You can find Cajun and Creole culture in Lafayette, the “Heart of Cajun Country” as it’s referred to in tourist brochures, but you’ll find much more cultural authenticity outside the city. Smaller towns and communities are where you’ll discover the best zydeco dancehalls, the best oysters, and the best crawfish. It’s where you’ll find swamp tours of the Atchafalaya Basin, cockfighting, trail rides, Cajun fais do dos, and exceptionally friendly French-speaking souls with delightfully thick Creole and Cajun Accents.
The most rewarding characteristic about the culinary and cultural treasures pocketed in nooks and crannies all across the 22-parish region of Acadiana is that the treasures are real, not contrived.
Maybe Clifton Chenier, the undisputed late “King of Zydeco,” captured the realness of rural southwest Louisiana best. At a party he was told by a friend that Mick Jagger, also at the party, would like to have the honor of meeting Chenier.
“Who’s that?” Chenier asked.
“Well, he’s with the Rolling Stones,” the friend replied.
“Oh yeah, that magazine,” said Chenier. “They did an article on me.”
That’s the mindset you’re looking for when you take off to discover this cultural outback. This is what attracts people like Paul Simon, who soaked up the Atchafalaya swamps and Cajun hospitality in the rural community of Cecilia last month with no fanfare. Don’t look for official tour guides. Ask locals. And don’t be afraid to ask. And while you’re asking, don’t be surprised if you’re taken in for dinner. That’s lunch. And that’s probably something like homemade crawfish etouffee and lots of time for coffee.
Mapping Out the Music
The best zydeco music is found in country clubs (translation: clubs in the country), dance halls and church halls outside Lafayette. Zydeco is southwest Louisiana’s black man’s music, a highly rhythmic, syncopated Afro-Caribbean-European-influenced music where to be on, the beat has got to be off. But zydeco music is much more than just his music. It represents a mesh of cultures and musical patterns that make up one distinct sound.
Nationally and internationally, zydeco music is catching on. During the 1970s southwest Louisiana experienced a revival of Cajun music. But during the decade of the ’80s, there was a renaissance of zydeco music, led by Clifton Chenier, who first forged urban blues with traditional zydeco and took this Louisiana French music from its weekend house party niche out into a broader commercial base.
These days you can hear zydeco music on a Clorex or Chevrolet commercial. But to get a heartier helping of zydeco you’ve got to frequent country bars, where you dance ’til you sweat, drink cold beer and order a fried-chicken-leg-and-barbecue-sauce sandwich when dancing gets you hungry.
Recommended is Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki just outside Opelousas, about a half-hour drive from Lafayette. Slim’s is one of the oldest, most reputable zydeco nightclubs, and local zydeco superstar Wilfred “Boozoo” Chavis is a regular. Another notorious club is Richard’s, on Highway 190 between Lawtell and Opelousas. Near Cecilia, located about 15 miles east of Lafayette, check out the Friendly Lounge. This club is not as touted to tourists and so it’s even more local. A favorite zydeco spot in Eunice is Gilton’s Lounge, where Boozoo Chavis will be playing every other weekend this summer.
Zydeco is happening every weekend somewhere in southwest Louisiana, but to the uninitiated finding a good zydeco band on a Saturday night takes patience and diligence. Word of mouth is the key. You won’t find the hottest zydeco clubs listed in a daily or weekly Lafayette paper because the clubs simply do not call in listings. People who know about them know where to go. Period. And many clubs do not have phones.
Your best bet is to call KJCB/AM at 233-4262 on Friday morning for weekend listings. Or listen to KRVS/FM’s (88.7) Saturday morning show, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Sales,” with host Herbert Wiltz. Wiltz tells listeners (usually in French, so be patient or get an interpreter) where to go for weekend zydeco.
In September, don’t miss the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival, held in Plaisance each Labor Day weekend. Nowhere else will you find a stronger line-up of zydeco musicians. The no-gimmicks, family-oriented festival attracts close to 10,000 annually. Music that makes up the heart of zydeco pumps all day long in a soybean field in Plaisance, just miles from where the late Clifton Chenier was born and raised. You’re truly in the zydeco trenches here, and you love every sweaty, sultry minute of it!
For those who don’t want to wait that long for a zydeco festival, recommended is the first annual St. Landry Parish Heritage Festival, scheduled for May 11-13 in Opelousas and surrounding communities. You’ll hear everything from traditional to “new age” zydeco and Cajun with performances by Chubby Carrier, Rockin’ Sidney, Paul Daigle, Dewey Balfa and John Delafose.
For Cajun music lovers, hands down, the most popular Cajun dance spot outside Lafayette is actually a commercial Cajun restaurant. Mulate’s is a magical blend of tourist mecca and local dance hall. Open seven days a week, Mulate’s features some of the finest traditional Cajun musicians performing nightly. It also serves up Cajun specialties like couche-couche for breakfast and fried frog legs for dinner. Another popular Cajun dining/dancing restaurant featuring live bands is Belizaire’s in Crowley.
For a weekly showcase of Cajun music, a must-do is the renovated vaudeville Liberty Theater in Eunice. Run largely by Mayor Curtis Joubert’s volunteer office staff, this piece of Eunice pride is a cross between the Louisiana Hayride, the Grand Old Opry, and Prairie Home Companion. Sponsored by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, the show features a variety of south Louisiana music and broadcasts live on the radio in Eunice.
A Taste of Acadiana
Depending upon your pocketbook and your tastebuds, you can enjoy an array of inimitable regional foods. A very concentrated area of good seafood restaurants is located in Henderson, just a few minutes’ drive from Lafayette. A fun new place to eat a family-styled authentic Cajun meal is McGee’s Landing Restaurant. This is on the Atchafalaya River. To get to the restaurant you dead end in Henderson, then climb a levee and travel on it for a few miles. Worth the drive just for the experience of eating in the swamps.
Closer inland and more elegant is Prudhomme’s Cajun Cafe, located just off I-49 between Lafayette and Opelousas. It’s run by Enola Prudhomme, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s sister, who’s hardly in Paul’s shadow. Enola’s specializes in sauteed and blackened Cajun dishes, and some of her recipes are regional gold medal winners.
For absolutely the best oysters in southwest Louisiana, head to Abbeville, about 20 miles south of Lafayette. Driving to eat oysters at either Black’s or Dupuy’s in Abbeville is a special seasonal pilgrimage even for locals. The town is also very quaint. For crawfish, highly recommended is Paul’s Pirogue in Carencro. For home-style plate lunches and fried seafood dinners, you must visit Poche’s Market & Restaurant in Breaux Bridge. Boiled crabs and crawfish are also offered in season.
Cruisin’ Acadiana for Fun
If you have a few days in southwest Louisiana and it’s not raining, take time for an Atchafalaya Basin Swamp Tour. The 75-mile stretch of the Atchafalaya Basin is one of America’s few remaining semi-wilderness areas. You’ll witness exotic, lush swamp life and and take in some swamp culture. A guide on the boat will talk about what it was like to live in the swamp on a houseboat or a stilt house (there are still actually Cajuns who live in houseboats without electricity in the Atchafalaya). Recommended is McGee’s Landing Tours.
An alternative is to cruise the Atchafalaya by air. Bayou Basin Air Cruises offers one-hour air cruises with a two-person minimum. If you can afford it, this is an even more exotic way to discover the mysterious basin.
Most of the performing arts are in Lafayette. However, some of the best regional theater can be found in Abbeville at Abbey Players Theater. The theater is the renovated Old Vermilion Bar and is truly one of the finest community theatre facilities in the South. The lobby features an antique bar where drinks are served to theatergoers during intermission. The theater itself is delightfully intimate.
For the truly adventuresome, an outsider’s inside guide to rural Acadiana wouldn’t be complete without trail rides or cockfighting. Want to be a part of the living culture? Go on a zydeco trail ride. There are nearly 90 zydeco trail riding clubs in Acadiana and it works out that somebody is having a trail ride every weekend. You don’t have to own a horse or be Creole to join a ride, but it’s more common. The best way to find out when one is happening? Ask.
The zydeco trail ride always officially starts at a night club or church hall on Friday night with a free supper—that’s dinner. The menu is generally cowboy stew, a potent concoction made of innards and eaten with rice. On Saturday night riders enjoy a big zydeco dance that lasts past midnight. Then on Sunday morning the trail ride takes off, just as soon as Mass lets out.
The logistics of the ride are perfected to tee. Not a need goes unattended on this moveable feast through country roads. While flagmen keep riders to the right of the road, traveling Port-O-Lets and concession trucks full of soda, ice-cold beer and T.J. Swan pass by on the left.
The food on a trail ride is as important as the horses, beer and zydeco music. It’s always the same menu. For $2 you get a barbecue sandwich consisting of Evangeline Maid Bread with nothing else between the slices except a quarter chicken or whole pork chop—bone and all—or one, maybe two, pork sausage links. No plates, no chips, no pickles. No nothing else. For a napkin, use your bread.
The sport of cockfighting is a full-time hobby for many Cajuns and Creoles. Pick a couple of roosters. Tie on some spurs. Drop them in a pit, and let them go at each other until one of them can’t. That’s the idea.
Cormier’s Cockpit in Cankton is one of the most popular cockfighting clubs. It’s located just down the blacktop highway from the once famous, now dilapidated, Jay’s Cockpit that once attracted rock groups like Asleep At The Wheel and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Cormier’s pit is located in the very back of the bar, past the snack bar that also serves as the Cormier family’s kitchen. But Cormier’s ain’t nothing compared to the cockpit in Sunset. Local cockfighters call it the Madison Square Garden of cockpits.
One can certainly make, and many have made, strong arguments for the inhumanity of the sport of cockfighting. But culturally speaking, this is southwest Louisiana, and few cultures are as colorful, controversy or not.