Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cajun Steambath

The man guiding the swamp tour was talking about birds. An expert fisherman with an easy laugh, a B. S. in zoology and one in biology, and a profound knowledge of life in the Cajun swamps and bayous, we should have known he was also talking about something more than birds.

From his perch at the stern of the skiff, he pointed up through a tangle of Spanish moss. A stately black and white bird roosted on a deep nest, a squalling chick huddled under its white belly.

“That right there bird, it don’t look like much. But it’s good eatin’. Tastes like chicken that been feedin’ on crawfish.”

We leaned back in our low-backed fishing chairs, all ten of us tourists, and attempted to conjure a savory taste such as this. In a warm etouffee sauce. With a Tabasco-splashed andouille hash…

“But it’s a protected bird now. You can’t hunt it. They aren’t many of them left. But old man Thibadoux, he didn’t care. And you know what, the police, they caught him. With 89 birds. Thibadoux was selling them like I might sell redfish. The judge, he sentenced Thibadoux to 89 days in jail and a fine of $8,900. He served his time. He paid his fine. But do you know what happened to those 89 birds?”

We turned to look at him, our silence assuring him that we did not know what had become of the 89 exotic swamp birds that taste like crawfish-fed chicken.

“The police, they kept the evidence. They had themselves a police banquet to celebrate. It was a fine party, by all accounts. The judge was there. The chief of police was there—the very men who had been buying them birds from old man Thibadoux in the first place.”

The guide throttled up the engine of the skiff and nosed us deeper into the swamp.

“And this, my friends, is story of Louisiana politics. Now let’s see if we can’t find us some alligator.”

We rolled into southern Louisiana Cajun country under a booming thunderstorm. Though the storm didn’t last, we felt its swampy after-effects for days. In Lafayette, hunkering in the mid-day shade offers no relief. Idling through the air-conditioned shopping malls is a waste of time. The only solution is a dance party at night.

And, after flip-flopping through a breathless night in what can only be described as a microbus steam bath*, we raised the windows at 8:00 AM and jumped into a two-stepping zydeco dance party in Breaux Bridge, LA—the self-proclaimed crawfish capitol of the USA.

The party rages like this every Saturday morning. Go early to get a table. Or, if you’re like us, go a bit later, take your chances, and get lucky. Our dance photos are courtesy of Marlene and Byron …

… gracious sharers of tables and bonafide masters of the zydeco two-step (that’s them dancing in the background).

What’s more, the biscuit-muffins and the beignet (giant sugar-coated doughnut holes) are fantastic. Just ask Diane. She'll tell you about it when she's done...

Charged from the dance party, we glided through the afore-mentioned swamps, ending our bus drive eventually at Avery Island. It’s not much of an island, but you don’t go for the scenery so much as you stay for the pepper sauce -- the home of Tobasco (no kidding). And this, my friends, is the story of Cajun country.

*After the all-night Cajun steam bath, we wised up, put on our thinking caps, and got creative. What can we say? It works.

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