VACHERIE, La. — After 10 glorious days of meandering through southwestern Louisiana bayou country, my husband, Paul, and I are having a bad case of Cajun withdrawal. The symptoms are cravings for crab boil, accordion music and the openhearted hospitality of the easygoing Cajun people.
Our addiction began the minute we opened the door to B&C's Cajun Restaurant in this town--just 45 minutes west of New Orleans--and walked over a huge floor painting of an alligator to get to our seats at a long wood table.
"What'll you have?" the waitress asked.
"Blackened redfish," I answered, with hip assurance.
"Blackened fish?!" a nearby Cajun diner said, laughing. "Paul Prudhomme burned some fish by mistake, thought it wasn't half bad and began to serve it. Now just order some real Cajun food--crabs and gumbo."
The gumbo, in a thick roux, was followed by a tray full of huge crabs that had been cooked in a piquant boil. And this was why we had come to Louisiana in September--for authentic Cajun food, music and culture. This place felt apart, somehow, from the world's cares, and we still found joy, though tempered by the nation's sorrow. We had planned our trip using a guidebook, but a lot of the best things happened by chance.
The waitress showed us how to crack the crabs, and another patron gave us a quick lesson in Cajun, or Acadian, history.
The original Cajuns set out from France during the 17th century, seeking a better life in eastern Canada. They farmed, fished, trapped and knew halcyon days in an area they called Acadia, now Nova Scotia. They were so successful that the British coveted their fertile land and separating wives from husbands and children from parents, sent the Acadians off on ships into exile in 1755. Almost half died. Some returned to Europe, but another group made its way to the American colonies, ending up in the bayou area, which they named New Acadia. ("Cajun" is a corruption of "Acadian.") In the coming years, thousands of other exiles joined them. They turned misery into opportunity, worked the land, fished and maintained their culture, which exists to this day among the million or so Cajuns sprinkled throughout the area.
"Do you still speak French?" I asked my impromptu history teacher.
"\o7 Oui, oui, je parle francais\f7 ," he said in the strangest accent I'd ever heard.
Cajun French is actually a mixture of the language brought over by the early immigrants with English, Spanish, German, African American and Native American influences. In an attempt to assimilate Cajuns into mainstream culture in the 1920s, children were forbidden to speak the language in schools and were punished for infractions. Slowly the patois began to die out. French is being reintroduced in school now, but it's a proper French, not the rich blend that older Cajuns hold dear.
By the time I had finished my creme brulee, several other diners joined in to give us a Cliffs Notes version of the Cajun story. This was true everywhere we went; the Cajuns we met seemed to love visitors who were interested in their culture, and they were garrulous and great raconteurs.
"Do you like Cajun dancing?" a woman asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "I've never tried it."
Soon I was trotting to Cajun music--stumbling along, really, to a very upbeat rhythm--on a canopied boat called the Alligator Queen as we cruised through the Alligator Bayou, 45 minutes from Vacherie, close to Baton Rouge in the town of Prairieville. The guys who run the wackiest bayou tour in the area (it's a combination of stand-up comedy, eco-tourism and dance lessons) are actually serious environmentalists.
In 1993, Jim Ragland and Frank Bonifay learned that hundreds of acres of bottomland hardwoods from Spanish Lake (about three miles from Alligator Bayou) were going to end up in a lumber mill and that the bayou would probably be chopped up into suburban backyards. With the money they had earned as roofers (they hit it big after Hurricane Andrew in 1992), they purchased the land and created a wildlife refuge and botanical gardens.
"Come with me," Jim said, as I stepped off the boat after the 90-minute cruise up the bayou and to the flats. "I want you to meet some of my friends."
Jim's alligator "friends" live in a nearby pond. As a 12-footer slithered out of the liquid slime, Jim handed me a chicken leg and told me to drop it in the gator's maw. Still flush with my success as a dancer, I fed the beast, and only after I heard its jaws snap shut--akin to the slamming of a car trunk--did I realize how brave or stupid I had been.
After every experience in bayou country, the reward is another great meal. Cajuns, it seemed to us, are obsessed with eating. Before one meal is finished, they're planning the next. So we began to act like Cajuns.
We drove a half-hour to Donaldsonville, 30 miles south of Baton Rouge, to eat at the Grapevine Cafe, a restaurant opened last March by Dickie and Cynthia Breaux, who also created the Cafe des Amis in nearby Breaux Bridge.