HOW THE CULTURAL CUISINE OF SOUTH LOUISIANA CAME TO BE

On any given Saturday night, the harmonic sounds of the bayous and their inhabitants can be heard traveling through the sticky subtropical air of south Louisiana. It’s the rise and fall of an accordion, the rhythmic rustle of a wash board, and the strumming of a guitar. It’s the crickets chirping beneath soaring cypress trees planted deep in the verdant swamps and the gurgle of gumbo simmering and cracklin’s frying in passed-down cast-iron cauldrons. It’s a fusion of cultures defined by resilience, where regional identities have merged to create something new. It’s Acadiana, the lesser known Louisiana.

Stretching from the Texas border east toward New Orleans, Acadiana is made up of 22 parishes—each different, yet intrinsically the same. From the brackish lakes to the west and the Mississippi River to the east to southern marshlands that dissolve into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a region whose waterways are the fabric of its very being. And it’s this lush intracoastal land that has shaped the way of life and aided in survival for centuries.

Photos courtesy of Visit Lake Charles.

Acadia was a French colony in maritime Canada populated by Catholic French-speaking farmers and fishermen who lived off the land and the sea. They were known as Acadians, and this was their established home.

But in 1713, the British took hold of the region, which meant the Acadians were now under the rule of the British monarchy and were expected to worship at the Church of England. Many Acadians rebelled, and in 1755, they were exiled as punishment. Their land was seized, and they were deported to unfamiliar, faraway lands. One of the locations these displaced people landed was Louisiana.

At that time, the land was sparsely populated, and because it was close to water, the vast wilderness of southern Louisiana offered Acadians the opportunity to revert back to their roots as small farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.

Photos courtesy of Visit Lake Charles.

They had land to grow vegetables and waters to fish, but this wasn’t the produce they knew, and these weren’t the fish they were accustomed to catching. It was during this time that Acadians were slowly becoming something new—a transformation brought on by their new home. They were becoming Cajuns.

“They faced the newness of moving from a place where you could get lobster to a place where you could get crawfish and shrimp and fish found in the Gulf,” says author and historian Adley Cormier. “That’s how the food migrated a bit, but it also has to do with new ingredients.”

In addition to the Acadians, the region was populated by Native Americans, Spaniards, Africans, and even Germans, bringing ingredients such as beans, maize [corn], chiles, and okra with them. A marriage of crops native to Louisiana and the Acadian’s classic French cooking techniques bore dishes like shrimp and okra gumbo, crawfish étouffée, and Cajun boudin, and the toe-tapping tunes of zydeco became the song of the people.

A fusion of Creole, Cajun, blues, and gospel music, zydeco was an escape from the reality of life and a symbol of resilience. Surviving meant adapting, learning, and creating. And it was this use of land and blend of culture that made Acadiana what it is today.

“If you could spend time with someone from the Acadiana area and see what they do day to day, you’d see why they eat what they eat,” says Lyle Broussard, executive chef at Jack Daniel’s Bar & Grill at L’Auberge Casino Resort Lake Charles.

Photos courtesy of Visit Lake Charles.

“If you took a tour of the region, you’d see. There’s no spot around here that’s not close to fresh water. People go fishing and crabbing every single day, and you can catch almost every animal you could ever want. It’s totally based on the area.”

Born in St. Martinville and raised in Lake Charles, Lyle learned at a young age the importance of living of the land. He remembers picking okra after church with his grandfather for the family’s Sunday supper, and making everything from cracklin’s and boudin to hog head cheese from whole pigs.

“I’d see him catch a rabbit and put it in the stew that night, and for tomatoes and stuff like that, he had his own garden,” Lyle says. “I think it directly ties into the area they landed in.”

CAJUN VS CREOLE: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Originating from the term “les Acadians,” Cajun describes the descendants of the French colonists who were exiled from maritime Canada and landed in south Louisiana. Creole, however, describes those born to settlers in French colonial Louisiana, including those of French, Spanish, and African descent, as well as people of mixed racial ancestry.

IS THE FOOD DIFFERENT?

Creole food is thought to be more refined and sophisticated than Cajun cooking, incorporating exotic spices and flavors into their gumbos. Cajun fare is geared more toward home cooking, and foods such as boudin and cracklin’s are common.

One easy way to tell is by the presence of tomatoes. According to most well-versed Louisianans, Creole cuisine uses tomatoes, and Cajun does not—though there are always exceptions.

WHAT IS ZYDECO?

A Saturday night staple in south Louisiana, zydeco is the vibrant musical genre that represents a melting pot of culture in the area. Made up of accordions, washboards, and guitars, it became a regional version of the blues, where people could momentarily escape hardship and heartache through song and dance.

In Acadiana, food is synonymous with family—and it’s people like Lyle who preserve the traditions his ancestors set in place. “We still get together almost every Sunday,” he says. “Now, it’s none of the older people cooking.

It’s me and one of my brothers, but we’re still cooking the same kind of stuff, just with my spin on it. Sometimes it’s barbecue, sometimes it’s a whole pig—boudin and hog head cheese too. We’ll have sauce piquante, and during hunting season, lots of duck and rabbit. That’s when it gets really good. It’s one of those things where we all gather around those big black pots and have a couple drinks and just talk and share old stories.”

Photos courtesy of Visit Lake Charles.

Just as the Acadians’ diet evolved as more cultures were introduced, the cuisine has continued to change, even in recent generations. “The most well-known, successful cultures adapt,” says Chef Ryan Trahan of Blue Dog Café. And it’s in his very own grandmother’s cooking that he’s seen the change firsthand.

“My grandmother is an old Cajun lady who grew up learning to cook from her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother,” he explains. “The dishes she would cook would change over time. As time went by, she’d put her touch on different things.”

If you ask Lyle, the recent melding of cultures is nothing new; it’s just like how it’s always been. And though change continues to emerge here and there, it’s the strong family ties that keep Acadiana feeling like home. 

BROILED OYSTERS
 
Winner of the 15th annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off, Chef Ryan Trahan puts his own inventive spin on this Cajun classic. Can't find marrow bones? Use 3 tablespoons bacon drippings in the butter instead of marrow.
Author:
Ingredients
  • Rock salt
  • 12 fresh oysters in the shell (preferably Gulf caught)
  • ½ cup Bone Marrow Herb Butter
  • (recipe follows), divided
  • ¾ cup bread crumbs or cornbread crumbs
  • ½ cup shredded Gruyère cheese
  • Pickled Red Onions (recipe follows)
  • Lemon wedges, to serve
  • Garnish: chopped fresh parsley
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to broil. Place a layer of rock salt in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. (This will keep the oyster shells from wobbling.)
  2. Scrub oyster shells, and open, discarding tops. Run a knife under meat of oyster to release from shells. Arrange shell bottoms (containing oysters) in prepared skillet.
  3. In a small skillet, melt ¼ cup Bone Marrow Herb Butter over medium heat. Add bread crumbs; cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
  4. Top each oyster with a heaping teaspoon of remaining Bone Marrow Herb Butter, and sprinkle with cheese.
  5. Broil until cheese begins to bubble and slightly toast, 4 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with bread crumb mixture, and broil until topping is golden brown, about 1 minute more. Top with Pickled Red Onions. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

BONE MARROW HERB BUTTER
 
Serves: about ¾ cup
Ingredients
  • 3 large beef marrow bones (canoe cut works best)
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, cubed
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.
  2. Place marrow bones on prepared pan; bake until completely cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. In a small microwave-safe bowl, melt butter on low in 30-second intervals, stirring between each, until melted. Remove marrow from bones. Add marrow and any drippings from pan to melted butter; whisk in parsley, thyme, and salt.
  4. Fill a medium bowl with ice; carefully place bowl with butter mixture in bowl with ice. Let chill, whisking frequently, until butter has re-emulsified and solidified. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

PICKLED RED ONIONS
 
Serves: 2½ cups
Ingredients
  • 1 pound red onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 (2-inch-long) cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
Instructions
  1. Place onions in a 1-quart glass jar.
  2. In a small saucepan, bring vinegar and all remaining ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 2 minutes; remove from the heat. Pour hot vinegar mixture over onions. Refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours.

 

 
CHICKEN AND ANDOUILLE SAUCE PIQUANTE WITH TASSO
 
A rich Cajun dish, <g class="gr_ gr_236 gr-alert gr_spell gr_inline_cards gr_disable_anim_appear ContextualSpelling ins-del multiReplace" id="236" data-gr-id="236">piquante</g> is a favorite among Chef Lyle Broussard’s Sunday family suppers. Use additional sausage if tasso is unavailable.
Author:
Serves: 10-12
Ingredients
  • 2 cups vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 pound andouille sausage, chopped
  • 1 pound tasso, chopped
  • 1½ pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 4 stalks celery, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ cup diced green bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • Hot cooked rice, to serve
  • Garnish: sliced green onion
Instructions
  1. In a cast-iron Dutch oven, heat ½ cup oil over medium heat. Add sausage and tasso; cook until browned. Remove using a slotted spoon, and let drain on paper towels, reserving drippings in pot.
  2. In a large bowl, toss together chicken, salt, and all peppers. Add seasoned chicken to Dutch oven; cook until browned. Remove using a slotted spoon, and add to sausage and tasso, reserving drippings in pot.
  3. Add remaining 1½ cups oil to Dutch oven, and heat over medium heat. Add flour; cook, stirring constantly, until a dark caramel-colored roux starts to form. Reduce heat to low; stir in tomato paste, onion, celery, bell peppers, and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until sauce starts to turn dark brown, about 10 minutes.
  4. Stir in sausage, tasso, and chicken; cook, stirring frequently, until sauce has completely coated meat, 10 to 15 minutes. Add broth, a little at a time, stirring constantly. Bring mixture to a simmer; simmer until chicken is tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve over rice. Garnish with green onion, if desired.