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Big Fun on the Bayou : Louisiana’s Cajun Country Lets the Good Times Roll with Unique Music, Food and Culture

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On a cool Monday night, things were heating up fast inside Randol’s, a Cajun restaurant and dance hall in this southern Louisiana city. Couples, from teens to old-timers, circled round and round the wooden floor as a youthful band playing accordion, fiddle, guitar and drums switched smoothly between soulful waltzes and snappy two-steps.

Diners at square wooden tables with green checkerboard cloths watched the dancers while chowing down platefuls of beet-red crawfish and giant bowls of spicy gumbo, washed down with bottles of icy beer.

As I huddled last April with three Yankee colleagues, trying to be inconspicuous, a slender man in his 70s with suspenders, a string tie and slicked-back white hair came over and asked me to dance.

I demurred--I didn’t know how--but he wasn’t having any of it. “Come on, chere, it’s easy,” he said, taking my hand and pulling me onto the dance floor.

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“One, two, three, one, two, three,” my partner coached as we circled the room. I was doing just fine, he said, his steady smile belying the fact that I was stepping on his toes every other beat. And soon--well, what do you know--I thought maybe I was getting the hang of the thing. Visions of “The Big Easy” drifted into my consciousness, and soon this elderly gentleman was my Dennis Quaid and I was his Ellen Barkin and we were waltzing by the bayou on a steamy Southern night.

The end of the dance broke my trance, but that charmed night at Randol’s fais-do-do (pronounced fay-doe-DOE)--as Cajun dances are called--set the mood for our four-day jaunt through southern Louisiana.

Acadiana--as this region is known--encompasses 22 Louisiana parishes stretching from the Mississippi River to the Texas line, and is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Some 4,000 French Canadian Cajuns, a corruption of the word Acadians , settled in the swamplands here in the late 1700s after they were exiled from what is now Nova Scotia for refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown and renounce Catholicism.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the Cajun’s plight in his epic 1847 poem “Evangeline,” a tragic tale about an Acadian maiden and her beloved Gabriel, who were cast adrift on separate boats on the eve of their wedding and finally reunited in America as aged lovers.

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There still are pockets of French-speaking Acadians in southeastern Canada and northern Maine, but despite a common heritage, these Northerners bear little cultural resemblance to their southern kin.

The 800,000 present-day Louisiana descendants of the Acadian exiles make up the largest French-speaking minority in the United States. Their traditions and language--a patois spiced with Spanish, English and Indian words--once were threatened with extinction through assimilation.

But Cajun music and culture have recently become quite the rage. The haute Cajun cooking popularized by Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme, and the success of the movie “The Big Easy,” with its Cajun soundtrack and dance scenes, has made people who wouldn’t know a crawfish from a goldfish rally behind the Cajun credo: “ laissez les bons temps rouler " (let the good times roll). And around Los Angeles, Cajun music--and its bluesy black cousin, zydeco--can be regularly found at dance concerts staged by the local Cajun community in clubs and community centers.

Our excursion was a side trip from New Orleans, just a few hours--but a big brash world--away. Along with its own Creole-cuisine and culture--a mix of French, Spanish, African and Indian--the city had given us a jazzed-up taste of Cajun food and music.

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Now we hoped to see the natural roots.

We got our wish that first night at Randol’s--and again at its competitor, Mulate’s, in nearby Breaux Bridge. Strangers when we arrived, we soon were enveloped by the regulars like long-lost kin who just needed to be reacquainted with the family to fit right in.

Both places are informal, catering to local families and couples as well as an increasing number of curious tourists. Randol’s is a tad more upscale, with smaller tables and less memorabilia cluttering the walls and ceiling.

At Mulate’s, autographed photographs of celebrities--Dennis Quaid, Joe Cocker, Muddy Waters--line the entrance, thousands of business cards from guests are tacked to the low ceiling and the walls are painted with 3-D murals of swamps. Diners sit at long picnic tables that surround the wooden dance area, where it’s not unusual to see your waitress taking a spin with a patron between orders.

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Looking around at couples young and old gliding gracefully around the floor, we wondered aloud if people here were born dancing.

“Well, almost,” said James Nelson, a cheerful man in his 60s from nearby St. Martinville, who sat devouring crawfish, creamy cole-slaw and fat home fries at the table next to ours. “Little kids start walking and then they start shaking, and by 16 they’re experts. When they get old, they can’t hardly walk, but they’re still dancing.”

Cajun dancing, we quickly learned, engages the heart as much as the feet. Country singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter says it all in a line from her hit about Cajun country, “Down at the Twist and Shout”:

“You learn to dance with your rock and roll, and you learn to swing with a do-si-do, but you learn to love at the fais do-do.”

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Dancing, of course, isn’t everything in Cajun country-- eating is. Our visit last spring came at the height of crawfish season, which meant that these small freshwater lobsters were on every menu and prepared every which way but raw.

At Mulate’s, we had giant bowlfuls of them, boiled bright red and steaming; at Randol’s, crawfish Florentine, crawfish enchiladas and crawfish fettuccine were specialties of the house. Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf in Henderson, where we dined outside overlooking a murky bayou, served them in a gumbo with pork and onions, etouffeed in a creamy sauce and grilled with artichoke hearts. At Abear’s Cajun Cafe, a tiny luncheonette in Houma that has live Cajun music Friday nights, they were fried so deep we had to pat them down with napkins. Finally, at Cafe Vermillainville (a historic Lafayette inn that was our only gourmet find), the four of us split a selection that included crawfish in a delicate Mornay sauce with angel hair pasta, crawfish bisque, crawfish au gratin, soft-shell crawfish, crawfish and cheese puffs and crawfish egg rolls.

Legend has it that crawfish originally were big Canadian lobsters that followed the exiled Acadians south and shrank to their present size--about three to four inches long--by the time the arduous swim was completed.

Whatever their origin, by our third day we were so crawfish-ed out, we wished they’d swim back to wherever they came from. Fantasizing about bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, we fully understood the humor of a local song about a stranger who goes into a Cajun cafe and inquires about the menu selections. “Oh, we got crawfish, crawdads, mud bugs and other things,” says the proprietor, reciting all the names for the same fish.

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If we were sated on the regional fare, we were always hungry for a scenic feast. We got our wish at some pretty towns along the route. At Franklin, for instance, huge oaks shaded streets lined with beautiful Victorian cottages, and in New Iberia, the elegant Shadows on the Teche Plantation--which is open to visitors--backed onto lovely Bayou Teche, a sylvan respite from the town’s depressed main street.

But the most splendid setting was Avery Island, a sprawling tropical garden and wildlife sanctuary about 45 minutes south of Lafayette near the Gulf of Mexico. The “island,” which is really a soil-covered salt mound in the middle of a marsh and swamplands, is reached by a little bridge across the Bayou Petit Anse. Its 200-acre “Jungle Gardens” has stands of slender bamboo and an abundance of live oaks, their branches dripping with Spanish moss. During our April trip, the area was abloom with azalea, camellias and wisteria in delicate shades of purple and pink.

As we navigated the winding road around the reserve, we watched small alligators sunning on the banks of a canal and spotted nutria (large furry rodents) dashing across the road. Coming around a bend, we were surprised to see a delicate pagoda housing a golden Buddha perched on a stone mound overlooking a tranquil pond. Bird City, a 35-acre, duckweed-covered lake at the southern end of the reserve, was aflutter with thousands of nesting herons, snowy egrets, ducks and geese.

Avery Island also is home to Tabasco pepper sauce. Our half-hour factory tour included a snappy slide show spiced with good Cajun music, and wound up in a gift shop filled with all things Tabasco. There were T-shirts bearing the company logo on the front and “laissez les bons temps rouler” on the back, Tabasco-spiked potato chips and bottles of sauce that came in a camouflage clip-on belt, a hot item with the Desert Storm troops, according to the shop manager.

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No trip to Cajun Country is complete without a swamp tour. The most famous outfitter is 77-year-old “Alligator” Annie Miller, who summons gators by name and feeds them by hand.

We chose instead a trip with a musical twist, a two-hour “swamp cruise” out of Houma with Black Guidry, a local guide and musician. Along the way, Guidry entertained with Cajun ballads, singing in French and English as he accompanied himself alternately on accordion and guitar.

Guidry--who is not related to Lafayette-born Ron Guidry, the famous ex-Yankee pitcher--is a former state trooper and oil field worker who turned to tourism when the oil boom went bust. His “Cajun Man’s Swamp Cruise” takes up to 50 guests on a canopied 30-by-14-foot barge out into the cyprus-studded Bayou Black (the name’s just a coincidence) and a murky section of canals and marshland.

As Guidry pointed out ducks, cranes, cormorants, hawks, blue Herons, nutria and an occasional oil pump line, his catahoula hound, Gatorbait, barked and snarled madly at alligators that swam up to the boat for handouts of bloody red chicken flesh that Guidry dangled from a long poll.

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“Come ‘ere, Mama Jane,” Guidry called to an eight-foot alligator who frequently greets his boat. Stormin’ Normin, a bigger gator named in honor of Desert Storm Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, failed to materialize no matter how many times Guidry hollered.

Throughout the tour, Guidry talked about bayou life and legends. We were never quite sure which was fact and which was fiction, but, for our purposes, it didn’t really matter.

“Folks, if you want to know something, just ask me,” he said at one point. “If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you a lie, and you won’t know the difference.”

That, we decided, could well be the credo of Cajun Country. Myth, after all, is as much a part of the culture as reality. The countryside may have more billboards than bayous, and you’re more likely to hook up with an aging shrimp fisherman than a studly Dennis Quaid at the local dance hall.

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But as long as songs and legends perpetuate the exotic and mysterious here, then, as Guidry sang from the old Hank Williams classic, “Jambalaya”:

“Son of a gun, we’re gonna have big fun out on the bayou.”

GUIDEBOOK

Louisiana Cajun Country

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Getting there: Our four-day loop took us west from New Orleans on Highway 10 to Interstate 90 south into Lafayette, then southeast along Routes 90 and 182 (a smaller, more scenic route), with a detour down Route 329 to Avery Island.

Where to stay: Chain motels with prices starting at about $35 double occupancy abound around Lafayette. For a homier experience, the Mouton Manor Inn is one of several very nice B&B; inns around town. (Except where noted, all phone numbers below use the 318 area code.)

Mouton Manor Inn, 310 Sidney Martin Road, Lafayette, La. 70508, 237-6996. Acadian-style plantation house set on three acres surrounded by pecan trees; upstairs porch has swings and rockers. Three rooms, all with private baths. Extremely informal; proprietor Rita Preston is very friendly. Doubles from $55.

Bois des Chenes Inn, 338 N. Sterling St., Lafayette, La. 70508, 233-7816. Originally a plantation house. Breakfast is taken at the formal dining room in the elegant main house. Guest quarters in the carriage house all have private baths, minibar, air-conditioning and televisions. Proprietor Curt Vorhees is a professional geologist and amateur historian who can talk for hours about local history and lore. Doubles from $85.

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T-Frere’s House, 1905 Verot School Road, Lafayette, La. 70508, 984-9347. Proprietor Peggy Mosely receives guests with mint juleps made with fresh mint from her garden and served icy cold in sterling goblets. Antiques abound, and all rooms have private baths. No pets or children. Doubles: $60.

Chretien Point Plantation, Chretien Point Road, Route 1, Box 162, Sunset, La. 70584, 233-7050 or 662-5876. This 1831 inn just north of Lafayette was the manor house of a former cotton plantation near a bayou. Three rooms and two suites. Prices range from $95 to $200, including a house tour, wine and hors d’oeuvres, and early morning self-service coffee followed by a large plantation breakfast. There’s a tennis court and swimming pool.

La Maison Campagne, 825 Kidder Road, Carencro, La. 70520, 896-6529. A 1915 home on eight acres with a swimming pool, seven miles north of Lafayette. Three rooms. Doubles from $65.

Hotel Castillo Inn, 220 Evangeline Blvd., St. Martinville, La. 70582, 394-4010. Greek Revival inn has five bedrooms, all with private baths, situated right next to the commemorative Evangeline oak. Rates: $35 to $75 double, including breakfast.

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Where to eat: Cafe Vermilionville, 1304 W. Pinhook, Lafayette, 237-0100. Lafayette’s prettiest restaurant, with fine food to match. In a historic inn in a romantic garden setting. Food is of the highest caliber, with fresh fish a specialty. Lots of fancy sauces and imaginative pairings, from crawfish egg rolls to snapper with crawfish and artichoke hearts. Entrees from $16-$22. This is the only restaurant we encountered where reservations are recommended.

Enola Prudhomme’s Cajun Cafe, 4676 N.E. Evangeline Thruway, Carencro, La., 896-7964. Enola, one of famed chef Paul Prudhomme’s 12 siblings, serves up spicy nouveau Cajun fare, from blackened fish to jalapeno corn bread and sweet potato muffins. Entrees $7 to $15.

Robin’s Restaurant, Henderson, La., 228-7594. One of several restaurants in Henderson (near Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp) specializing in gumbos, etouffee and fried and broiled fish dishes. Tourist guides will steer you to Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf on the bayou nearby, but Robin’s is a tastier choice, though it’s not on the water.

McGees Atchafalaya Cafe, Route 5, Breaux Bridge, 228-7555. Overlooking the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp, McGees (which also runs swamp tours) has good Cajun food and live music weekends.

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Abear’s Cajun Cafe, 809 Bayou Black Drive, Houma, (5O4) 872-6306. This tiny greasy spoon is a Houma institution and always full, whether it’s an early morning breakfast of biscuits, eggs and grits or a hearty lunch of sausage, red beans and rice . . and sometimes alligator. Particularly worth a stop Friday nights when Black and Sondra Guidry entertain with Cajun ballads, backed up by guitar and accordion.

La Trouvaille, Route 56, Chauvin, (504) 594-9503. Good Cajun food near Houma, but open for lunch only, October to May only.

For legendary oysters in season (prime time, October through February), head to Abbeville. Try either Black’s Oyster Bar, 319 Eere Megret (893-4266), or Dunuy’s Oyster Shop, 108 S. Main St. (893-2336).

Sightseeing: “A Cajun Man’s Swamp Cruise"--Black Guidry runs swamp tours on the Bayou Black. Accompanying himself on accordion and guitar, he sings Cajun ballads along the route and feeds alligators who float up to the boat, while his Catahoula hound, Gatorbait, barks madly. For more information, write the company at 103 Mike St., Houma, La. 70360, or call (504) 868-4625. Two-hour cruises cost $15 for adults, $10 for children 6-13.

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Annie Miller’s Swamp Tour also is recommended. The 77-year-old guide, who seems to know personally every critter in the swamp, also starts out in Houma. Same prices as above. For more information, write Miller at 100 Alligator Lane, Houma, La. 70360, or call (504) 879-3934.

Jazz Festival A visit to Cajun Country is a good side trip for anyone planning to attend New Orleans’ most famous celebration, Mardi Gras, which in 1992 takes place Feb. 28 to March 3. Cajun Mardi Gras (same dates), however, is far from the crowds and chaos of New Orleans. This down-home celebration is a family affair, with parades, costume contests and much singing and dancing. In Mamou, there’s a couir, where masked horsemen ride door-to-door begging food for a giant community gumbo on Fat Tuesday. Lafayette celebrates big, too, though there is no couir.

But an even better time to see the area is in the spring, between weekends attending JazzFest, one of the world’s top music festivals. The 1992 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival runs April 24 to May 3. The main events-some 60 bands a day entertain at all-day music performances at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track-take place on two weekends, April 24-26 and May 1-3. Admission is $10 a day at the gate, $7 in advance.

A complete schedule of performances at the fair-grounds and evening Jazzfest concerts around town (which cost extra) can be obtained by calling festival headquarters at (504) 522-4786. Complete packages-including air fare, hotel accommodations, JazzFest tickets and a city tour, are available from Travel New Orleans. Call (800) 535-8747.

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