Boudin and Beyond in Cajun Country

I wrote a guide to the Boudin Trail for USA Today following the first annual NOLA's Backyard:

Boudin and Beyond in Cajun Country

By Beverly Stephen

“Jambalaya, a crawfish pie, filé gumbo….

Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou”

           --Hank Williams

Fun on the bayou always involves food.  And plenty of it. One of the most ubiquitous treats, boudin balls, can be found everywhere from gas stations to fancy butler passed hors d’ouevre trays. I was on a road trip called NOLA’s Backyard with a dozen or so food and beverage executives and corporate chefs from major hotel and restaurant chains. We sampled our first boudin balls of the trip at Tony’s Seafood Market & Deli on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Boudin is typically a seasoned pork and rice sausage and the balls are made by rounding the filling, breading it and then deep-frying it.

“Eat a couple of these and you’ll die—but with a smile on your face,” quipped chef John Folse, our tour guide who describes himself as “Bayou born and crawfish fed.”

The f&b guys were on a mission to digest as much Cajun cuisine and culture as they could in a couple of days. If you see alligator nuggets on your pizza any time soon, it’s possible the idea was hatched here.

 Food and family are the dominant themes in southern Louisiana. Family owned and operated Tony’s was started by Tony Pizzolato as a small produce store with 10 employees and is now one of the largest seafood markets in the south with 100 employees. They boil 25 tons of crawfish a day in season. The market which promotes “catfish swimming on one end, fried up on the other,”  also sells head-on shrimp, red fish, black drum, red snapper, oysters, and alligator every which way.  Louisiana is the second largest producer of seafood in the U.S. after Alaska and most of the species are sold here. The deli section cooks up popular local specialties such as jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and bread pudding—all of which the chefs were happy to take out and sample.

 We would overnight at Houmas House (Darrow, La), an elegant antebellum Gone With the Wind style sugar plantation turned hotel, which bills itself as “the crown jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.” Historical house tours are given regularly and the guides never fail to mention that three quarters of the nation’s millionaires lived in the area before the Civil War. Here chef Anderson Foster holds forth with Gulf crab cakes with chipotle remoulade, chicken and Andouille gumbo, and grilled hare. Flambéed bananas foster sauce lights up caramelized bananas sandwiched in creole cream cheese ice cream for dessert.

Next morning a wake up call at the crack of dawn had us on the bus driving through mist shrouded sugar cane fields toward LSU’s Rural Life Museum (Baton Rouge), which is devoted to artifacts depicting the lives of ordinary folk and slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. There on the grounds of this 430-acre property chef John Folse’s catering arm, White Oak Plantation, had laid out an elaborate planter’s breakfast. We’re not talking a doughnut and a cup of coffee here.  Back in the day, people went into the fields before sunrise and came in around 10 a.m. to a hearty meal. We were greeted with eye openers—brandy milk punch, bloody Mary, and mimosa. Stations featured eggs a la crème with crawfish tails and Louisianachoupique caviar, cathead biscuits  (pinch the dough and throw it on the pan so it looks like a cat’s head) with cane/pecan butter and persimmon jelly; samplers of Acadian bacon and Creole sausages, blue corn grits and grillades, French toast, calas cakes (sweet rice cakes), Community coffee and Bigelow teas.

 This meal was hearty enough to last the day if not the week but by lunchtime, we arrived at Poche Market & Restaurant in Breaux Bridge, another family owned outfit which is often touted as the best place to find boudin in Cajun country. Floyd Poche started the market in 1962. His slogan says “everything on a hog is good from the rooter to the tooter.”  Cafeteria-style dishes include smothered rabbit, pork backbone stew, fried catfish, crawfish etouffée—you get the picture. lists 10 other places closer to Lafayette to find boudin and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where can you not find boudin is the question.

Next up was Riceland Crawfish  (Eunice, LA), which is also a leading alligator processor. Chef Folse gave us a heads up that owner Dexter Guillory is one of the leading spokespersons for the growing alligator industry and speaks internationally on the subject.  Swamp People sparked an initial surge of interest but national chains are experiencing sustained success with it. Alligator is processed in a number of ways, most popularly for nuggets that are breaded for deep fry and used as appetizers with dipping sauces. Folse noted that he uses a cut from the loin, slightly pounded in the fashion of veal scaloppini, as well as cubed leg meat for stews, chili, soups or gumbo. “The great neutral flavor of the snow white meat of the alligator fits well into most classic cooking methods and the subtle flavor of the meat, similar to veal, adapts well with most dishes including ethnic cooking styles,” he said.  “Additionally, we in the south love cookouts and large family gatherings. Normally a pig is roasted over pecan wood fires as a centerpiece for the outdoor table. We are seeing many more 4 to 6 foot gators alongside the roasting pig, adding ‘seafood’ to the party.”

Before sundown we were on the grounds of Folse’s White Oak Plantation (imagine if Tara was a venue for weddings and other celebrations.)   Folse was showing off his pigs, beehives, and gristmill and demonstrating how to make cracklin’. The grand finale was an outdoor Fête de Boucherie with lively zydeco music. Tables were heaped with  fire-roasted alligator, sassafras and pecan wood smoked cochon de lait (roast pig), French fried frog legs Atchafalaya, Acadian seafood gumbo, sugar cured wild boar ham. Oh, lordy! And yes, there was a salad in there somewhere.

Are you hungry yet?