dove into turtle soup, chicken & sausage gumbo with a scoop of potato salad in it, softshell crab with garlic shrimp sauce, cold Abita beer, and heroically finished with a spice cake made with Steens Syrup from down the road in Abbeville. Ah, now we are definitely Here.

In the morning is the big Saturday Zydeco Breakfast. At the café, every seat is filled and the room is jammed with Cajuns drinking Mimosas and Bloody Marys. A loud electrified band of Black Cajuns, or more properly Black Creoles, is playing in the front window/stage. People of every age, color, and ability are dancing like crazy. The waitresses dance by with trays held high, the washboard maestro makes a tour of the room playing the whole time, dancing with the ladies, and a very old little man in a starched green gimmie cap dances non-stop with every girl in the room.

The food is serious. We have Couche Couche (cornbread broken into a bowl and covered with milk and Steens Syrup), fried eggs, grilled biscuits with crawfish etouffee, and grits with cheese and andouille sausage. The Boudin now makes its first appearance in a dish called Orielle de Cochon, or “Ear of the Pig”. This is a long sheet of beignet dough, stuffed with boudin, made into the shape of the ear in question, quick-fried, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. We also have Eggs Des Amis, a biscuit topped with a grilled boudin patty, swiss cheese and two eggs sunny side up.

Our waitress, a young Cajun girl named Amy, says she doesn’t like Steens. True, it is rather strong and not to be taken lightly, but in the right combo it is delicious. Kimmie learned to make the “Spice Cake” which uses a whole can of the stuff. Amy is like most of the Cajuns- she seems perennially happy, as if breathing the air here made you feel better than people elsewhere. It is this prevalent cheerfulness and openness, with the word "cher" ("dear") being constantly used with friend and stranger alike, a sort of natural groove, that is so striking to outsiders and gives meaning to the phrase “Laissez Bon Ton Roulet”, because nobody here is gonna try and stop it. If a whole culture could be said to smile, this one does.

Let the Boudin Begin

In France, boudin blanc is a white mousse sausage made with herbs, chicken breast and fatback, much like a Bavarian veal bratwurst. When the cast out Acadians at last landed on the Bayou Teche upriver from New Orleans, they found it to be ideal rice country. One fine day a Cajun was making pork sausage with the odd leftover parts of a freshly killed hog and instead of using a more traditional binder/lightener like oats or bread (Cervelas is from Latin for “cereal”), they used what was at hand: rice. Today Cajun boudin means a mixture of cooked rice, pork liver, pork, fatback, green onions, parsley, yellow onions, cayenne pepper, garlic, and depending on the cook, pork hearts, tongue, etc. It is as variable as Texas Chili, and as personal. When we talked to the cook at the Des Amis Café, she named her favorite local boudin, but then added that of course the best boudin of all was the one she made at home. As we ventured out over the next few days, we found boudin ranging from rich, subtly balanced concoctions that we dubbed “Sunday Dinner” types, to those powerfully hot with cayenne, to ones loaded with offal to the point of being too strong for gringos like us.

Day One

We left the Zydeco Breakfast still going full blast- apparently “breakfast” runs all day there- headed for Clifton Chenier’s grave. We crossed over the bridge to the east side of the muddy bayou where the Crawfish Parade floats drift downstream every year, turned south, and headed for the cemetery. It began to lash rain but by the time we got there it had stopped. I stood at the foot of the unmarked whitewashed concrete slab and tried to say a little prayer of thanks to God for giving us Clifton and his music, and then I tried to call on Clifton just a little bit and see if he would guide me back to the Best Boudin, if it wasn’t too much trouble, amen. Now we crossed the Bayou into the town of New Iberia looking for Bonin’s Boudin. Downtown, a wedding reception was spilling out into the street in front of an old renovated building, with Cajun swells in fancy clothes laughing and holding drinks. The cops were making the traffic flow around the people rather than making the revelers stay out of the street, naturally. We asked a policeman where we might find Bonin’s and he had to think for a second- perhaps he wasn’t an aficionado- then told us it was just around the corner.

When we pulled up, it was closed but “Nook” Bonin saw us on his way into the house and came out to the car and Kimmie said we were looking for boudin. He said, “Come in, we have a little piece left” and we followed him into the back door of the shop, where he met us grinning holding a pound of sausage in butcher paper. Tall, thin, bald, neatly trimmed white mustache, big grin. Wanted to know all about us. He said, “I want you to meet mama!”, went to the back door, put two fingers to his mouth, whistled twice, and Delores came over from the house. She makes the boudin (her recipe) in the two huge kettles and the little hand cranked stuffer. She and I discussed sausage making and she said “I use pork shoulder, rice, green onion tops, onions, garlic, salt and pepper and red pepper, parsley, pork liver, jalapeno, and enough pork fat to make it moist.” Hers is perfectly balanced, not too hot, not bland, very moist, very Sunday Dinner. She and Nook only make a couple of hundred pounds on Fridays now and sell it all out by Saturday morning in their old meat market. Nook has a little bitty race car he says he won for a dollar, he won something else for two dollars, and “her” for three dollars. She rolls her eyes, used to his ongoing line of bull. He asks us about our families and family names. He shows us photos of the little girl who raised a 4H pig every year which they bought and it went into her college fund. They made the pig into hogshead cheese and boudin, of course.

Up the road apiece is St. Martinsville, originally a Creole town now known as where the legendary Evangeline and the Acadians landed, which is ironic because the locals looked down on the new arrivals and most of the Acadians got out of there as soon as possible. Here we gassed up the car at Sammie’s and asked him where he liked to get boudin and he sent us to Joyce’s Supermarket, where the sign has a picture of a baby and says “Where Prices are born, not raised”. Into the new ice bag it goes, destined for tonight’s Comparative Boudin Tasting back at the room. As the thunderstorms roll through, we pass a sign saying “Body Shop. Open. Cold Beer”, more evidence of the civilizing influence of the Cajuns.

On the road north back to the hotel, we stop at a little store called Goula’s. Kimmie, our official photog, is out taking pics of the fabulous rusty sign and the lady inside says “y’all must not be from around here.” This is the kind of spot that the neighbors and fishermen drop by for milk, bread, beer, bait and fresh cracklin’s. The daughter is manning the deep fryer, and they allow as how they use “no spices” on the thick one-inch cubes with skin on one side and plenty of meat on the other, crunchy and brown, the perfect snack food. We also bought a sack of what she called “Cajun Croutons”, cracklin’ crumbs, and they were spectacular later in a pot of red beans and sprinkled over eggs. Goula’s buys their boudin from a Breaux Bridge supplier called Baudin’s Acadian Farm, which can be found in all the local markets. I called it “fishin’ camp food”, strong and obvious.

Next Up: Sunday Suprise