Bayou-born, meat-obsessed, self-described smartass Isaac Toups taps his Acadian roots for a lively holiday feast with family and friends
’Twas the night before Christmas
An’ all t’ru de house
Dey don’t a t’ing pass
Not even a mouse.
—From Cajun Night
Cajuns do everything with an accent. Louder. More enthusiastically. More creatively. I should know: I spent nearly three years with chef Isaac Toups and his delightfully shenanigan-laced Cajun ways while writing our book, Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking (insert: shameless plug). And Christmas is no exception. Heck, they even rewrote The Night Before Christmas to suit the bayou.
That’s because Cajun isn’t just a regional foodway or a seasoning mix. Cajun is a lifestyle, with roots that run as deep as the dark waters of the Atchafalaya River. (Isaac’s family showed up in South Louisiana more than 300 years ago.) Being Cajun is about gathering family and friends. It’s about making the most of the region’s natural pantry. It’s about stretching what you have—and celebrating and sharing any excess. And while a spring crawfish boil might be the presumed standard bearer of revelry, it’s during the holidays that the Cajun spirit shines brightest.
Christmas with the Toups often starts weeks before with a duck hunt. In the marshy woodlands, on the edge of rice fields, the Toups men take to duck blinds and canoes to bag as many mallards and wood ducks as the law allows. That bounty, plucked and cleaned, shows up on Christmas Day, with Isaac, his dad, brothers, and hyperbole-prone uncles chewing the fat around a smoker. As the meat cooks, they pry their way into a sack of local oysters with whatever implement is nearby. And there’s almost always a fire. (Isaac comes by his primal ways honestly.) In Cajun country, where storytelling trumps television and the great outdoors makes the best playground, the rituals surrounding food prep are often as important as the meal itself.
Family gatherings are large. This is a part of the South where everyone shows up for meals and the aunt and uncle brigade extends wells beyond actual blood relatives. Round-robin gift giving would require winning the Louisiana lottery. Instead, the Toups play Dirty Santa, the classic game of thievery and gift-upmanship, with a fifty-dollar limit per person. As you might expect from a family whose rhythms are defined by the stomach and measured daredevilry, the gifts range from steaks Isaac dry-aged to Louisiana caviar to knives to a blow-
Since the actual days around Christmas are spent tearing up the highways visiting family, Isaac and his wife, Amanda, like to set aside time earlier in the season to have friends over to their house in New Orleans for a feast of the senses. Isaac, who has never done anything small in his life, throws down the gauntlet with a meat bonanza (his restaurant is Toups’ Meatery, not Toups’ Vegetable-ry). Turkey or ham might be the traditional proteins on other tables, but Isaac prefers to load his with lamb and duck—meats that are equally
hands-off when it comes to preparation but have more celebratory flair. Then there’s the meat-laden dirty rice, a staple at every self-respecting Cajun’s holiday gathering. And the sticky collards with a 2:1 greens to pork ratio. And his version of his mother’s crawfish cornbread dressing, a wintertime taste of mudbugs when everyone’s feening for the season to come back around.
Throughout the night, Amanda, an oenophile with a hoarder’s heart, goes deep into her wine collection. The playlist leans into Aaron Neville’s holiday tunes. And once the plates are cleared and the after-dinner bourbon glasses are filled, there’s sure to be a backyard bonfire, likely built in a washtub laden with firewood. And Isaac leads a madman’s round of tomahawk target practice. Pool-side. In their suburban New Orleans backyard.
Because, as Isaac professes, Cajun is just how you live your life. No need to let geography weigh you down.