#23 Po’Boys

Ask a Cajun what his favorite lunchtime meal is, and he’s likely to choose a po’boy, south Louisiana’s answer to the hero sandwich. What distinguishes a po’boy from its sandwich cousins is the French bread, flaky on the outside and soft on the inside. It’s not a real po’boy if you aren’t wiping breadcrumbs off yourself after you’re done.

While bread may be king of the po’boy world, the ingredients can hardly be considered peasants. Po’boy shops live and die by the quality of their ingredients, the most common being fried shrimp, fried crawfish, fried catfish, fried oyster (see a pattern here?), and roast beef for the slightly more health conscious. After ordering a po’boy, the question that follows is “How you want your po’boy dressed, cheré?“. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about business casual here no. A fully dressed po’boy has tomatoes, pickles, onions, mayo, and shredded lettuce, though some places substitute shredded cabbage instead. Since a Cajun can never have too many carbs, po’boys are usually served with a generous side of homemade fries, and a pile of napkins, because a sign of a great po’boy experience usually includes having to wipe the juices running down your arms.

But wait, po’boys aren’t Cajun, they’re from New Orleans! That’s technically true, but after what New Orleans did with our gumbo (the tomato fiasco), we’re taking the po’boy for ourselves – consider dat a reparation. And if you New Orleans folks don’t watch out, we’ll go after your beignets next! Anyway, this is a blog about stuff Cajun people like, not stuff Cajun people invented, and the po’boy is a great idea no matter who came up with it first.

There are several competing stories about the origin of the po’poy. In one of the most popular tales, these cheap sandwiches were served to striking New Orleans streetcar workers, called “poor boys”, which was eventually shortened to po’boy. Another theory is that the name po’boy is derived from the French pour boire, or “peace offering”, describing the oyster loaf that men would bring home to their wives to make up for a night out on the town. Leave the debating to the historians, meanwhile, us Cajuns are going to keep shovin’ dem po’boys down our throats.

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#22 Working Offshore

Jackup Oil Rig - EndeavourGrowing up in the 70s and 80s, it was impossible not to feel the impact that the oil and natural gas industry had on southern Louisiana. Local businesses boomed with money from oil profits. Most people I knew had some connection to the industry, either by working in the oil field, or in one of its many support industries. Working offshore was one of the best paying jobs in southern Louisiana for a non-college graduate. In fact, you could make a lot more money working offshore than most college graduates could. My grandfather worked on an Exxon drilling platform for 40 years, and was able to comfortably support his wife and six children on his salary. Sadly, he was part of the last generation of Cajuns who could work in the oil field for 40 years, and get the gold watch treatment.

Oil played a huge role in Louisiana in the 20th century. Land based oil exploration began in Louisiana in the early 1900s, and the first offshore platform was built off the Louisiana coast in the 1940s. Many thousands of Cajun men were drawn to this industry in the years that followed. When oil and gas prices rose in the 1970s, Louisiana’s economy boomed. Oil companies built more rigs and hired more people on the assumption that the price of oil would reach $50 a barrel, a bet that was lost when prices crashed to $10 a barrel in the mid 1980s. In the aftermath of the crash, unemployment reached double digits and Louisiana residents experienced a deep recession, with many people losing their livelyhoods. While the rest of the country enjoyed a booming economy, the 1980s was a hard time for Louisiana and its citizens.

Most offshore workers work one of two types of shifts, a 7 & 7, or a 14 & 7, meaning 7 days working followed by 7 days off or 14 days working and 7 days off. I spent a summer working on a natural gas platform, and I can easily say it’s the hardest job I ever worked. I’d wake up at 4am every other Monday morning and drive out to Intracoastal City, deep in Vermilion Parish. There I’d take a 45 minute helicopter ride out to my platform with my co-workers. Once I arrived, I was put right to work. As low man on the totem poll, I was stuck doing most of the menial tasks, from unloading the supply boats, to sandblasting and painting the rig while dangling 150 ft over the water. At the end of a hard 12 hour day, I wound down as most roughnecks do, by eating lots of food, watching TV, and playing some cards or pool at night.

Life on a rig is full of all sorts of potential hazards. It’s very easy to lose a finger or toe, get struck by a heavy object, or throw your back out lifting something heavy. The risk of injury is multiplied by the remoteness of the rig. Any hospital emergency room is well over an hour away, and rig staff usually have minimal first aid training. Injuries are so common, in fact, that local law firms have created a cottage industry of offshore injury litigation. Sure, your back might not work again, but you’ll have the best bass boat in the neighborhood while you collect workman’s comp. Luckily, I survived my summer offshore with no injuries, but I’m convinced that had I stayed longer, it was just a matter of time before something happened to me.

Today, Louisiana remains the #1 producer of crude oil, and #2 producer of natural gas in the United States. With 19 operating crude oil refineries, it has the second largest refining capacity in the US. Louisiana supplies a quarter of the U.S. production of natural gas. There are currently more 2,300 active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. With oil prices over $110 a barrel, the industry is once again booming, though not at the same levels seen in the 1970s. There are many jobs to go around, but people who lived through the last recession are reluctant to return since they fear that there’s no long term future in the field. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

#21 Holly Beach

Mais sometimes a Cajun just has to get away for a while. They need to kick back, relax, hang out with friends, and maybe throw back a beer or twenty. Growing up in Louisiana, there was no better place for this than Holly Beach, or the Cajun Riviera as we like to call it.

Located in southwest Louisiana, Holly Beach was the weekend getaway spot for Coonasses and their families. It was a loose community of around 500 camps organized around a strip of beach, and we’re not talking about million dollar beach houses. Most of the camps were just trailers, with a few nicer structures jacked up on stilts to protect against flooding. Holly Beach was a poor man’s beach, where just about anyone could go for a good time. It wasn’t one of those stuck up beaches with the blue water, clean sand, and public intoxication laws. No, it was the type of beach where you wore shoes in the water so you didn’t cut your foot on a broken beer bottle, a place where you’d occasionally see an alligator on the beach. It was the type of place that if you were too lazy to walk 100 ft, you could always drive your truck right up near the water.

Holly Beach is such a big part of Cajun culture that it even inspired several songs, including (Holly Beach) Under the boardwalk, Hurricane Woman, and the Waltz of Holly Beach.

My family would drive down to Holly Beach just about every summer when I was young. We’d head on down to Cameron Parish, cross on the ferry, and drive past the smelly pogie plant, until we reached our destination. My sister and I would play around in the sand and water (shoes on of course) during the day, and our parents would prepare a boiled seafood feast every evening. Afterwards, the adults would usually wind down by kicking back a few beers and playing a friendly game of cards. Many a good time was had there.

I’m talking about Holly Beach in the past tense, because it was completely wiped out by Hurricane Rita, the forgotten hurricane, in 2005. See that photo on the right? That’s a before and after picture. The only thing left standing after the storm was a water tower. Today, a trip to the closest market is a 100 mile round trip, and the water still isn’t safe to swim in, due to sewage contamination issues.

Despite the devastation, all is not lost as Holly Beach is starting to show signs of life. Camps are gradually being rebuilt, though some people are still fighting their insurance companies or FEMA for reimbursement. Cajuns are a resilient people, so I have no doubt that before we know it, Holly Beach will be restored to its former greatness, and its noble citizens will once again have the truest sign of civilization, a drive through daiquiri stand.

#20 Card Games

Like most historically downtrodden people, we Cajuns have our fair share of vices, or what I like to think of as the four in’s: drinkin’, cussin’, fightin’ (not so much), and gamblin’. Now gambling is such a huge part of our culture, with so many different types, that they can’t all be detailed in a single post. For today, let’s focus on one of the most traditional forms of gambling in Cajun culture…the card game.

The favorite form of gambling for most of the old school Cajuns is the local card game. Every small town has a bar or two where people gather for a game of bourré or euchre. The bar takes a house cut from each pot, and usually provides a meal for the players to keep them playing. Local police almost always look the other way, provided they get their taste of the action.

Now I’m not suggesting that all or even most Cajuns have gambling problems any more than I’d suggest we all have drinking problems. Sure, many overdo it, but the majority of us exercise moderation. Gambling’s most obvious appeal may be the chance to win some money, but it’s also a way to socialize with friends and pass the time, all while having a bit of fun. And what Cajun doesn’t like to pass a good time? After all, laissez les bon temps rouler is practically our state motto.

Some of my earliest memories are of the weekly card games my family held. I can remember going to my mom mom’s (grandmother’s) house every Sunday and as soon as lunch was over, a sheet would be draped over the kitchen table to make dealing the cards easier. My family would break out their rolls of quarters and a pack of Bulldog Squeezers playing cards for a friendly game of bourré (pronounced boo-ray). Most games had a $10 buy in, with a 50 cent ante per pot.  This was just enough to keep things interesting, and those who lost always had a chance to win it back the next week. Sometimes we grandchildren would sit around and play a game of bataille with each other, mimicking our elders. Nothing made my mom mom happier then sweeping a big mound of quarters into her pile after winning a big hand.

In the 1990s, gambling became more corporatized with the advent of video poker on every corner, the introduction of the Louisiana lottery, and the opening of numerous Indian and riverboat casinos across the state. This combined with the gradual dying off of the older generation has changed the face of gambling in Louisiana. Gone is the social aspect, and while your family was unlikely to take your house from you, the casinos have no qualms about it.

#19 Cockfighting

In 2008, Louisiana became the last state to ban cockfighting, yet again securing the states spot as the laughing stock of the country. Cockfighting is a spectator sport in which two specially bred roosters fight it out with razor blades or spikes fastened to their feet until one bird either dies or refuses to fight. The action takes place in an arena, while a cheering crowd places bets on the outcome.

With an estimated worth of 150 million dollars, this little blood sport didn’t go down without a fight. Proponents of the sport argued that fighting comes naturally for these birds, that the birds actually enjoy it. There were the usual appeals to tradition, about cockfighting’s positive impact on the economy, on our Cajun way of life. Phrases like ‘it’s our heritage‘ popped up in just about every pro cockfighting argument. How many times has that phrase been uttered to protect and defend a dying tradition?

I’d like to dispel the myth of cockfighting’s popularity in Cajun culture. Although I grew up at the epicenter of cockfighting country, I’ve never seen a single event, or known a single person who frequented cockfights. Hell, I didn’t even know where these events took place. Recent polls show I’m not alone. Some 82% of Louisiana residents supported the cockfighting ban, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say Cajuns, on the whole, like it. For the sake of this post, let’s call cockfighting Stuff That a Small Minority of Cajuns Like.

As a full fledged carnivore, I have absolutely no problem with eating the meat of slaughtered animals, nor do I have any issues with game hunting. You won’t catch me at a PETA meeting anytime soon, but when you put two animals in the ring and watch them fight to their death for your personal enjoyment and profit, well, that’s where I draw the line. That’s not part of my Cajun culture. Some may lose their livelyhood over the ban, but so be it. Some traditions need to die. Now, let me get down from my soapbox…I got some chicken to cook.

#18 Boudin

Crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya may get all the glory when it comes to Acadian cuisine, but there is no more uniquely Cajun food than boudin. A simple food, boudin consists of cooked pork scraps, rice, onions, and seasoning stuffed into pig intestines. Nowadays, most places substitute pig intestines for artificial sausage casings, so the squeamish need not worry.

Boudin has a long history in Cajun culture, and can be traced as far back as the early 1800s, when French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau whipped up a batch of buffalo boudin for the famous exploring team Lewis and Clark. The boudin we know and love today is a result of poor Cajun families finding a use for the leftover scraps of pork and intestines after a boucherie (community hog slaughter). Boudin slowly evolved over the years, with each family refining and passing their secret recipes down to future generations.

One of the best things about boudin is that it’s a people’s food: simple, delicious, inexpensive, and portable. Sold by the link at convenience stores and local meat markets, and wrapped in thick white butchers paper, boudin is the Cajun man’s answer to the burrito. It’s the ultimate food for the Coonass who’s on the run. And Cajun’s don’t care where their boudin comes from either. Whether it’s from a fine restaurant (not likely), or the back of a gas station, all that matters is the end result. In a way, boudin is the ultimate in Cajun culinary meritocracy.

Boudin can be eaten in two ways: you can squeeze the boudin stuffing into your mouth with your fingers or teeth, or depending on the consistency of your link’s casing, you can bite into it like a sausage, casing and all. Either way, expect your hands end up greasy, so keep some napkins close by. And if you don’t have time for all dat mess, you can order up a batch of boudin balls, which are tiny rolled balls of boudin, deep fat fried, served piping hot. They’re like little Cajun donut holes, you can just pop them in your mouth.

Now fights have been known to break out over which boudin is the best. Cajun people defend their favorite links the same way most people defend their favorite football team. We usually tend to favor our home team and not some foreign store that’s 10 miles away. We also argue about all the different boudin qualities: spicy vs mild, crisp vs chewy casing, liver vs no liver, and the rice to meat ratio. Luckily, we’ve got an objective resources to help us decide. The Boudin Link, a comprehensive guide to the boudin of Acadiana, reviews and scores all of the major boudin outlets in Acadiana.  Another great read is The Southern Boudin Trail, which contains several interviews with some of the area’s top boudiniers.

Unfortunately, decent boudin is almost impossible to get outside of Cajun country. Sure, some major grocery chains sell vacuum packed boudin, but trust me, it’s just not the same. Next time you’re home visiting your family, don’t forget to stop by your local neighborhood convenience store, and fill up an ice chest with your favorite links.

Becoming an Honorary Cajun

The Golden Crawfish

Feeling a bit left out reading these posts? Have you been living in Cajun country for the last few years, but still don’t quite fit in? Well what you need to do is become an Honorary Cajun Citizen. It’s like being knighted, only better, and your only civic duties are to attend Mardis Gras, the Crawfish Festival, and any event that provides free beer and entertainment.

Requirements:

  • Can you speak French? Neither can most of us. It is, however, mandatory to know at least 5 Cajun swear words. Extra points will be given for creativity.
  • Peel at least 20 crawfish per minute, or cpm. Bonus if you suck the heads.
  • You sprinkle your conversations with keeyaw and chére.
  • You can cook an acceptable gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya (must be judged by a panel of real Coonasses).
  • Do you own a pair of rubber fishing boots? Bonus points if they are white.

That’s all there is to it. If you meet these requirements, then you can swear yourself in by placing your hand on a copy of ‘Talk about Good‘ and shotgunning a beer…and wait for your own Golden Crawfish Award™ to arrive in the mail.

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