Most New Orleanians consider Laplace the end of the Big Easy and the beginning of the place where the Yat accent dies and a coon-ass accent kicks in. But true lovers of the Cajun culture know that you have to go west on I-10 to Lafayette and its environs to be in the heart of Acadiana.
That’s where you can find the best crawfish, the most authentic music, the trappings of the culture, unique in the world, and some of the best times this side of heaven.
Chef Paul Prudhomme was the human spark that ignited the current national yen for Tabasco and andouille. Many people expected the Cajun cooking frenzy to be only a fad, but it’s lasted now almost ten years. Perhaps it was a return to comfort food—with a hot twist—for baby boomers. Cajun cooking a la Prudhomme is straighforward, soul (and tongue) warming cuisine that seems to have stricken a chord with a generation eager to get back to the roots, yet unusual enough to whet their appetites for the exotic.
K-Paul’s in New Orleans was the first real attempt to export the bayou to the big city of New Orleans and beyond. But over the past few years, other canny New Orleanians have picked up on the Cajun craze. The World’s Fair in 1984 was a prime opportunity to showcase a unique cuisine to the world, and several New Orleans restaurateurs jumped on the bandwagon—Old N’ Awlins Cookery (which also features indigenous New Orleans dishes) and Patout’s are but two of dining establishments that have capitalized on the Cajun craze.
The year of the World’s Fair marked another turning point, as well. Crawfish are one thing, but the Cajun culture is another. Nowhere in the world can be found the sound that’s now breaking out in enclaves in New York, California and around the country.
“Chank-a-chank” is coming into its own as a musical force that’s slowly but surely seeping into the public consciousness. Accordions and fiddles permeate that sound, which can now be heard in everything from bleach commercials to cable television trailers.
Lovers of Cajun music just have to dance, as anyone who’s ever heard the music can testify. This writer’s first sight of a room of swaying, waltzing, two-stepping Cajun dancers was enough to convert an old rock-and-roller to a Cajun dance fanatic.
For many years, The Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street was the place to go Cajun dancing in New Orleans—and that’s before it was popular with the masses. Back then, the place had achieved almost cult status among Cajun dance aficionados. In fact, it was the only place in New Orleans where Cajun dancers could satisfy their passion for two-stepping, every Thursday night. The Maple Leaf still has Cajun music on Thursdays, sometimes with a soupcon of zydeco thrown in for good measure. The Cajun band Filé is a regular there on Thursday nights and Rockin Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters play zydeco almost every Friday (consult OffBeat‘s daily listings for exact information).
The Maple Leaf was a pioneer in introducing Cajun music and dance into New Orleans, but it happened that other clubs knew a good thing when they saw it and quickly added “Cajun” to their musical offerings: Tipitina’s now has a popular fais do do every Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m., starring Bruce Daigrepont and free red beans and rice. The Cajun Cabin on Bourbon Street has a steady diet of Cajun music and food. More infrequently, Firemen’s Hall and the Four Columns hall on the West Bank present Cajun music.
With the advent of the World’s Fair, savvy Cajuns decided to see if the unique dance and culture could translate to a mass audience. The mover and shaker who “Cajunized” the world was Kerry Boutte, owner of Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge (see interview this issue). Mulate’s basically put Acadiana on the map, so to speak, and focused world media attention on the little roadhouse, the Cajun culture, music and dance. Mulate’s has since expanded with a restaurant in Baton Rouge, and Boutte recently opened a New Orleans location. Mulate’s is pure Cajun, with no intrusion of New Orleans musical styles. The same bands play in New Orleans as in Breaux Bridge: traditional Cajun folk bands playing the same old French-language tunes that have been played for years in Acadiana.
It took a while for Mulate’s to open a location in the Crescent City, but one of the first true all-Cajun format restaurants to include music and dance in New Orleans was Michaul’s. The restaurant first opened in a small location on the West Bank, and now is relocated to larger quarters in the New Orleans Warehouse District. Both Mulate’s and Michaul’s rely heavily on the tourist and convention market for the bulk of their business, but it’s obvious that the local Cajun dance fanatics spend a lot of time there too.
A word about Cajun dancing, here. Rand Speyrer is probably the best-known local teacher of Cajun dancing in New Orleans. He had the presence of mind to create a Cajun dance video, which has been a hot seller worldwide. Cajun dancing is downright fun, and is great aerobic exercise. Randy teaches lessons at several locations around town and plans annual pilgrimages to Cajun country dance halls. He also plans a Cajun Festival in January.
As a final wave of Cajunization, local tour operators are capitalizing on the native swamps of the area. And we can tell you that while the Cajuns ended up settling in southwest Louisiana, the swamps nearer to New Orleans ain’t that different.
The Audubon Zoo has a reasonable (though hands-on inaccessible) version of swamp country, as does the Aquarium of the Americas.
There are a variety of swamp tours available that actually take riders into the swamps surrounding New Orleans. Crown Point Swamp Tours and Bayou Segnette Swamp Boat Tours are two of the most popular. I’d venture to say that most locals haven’t made either one of these tours, and it’s a pity, too, because the swamp-life and the tranquil swamps themselves are a treasure we have in this area that’s at least as valuable as the culture we’ve always tried to preserve.
Of course, if you must see the “real” thing, you can always hit Interstate-10 and head to Lafayette, where a new tourist attraction, Vermilionville, just opened. Vermilionville is a recreated Cajun/Creole village on the banks of Vermilion Bayou and showcases the food, crafts, art, music and dance of Acadiana.
Of course, you can hit the highways and byways of Acadiana to experience the culture in its truest form…but that’s another story entirely, which we’ll tell you about in our upcoming “Insider’s Guide to Acadiana.”