If South Louisianians didn’t invent the cultural mash-up, they certainly perfected it long ago.
Take the ubiquitous drive-through daiquiri stands found along the cities and towns that dot Interstate 10 from Lake Charles east to Slidell where providing slushy booze drinks to drivers stands not just as an acceptable and curiously legal enterprise but for some the height of Louisiana culture. Most everything that we recognize as inherently Louisianian (Gumbo, Zydeco, Mardi Gras) are assemblages of various cultural forms that have become, uniquely or not, Louisiana’s own.
Combined restaurant-dancehalls, or dancehall-restaurants depending on one’s ability to Cajun jitterbug on a full stomach, serve as another example of the genius of mixing Louisiana’s vernacular cultural elements. These modern establishments merge the traditional Cajun salle de danse (literally “dancehall”), a long-held but now rapidly disappearing community event for socializing and courtship, with the more recent phenomenon of the Cajun restaurant.
Raised in the heart of Acadiana—Cajun country—by a pair of non-Cajun parents, for me these restaurant-dancehalls functioned as places for my family to camouflage ourselves as weekend tourists in our own hometown, to take in the two most singular facets of Cajun culture: its food and music. We’d take our Sunday breakfast at the original Cajun restaurant-dancehall, Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, where I’d order couche couche, aka Cajun cereal: skillet-toasted yellow cornmeal soaked in milk and drizzled with local Steen’s Cane Syrup. We’d eat lunch or dinner at Prejean’s, which I think still serves some of the area’s best Cajun fare, or Randol’s for trays of boiled crawfish.
Here at Randol’s, the salle de danse is still separated from the main dining room by a trio of vast windows, a setup that creates an aquarium effect for diners to watch couples waltz and two-step counter-clockwise around the wood-planked dance floor. At Randol’s, as in many restaurant-dancehalls, the age range of persons spinning across the floor spans at least sixty years. There are classic two-steppers and fast-tempo Zydeco high-steppers, grandparents dancing with grandchildren, and the sideliners who spectate from benches that rim the edges of the floor.
Before I learned how to Cajun two-step (which I still artlessly dance with a step too many), I’d blithely while away those trips to the restaurant-dancehall by picking out my favorite pair of dancers to watch from the ever-moving circle. Though I marveled at the elaborate outfits of some couples (the matching hats, buckles, and boots) and the ability of others to stay in sync among the crush of the crowded dance floor, their bodies locked in motion though their eyes would hardly ever meet, it was not these highly skilled dancers that most intrigued. It was those couples with the most minute of idiosyncrasies, those who exhibited a subtle flair for the undramatic, that attracted my eye.
This past Christmas night, at the Atchafalaya Club in Henderson, I was able to resume my old pastime. About three dozen couples, dressed in their holiday finery, jammed the dancehall for Creole Zydeco accordionist Geno Delafose and his band, French Rockin’ Boogie. They waltzed to a traditional three-step beat along the ample dance floor. After a half dozen rotations around the room, the song ended and the floor cleared. An unofficial rule of local salle de danse decorum encourages, but does not require, participants to find a different dance partner for each song. I noticed one pair join the next dance again in each other’s arms. An older couple, silver-haired and backs straight as fiddle bows, they safely circulated along the fringes of the scrum for a livelier two-step. With her left hand, the woman held her husband’s opposite shoulder delicately yet defiantly, with pinkie finger extended as if holding her cupboard’s finest bone china teacup. For me, they were this night’s perfect pair.
Two days later I returned to Henderson, the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin” located twenty miles east of Lafayette, hoping to find the perfect lunch. The Atchafalaya Club is just one structure in a sprawling swamp-front complex established in 1948 by Pat Huval, a local boy with youthful dreams of making a name for himself and this once modest fishing village. He opened one of history’s first Cajun restaurants (Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf), served seventeen years as the town’s first mayor, and eventually added its only hotel (the Edgewater Inn) to his little empire. It’s safe to say: Huval is Henderson.
From the rambling menu of Fisherman’s Wharf I ordered a plate of Pat Huval’s Camp Style Shrimp Etouffee (Pat’s Mother’s Special). I’d be surprised if the recipe contained more ingredients than its tongue-twisting name does words. In contrast to a traditional étouffée—a thick butter-laden and rice-smothered stew made with a blonde roux, the holy trinity (a Cajun mirepoix of onion, green bell pepper, and celery), and seafood, Mama Huval’s version contains chunks of onion and pepper that match the generous size of the shrimp in a more rustic sauce than traditional étouffée with its stewed gravy consistency. Taste the two étouffées side by side to experience the yin and yang of Cajun cooking.
Later that night I ventured out to tiny Basile, Louisiana, deep in the rice and cattle country of the west Cajun prairielands, searching for D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant. Located on a deserted, unlit country road, D.I.’s is one of those places that even Google can’t verifiably map. The restaurant’s own website provides better flight coordinates than it does driving directions (and, yes, they have their own dirt-path runway). But if you take exit 65 north from I-10 and just keep driving until you see a gravel lot full of pickup trucks, you’ve found it.
The restaurant opened in the late 1970s, the side project of crawfish farmer Daniel Isaac (D.I.) Fruge and his wife, Sherry. The couple arranged a few picnic tables in a barn used to store farm equipment, invited friends to bring ice chests, and hosted all-you-can-eat boiled crawfish feasts. The Fruges expanded, added a full menu, and eventually built an adjoining dancehall.
On stage, T’Monde, a quartet of twenty-somethings led by the Fruges’ granddaughter Megan Brown, stomped through a mix of Cajun and country ballads. Luckily, the hostess sat my party at a table along the dance floor’s perimeter. From this vantage point we could watch grandparents waltzing conscientious circles around their young granddaughters, who all wore their perfect and polished Christmas dresses and shoes. But I gave my full attention to the waitress once she mentioned that we had landed in the thick of their famed barbecued crab season. We ordered a dozen, accompanied by a bucket of beer and two dozen raw oysters.
The crabs arrived dusted with cayenne and buttery slick. I wolfishly attacked the platter, at times cracking the claws with my teeth in order to get at the meat, all while silently planning my next drive to Basile.
The next morning, I woke early for a short jaunt to Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” This artsy little town has become a pleasant weekend day trip for antiquing and the Zydeco breakfast held each Saturday at Café des Amis. By seven thirty the restaurant’s tables and bar were jammed. Fifteen minutes later, the crowd thronged the diminutive dance floor as Lil’ Pookie, armed with an accordion whose color can only be described as a shade of neon alligator green, and his band, the Zydeco Sensations, sonically strutted through three straight hours of, despite the near-freezing temperatures outside, sweat-inducing dance music. I sipped a Bloody Mary and watched wide-eyed as the queue to get indoors swelled to fifty-people deep.
A gaunt gentleman with short dreadlocks and a blue bandanna tucked into his pants buzzed around the hive of the dance floor. His dance style was a mash-up of jitterbugging and buckjumping, high-stepping and getting down. At the end of each song, he hustled to some far corner of the room and plucked, from the breakfasting crowd, a new dance partner. This was Clifton Leon, Mr. Leon to the thousands of women he has spiraled, dipped, and oscillated across the dance floor every Saturday for the past fifteen years. “I dance with everyone,” he told me, “even tourists.”
Sitting down to eat, I discovered that the oreille de cochon is just as flashy as Mr. Leon’s moves. A beignet shaped and deep-fried to resemble a pig’s ear, at Café des Amis the fritter is stuffed with boudin from the nearby Charlie T’s Specialty Meats and powdered with sugar. The omelets are all similarly Cajunized: smothered in étouffée, enveloped in onions, topped with tasso.
Each forkful was, to be fair, a bit of overkill, each bite an exercise in excess. I’m not sure how anyone could walk, much less two-step, after eating. But with Lil’ Pookie’s urging and under the guidance of Mr. Leon, everyone kept heading toward the dance floor.
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