My family and I moved to Lake Charles in the summer of 2007. I immediately fell in love with everything about this fascinating state. Because the music, art, language, landscape, and customs were so different to me, every day was a new adventure. This was especially true for Louisiana culinary traditions. I was introduced to foods I’d never heard of before and couldn’t imagine eating. Until I tried them!
For instance, crawfish. In Pennsylvania, we call them crayfish. They hide under rocks near streams or creeks. And no one eats them. But in our 2007 “summer of immersion,” we wanted to experience as much of the culture, including food, as we could. So when my husband’s employer, PPG, hosted their annual crawfish boil, we were there.
I felt overwhelmed when they handed me (what I considered to be) a giant bucket of crawfish. I couldn’t imagine eating that many. Because Bob had been in Lake Charles on business prior to our move, he had learned the fine art of crawfish eating. He showed me how to crunch, twist, and pinch them open to get to the sweet tail meat. I love crawfish! And had no problem working my through that whole bucket. On the really large ones, I take a stab at a claw now and then. But I’ll never suck the heads.
Etouffee was one of those words I’d never heard of prior to visiting Louisiana. I remember when we were house hunting, our real estate agent took us to Steamboat Bill’s for lunch one day. I saw etouffee on the menu. “What’s that?” I asked. (A question I asked frequently for several years, and still do!) Basically, it is a seafood gravy served over rice. With either shrimp or crawfish, etouffee is delicious!
I had heard of gumbo prior to moving to southwest Louisiana. One might see it every now and then on a menu in the northeast. And Progresso makes gumbo, right? Wrong! I may have heard of gumbo, but I had never eaten true gumbo until a Moss Bluff neighbor invited us to a party at her house. She served chicken and sausage gumbo. I was astounded – it was that good. I’m certain I had seconds. And I wished for thirds, but didn’t want to be a glutton. I admit, I’m rather picky about my gumbo. I like the chicken to be cut in clean, small bite-sized pieces. I never know what to do with those large pieces of chicken with all the bones and fat. But they say that’s what makes a gumbo good.
Boudin was one of those Cajun foods I thought I’d never try. I made the mistake of reading about it first. And it didn’t sound appealing. For one thing – liver. I don’t eat that. And there were some other questionable unsavory ingredients mentioned. But everyone raves about it. Simply put, boudin is a sausage made of pork and rice. Eventually, I knew I had to try it. Guess what? It’s fabulous! And everyone has an opinion on who makes the best boudin. So much so that there is an annual event in Sulphur called the Boudin Wars – a competition between several local boudin makers. (September 12, 2015) To experience the true flavor of boudin, check out our Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail, a list of several of the best boudin makers. Just FYI, you may not want to eat the casing. They use the “real thing” and it’s very tough. I open up the casing and only eat the delicious sausage/rice mixture inside.
One curiosity that catches Yankee transplants and visitors off guard when they first experience southwest Louisiana cooking is the amount of rice they eat here. Simple rice and gravy is a dinner table staple. “Dirty rice” is often found on buffets. Jambalaya is made with rice. Gumbo, over rice. Etouffee, over rice. Sauce picante, over rice. Boudin, made with rice. Red beans and . . . rice. Sure, I ate rice before, but not to this extent. Not surprising, rice is a major crop in Louisiana. Ironically, they don’t commonly make one of my favorite desserts – rice pudding!
In Pennsylvania, I loved shopping at a local farmers market. So upon moving to Louisiana, I quickly sought out the farmers markets in Lake Charles. This afforded a whole other realm of food words I had never before encountered. For example, satsumas, a Louisiana citrus fruit similar to tangerines. And mayhaws. This dear lady faithfully operates her booth with dozens of varieties of jams and jellies, pickles, relishes, and other canned goods every Saturday morning at the Charleston Market off Kirby St. and at the Tuesday 4:00-6:00 Cash and Carry Market at the corner of Enterprise and Broad St.
As I scanned her wares, mayhaw jelly caught my eye. I asked her, “What’s a mayhaw?” She kindly explained it is a small red berry that grows on trees. Naturally, I bought a jar. It tastes . . . sweet. As far as I know, there’s not much use for mayhaws other than making jelly. Rather like crabapples, in that way. The small town of Starks has an annual Mayhaw Festival. This year, the event is May 14-16.
And then there are cracklins, a very popular and beloved local snack food. They can be found in meat markets, delis, restaurants, liquor stores, and gas station mini marts all across south Louisiana. They are bite sized chucks of pig skin fat, fried (and fried and fried) to a crisp. Mind you, cracklins are very different from the bags of “pork rinds” found in grocery store snack aisles. I’m told the process for making cracklins requires many hours. They are served warm in brown paper bags. I swore I’d never eat them. And I kept that promise for close to eight years. But finally, my curiosity won out and I had to discover what all the hubbub was about. I stopped by Honey B Ham on Prien Lake Rd. and bought a small bag. I was quite unexpectedly completely shocked at how much I enjoyed these tasty morsels! Not recommended for those watching their sodium or fat intake, but otherwise, scrumptious!
When you visit southwest Louisiana, food is a major part of your experience. Indulge and enjoy!