Ca­jun Bayou Food Trail mixes cui­sine and cul­ture

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FORK IN THE ROAD - Story and pho­tos by Dave G. Houser

An­thony Bour­dain, the late, great food and travel writer and celebrity chef host of the CNN se­ries “Parts Un­known,” may have done more than any­one else to awaken Amer­ica to the sa­vory de­lights and unique cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of Ca­jun food.

Bour­dain cher­ished south­ern Louisiana and he vis­ited the re­gion many times. His last visit, to join a bois­ter­ous Ca­jun Mardi Gras cel­e­bra­tion in 2018, aired on CNN in June, a lit­tle more than a week fol­low­ing his death.

“Ca­juns do things their way, al­ways have, al­ways will,” Bour­dain says on “Parts Un­known.” “Whether it’s hang­ing on to the French lan­guage of their an­ces­tors, their mu­sic tra­di­tions, or food, Ca­juns fiercely keep it all alive.”

And now, one Louisiana parish is do­ing its part to keep alive for vis­i­tors the spe­cial ap­peal of Ca­jun cui­sine and the unique cul­ture that sur­rounds it. Lo­cated about an hour’s drive south of New Or­leans, Lafourche Parish is a 1,500-square mile swath of salt­wa­ter marshes, bay­ous and cross­roads com­mu­ni­ties strung out be­tween parish seat Thi­bo­daux (pop. 14,567) and Port Four­chon on the Gulf of Mex­ico. It is a re­gion au­then­ti­cally and un­apolo­get­i­cally Ca­jun to its roots, go­ing all the way back to its 17th cen­tury set­tle­ment as a dis­trict of New France.

Seek­ing a plan de­signed to pro­mote its wealth of Ca­jun eater­ies, the parish tourist of­fice — Louisiana’s Ca­jun Bayou Tourism — ear­lier this year launched the Ca­jun Bayou Food Trail. The Trail in­cludes 18 restau­rants and six fes­ti­vals and events, all of which fo­cus on help­ing vis­i­tors un­der­stand how the re­gion’s food and cul­ture are so de­li­ciously and for­ever in­ter­twined.

“Here along the Bayou, Ca­juns use what’s around them, pulling from the wa­ter and pluck­ing from the land to find the fresh­est in­gre­di­ents — and then they tend to mix it all to­gether in one big pot,” says Ti­mothy Bush, pres­i­dent and CEO of Louisiana’s Ca­jun Bayou Tourism.

“Our food has a story that’s rooted in tra­di­tions and ex­pressed by the won­der­ful sto­ry­tellers who own and op­er­ate restau­rants along the Trail.”

Nav­i­gat­ing the Trail is sim­ple. Go to www.la­ca­jun­bayou.com/ food­trail and down­load a trail map and a pass­port. Visit at least

seven of the 18 par­tic­i­pat­ing eater­ies, ask your servers to stamp your pass­port, and then drop by Louisiana’s Ca­jun Bayou Tourism Vis­i­tor Cen­ter on High­way 1 in Race­land to re­ceive a free T-shirt that reads “I Wan­dered Up & Down the Bayou.” Or you can mail the pass­port to Louisiana’s Ca­jun Bayou Tourism, P.O. Box 340, Race­land, La., 70394, to re­ceive your shirt.

Most of the 18 restau­rants on the trail are strung out along Louisiana High­way 1, a two-lane black­top that runs for 72 miles from Thi­bo­daux south to the Gulf at Port Four­chon.

Fol­low­ing that route south, my first stop on a four-day itin­er­ary aimed at sam­pling sev­eral of the Trail’s eater­ies found me at Harry’s Poboys, a no-frills road­side food stand in the ru­ral com­mu­nity of Larose. It was a timely ar­rival, just ahead of the lunchtime crowd that as­sem­bles ev­ery week­day to feast on over­sized shrimp, chicken or beef sand­wiches turned out by Chas and Ni­cole Cheramie.

A sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of Lafourche Parish’s most prominent food fam­ily, Chas pur­chased the shop two years ago from its orig­i­nal owner of 26 years, Harry Her­bert. Beef is a rar­ity on most Ca­jun menus but it was Harry’s roast beef poboy, sea­soned with a highly se­cret con­coc­tion of spices, that be­came the re­gion’s long­stand­ing sand­wich sen­sa­tion. So, of course, I had to try one. It was a messy, two-fisted task, but the zesty fla­vor of this su­per-sized sub more than de­liv­ered on its prom­ise.

Next stop on my agenda, about a dozen miles down High­way 1, was Gal­liano, a town of about 7,500 peo­ple nes­tled along­side Bayou Lafourche, where I would meet up with An­thony Gold­smith, owner and chef at Ka­jun Twist.

An­other long-es­tab­lished en­ter­prise, this restau­rant, smartly dec­o­rated in ’50s style, was founded 32 years ago by Gold­smith’s grand­fa­ther. Al­though he’s best known for his fried chicken, Gold­smith likes to dab­ble in more tra­di­tional Ca­jun fare and wanted me to try his shrimp boulette. A sand­wich of sorts, it fea­tures a deep-fried patty made up of shrimp, potato, pep­per and onion that harkens from an orig­i­nal Ca­jun spe­cialty known as a boulette de crevette frite. Pi­quant and com­fort­ably crunchy, I’d take one of th­ese over fried chicken any day.

Al­though I’d eaten twice in the last cou­ple of hours, the prospect of try­ing some seafood at Leeville Seafood Restau­rant, a highly rated restau­rant right on the edge of the Gulf near Port Four­chon, seemed promis­ing. Greet­ing me was owner and man­ager Sue Cheramie, mother of Chas (of poboy fame), and grande dame of the Cheramie fam­ily of restau­ra­teurs. Chas’ brother No­rah and his wife, Donna, op­er­ate a seafood eatery of their own, Cher Amie’s, an­other of the trail’s restau­rants, in the nearby town of Cut Off.

None of the Cheramies had any culi­nary train­ing. “It just came to us from cook­ing for the fam­ily,” said Sue as she served me a sam­pling of her spe­cial­ties: a bowl of shrimp, crab and corn chow­der, soft shell crab and a plat­ter of fried oys­ters. All of Sue’s seafood is de­liv­ered fresh daily by lo­cal fish­er­men — a big rea­son why it is way be­yond de­li­cious.

In the “big city” of Thi­bo­daux, I vis­ited the Wet­lands Aca­dian Cul­tural Cen­ter, part of the Jean Lafitte Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park and Pre­serve. The cen­ter traces the his­tory and cul­ture of the Aca­di­ans (Ca­juns) from the 1600s to the present — a per­fect ad­junct for any­one fol­low­ing the food trail.

Back to the busi­ness of eat­ing, I made my way to Bubba’s II Poboys, the city’s most pop­u­lar lunch spot. Counter ser­vice keeps things mov­ing quickly and I had to think fast as I sur­veyed owner Neil Swan­ner’s lengthy menu that lists far more seafood dishes than poboys. I went for a bowl of gumbo and a Su­per Seafood Salad — a size­able cre­ation over­stuffed with boiled shrimp, craw­fish and crab­meat and topped with a sa­vory re­moulade dress­ing.

I was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with the gumbo and when I told Swan­ner so, he said that gumbo is of­ten the sub­ject of friendly com­pe­ti­tion among Ca­jun chefs, adding, “Like I usu­ally tell the oth­ers, ‘Your gumbo is great — but mine is just a lit­tle bet­ter.’ ”

That evening I walked down­town to The Vene­tian, housed in one of Thi­bo­daux’s old­est build­ings. It’s some­thing of a Ca­jun night­club, fea­tur­ing Aca­dian food and mu­sic. I de­voured an enor­mous pile of boiled craw­fish (a Ca­jun del­i­cacy sea­son­ally avail­able from roughly March to June) and a plat­ter of duck ten­ders. It was the con­sum­mate fi­nale to an­other great day on the bayou.

Later in my trip, with lunchtime loom­ing, I made my way north to U.S. High­way 90, then headed east to­ward New Or­leans for a few miles, des­tined for Spahr’s Seafood Restau­rant in Des Alle­mands. Sur­viv­ing hur­ri­canes, re­ces­sions and a de­struc­tive 2002 fire, this bay­ou­side restau­rant and lounge has reigned as a re­gional icon and seat of aquatic culi­nary emi­nence for 50 years un­der the di­rec­tion of founder Bill Spahr and his fam­ily.

“Spahr’s has al­ways been pro­claimed as the place where ‘Cat­fish is King,’ ” says chef Ryan Gaudet, “but we’re quite well known for our gumbo as well.”

Tak­ing the hint, I oblig­ingly or­dered fried cat­fish fil­lets and a bowl of gumbo. Nor­mally I don’t or­der cat­fish since so much of it th­ese days is farmed, but this fish, wild caught right here in Des Alle­mands (a town de­clared to be the “Cat­fish Cap­i­tal of the Uni­verse” by the Louisiana Leg­is­la­ture in 1980), was def­i­nitely su­pe­rior to any I’ve ever eaten. As for the gumbo, I’m so crazy about this dish that ev­ery one of them I try seems bet­ter than the last.

The Spahr fam­ily also op­er­ates a restau­rant in down­town Thi­bo­daux and an­other in Gal­liano, so there’s no ex­cuse for your Food Trail pass­port to be missing a Spahr’s stamp.

Boiled craw­fish, a Ca­jun del­i­cacy, is among the dishes served at The Vene­tian in Thi­bo­daux, La. The Ca­jun Bayou Food Trail was launched this year.

Fish­er­men along south­ern Louisana’s Bayou Lafourche sup­ply fresh seafood to Ca­jun Food Trail restau­rants.

Chef An­thony Gold­smith serves up Shrimp on a Bun at his Ka­jun Twist restau­rant in Gal­liano, La.

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