#32 Jambalaya

What the hell is jambalaya? This was a question posed years ago to the sixth grade version of myself by a distant pen pal, named Carlos. Since this pen pal was foisted upon me by my Kum Ba Yah singing Catholic school teacher in an idealistic attempt to expose me to the outside world, I didn’t feel a particular need to respond right away. I was much too busy playing Super Mario to write back to some stranger. Well, I might be a lot of things, but let it be known far and wide that I’m not a flake, just an overachieving procrastinator. So Carlos, if you’re out there, here’s your answer, some twenty odd years late.

Jambalaya is the ultimate in single pot Cajun cooking. A combination of rice, vegetables, stock and a mixture of meats all cooked together in a single pot (usually black iron), jambalaya is a deceptively simple meal that takes only minutes to learn, but years to master. Done right, it will bring tears to a Cajun man’s eyes, but done wrong, jambalaya a greasy mushy mess. Unlike gumbo, jambalaya is a great year round dish, whether served fireside at the camp, or at home by your mama.

The jambalaya was an attempt by New Orleanians of Spanish descent to make paella in the New World. Without ready access to saffron, tomatoes were substituted, and the resulting dish bore a red hue instead of the trademark yellow of paella. This new dish was dubbed jambalaya, from the Provencal word “jambalaia,” meaning a mish-mash or mixup. Eventually, the jambalaya made its way to Cajun country, lost those damn tomatoes, and became the more tasty brown jambalaya we know and love today.

Every year a jambalaya cookoff is held at the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales Louisiana, located on the far eastern outskirts of Cajun Country. Here you can sample some of the best jambalaya you’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the festival finished last weekend, so you’ll have to wait a whole year to see what I’m talking about (damned procrastination reared its ugly head again).

If you’d like to try making your own jambalaya, here’s a good recipe I found for feeding 120 people, or as I like to call it, my immediate family. If you don’t have that many mouths to feed, you might try this recipe which won the 1978 Jambalaya World Championship title.

So Carlos, I hope this answers all your jambalaya related questions. If not, just write back, and I promise you an answer sometime in the next 20 years.

Jambalaya (On the Bayou):

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#31 Hot Sauce

Some say that variety is the spice of life, well they’re wrong …hot sauce is the spice of life chére. Just ask any self respecting Coonass. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, a bottle of hot sauce is never far away from the kitchen table. When it comes to hot sauce, no food is safe. Some like a dash of hot sauce over their morning eggs, or add a few drops to their gumbo or jambalaya to give it a little kick. The most hardcore hot sauce aficionados even carry their own sauce around with them.

While Tabasco may be the undisputed king of the hot sauces in terms of sales, there are many other popular Louisiana hot sauces, like Louisiana and Crystal. And let’s not forget the thousands of different homemade chow chows floating around Acadiana. Each sauce has it’s own personality and area of strength. Tabasco is great when you want to add some pure heat to your dish, but it tends to overwhelm a dish with its vinegary flavor (a taste that millions of people apparently like). Both Louisiana and Crystal are milder than Tabasco and are great for adding a little spice to your dish without have to face the morning after repercussions (hey, I not above making a poo joke). If you want to start a fight with a Coonass, just tell him that your favorite hot sauce is better than his.

I don’t want to hear about this hot sauce that’s a million times hotter than the ones here. It’s no big trick to make a novelty hot sauce that’s too hot to taste. What’s hard is to make a hot sauce that people actually want to add to their foods, that people actually crave. Cajun food has been stereotyped as anything that’s either blackened or super spicy. Major restaurant chains regularly pull “Cajun” versions of dishes out of their bag of marketing tricks. Most of these dishes are made by simply adding tons of spice to the original dish, and hope their customers don’t know the difference. Any true Coonass knows that while out food is well seasoned, it’s seldom too spicy to eat.

When it comes to hot sauce, there’s no right answer. You just have to go with your gut…or butt (see, I did it twice).

#30 High School Football

On Friday nights between August and December, small town Cajuns can be found enjoying the local high school football game all around Acadiana. They go for different reasons, but whether it’s to root for a relative’s son, or support their home town, high school football is cheap, fun entertainment for the whole family. It’s like a Saint’s game, but sometimes your home team actually wins one. (Ok, I know the Saints have been very good the past few seasons, but they’ll forever be frozen in my memory as the loveable never-won-a-playoff-game Saints of my youth.)

Sitting amongst the crowd, you can hear the locals yelling out plays from the bleachers. Pick up dat ball couyon! Block dat kick! Pass de ball to T-Boy over dere! The stands are filled with old timers reliving the football glory of their youth, with only a pair of busted knees and a worn out letterman jacket to show for it.

Louisiana football players have been well represented in the NFL. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw was born in Shreveport Louisiana (I know Shreveport is barely part of Louisiana, but I’m still counting him). In recent years, Jake Delhomme, Peyton and Eli Manning, Kevin Faulk, Marshall Faulk, Bobby Boucher, and many others have proudly represented our state. In terms of population, only Washington DC and Mississippi have more NFL players. Not bad for a bunch of Louisiana boys.

Most high school football games are a blast, but nothing beats the excitement of playing a rival team, usually from the neighboring town. This is a game of high stakes, since the losing town has to endure a year of taunts and humiliation from the winning side. The big game for me was the Cecilia Bulldogs vs the Breaux Bridge Tigers. Readers of The Daily Advertiser voted this game the largest high school rivalry in Louisiana. In the week leading up to the game, trash talking ramps up, houses are toilet papered, and fights break out between students as tensions rise. On the night of the big game, the whole town practically shuts down as just about everyone goes to the game. This is the loudest game of the season with chants of De-Fense and the thunder of synchronized bleacher stomping filling the air. Even in a losing season, we Cecilia locals can hold our head up high as long as we manage to whup Breaux Bridge. What’s your towns big rivalry?

Cecilia Bulldog Fight Song

Fight for our colors, green and gold
Fight for our honour, heart and soul

Lift up her glory, lift up her name

Shake down the thunder with her fame

Win or lose, we’ll never be blue
We stand together, loyal and true

We’re from Cecilia, this is our song

Cecilia, right or wrong, Hey!

#29 Squirrel Hunting

If it’s got four legs, a Coonass will shoot it, clean it, throw it in a pot and make a gravy out of it. This saying even holds true for the tastiest member of the rodent family, the squirrel. And while these critters are scrumptious, they’re even more fun to hunt.

Squirrel hunting is a favorite pastime of Acadiana natives, and nowhere is it more popular than in the small town of Ville Platte. In fact, it is so popular in Ville Platte that the opening day of squirrel hunting season is a town holiday and schools shut down early. The holiday was a no-brainer, considering it was a choice between giving students the day off or having the whole town play hooky for the day. It come as no surprise that Ville Platte was crowned Squirrel Town U.S.A. by Field and Stream magazine.

Throughout the hunting season, boys (and some girls) as young as 5 head out into the woods with their fathers, shotguns in hand and clothed in a bright orange safety vests. Hunters walk silently through the woods scanning their surroundings for telltale signs of gray or fox squirrels like chewed up acorns or pine comb stems falling to the ground in a helicopter pattern. Sometimes they’ll use a bark call to fool the squirrels into responding with barks of their own. Together, father and son will stay in the woods until they shoot their daily limit, or the sunset forces them to call it a day.

On opening day, and throughout squirrel season, you can hear shotgun blasts ringing out in the distance, so much so that after a while you stop noticing them. A big part of squirrel hunting’s appeal is the amount of action a squirrel hunter gets (not dat kind of action couyon!). Compared to the sit-and-wait style of deer hunting, squirrel hunters get to shoot their guns a lot more and are more likely to bring home a kill than their deer hunting counterparts (though the payoff for a deer hunter is a lot better). It’s a lot more fun for a young boy to hunt squirrels than it is to get them to sit still for 5 hours in a deer stand.

For the uninitiated, eating a rodent might sound unappetizing, but trust me, squirrel is delicious. Cooked properly, squirrel meat is more tender than chicken. My favorite squirrel meal is in a brown sauce over rice, but some people prefer it in a gumbo. Squirrel brain is considered a delicacy by some (not by dis Cajun boy). My uncle used to make the little cooked squirrel heads talk before cracking them open and getting at their juicy brains. With the recent linking of squirrel brain eating to a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or mad cow disease, I have one more reason to stay away.

The 2008 squirrel season was something special. For only the second year in history, Louisiana state officials have declared a second squirrel season from May 3 through May 25 on private land and from May 3 through May 11 on public land. This is like having a second Christmas. I don’t know if Ville Platte declared a second squirrel holiday for this one, but I suspect there were a lot of absences that day.

#28 Grattons (Cracklins)

Crunchy, salty, and almost 100% pure fat, cracklins are the original Cajun snack food. Cracklins, also known as grattons (grah-tawns), are the result of a poor people’s desire to use every part of the pig. Years ago, Cajun families and neighbors regularly got together for boucheries, or community hog butcherings. Every family pitched in to help butcher and clean the hog and left with their share of the animal. No part of the hog was wasted. In addition to meat, the hog also provided tripe, hogs head cheese, organs, pigs feet, ears, and the tail. Fat was scraped off of the remaining skin to produce lard for cooking, and finally, the remaining skin and attached fat was shaved (hogs are hairy), cut into bite sized cubes and fried to produce grattons. After being removed from the fryer, the grattons were seasoned and served. I’ll bet your favorite snack food doesn’t require shaving.

Made of almost pure saturated fat and heavily salted, these delicious treats have no doubt contributed to Louisiana’s high rate of diabetes and heart disease. While most Cajuns don’t eat cracklins as often as their parents once did, grattons remain a guilty pleasure amongst Acadians. Best Stop alone sells over 2500 lbs of these treats daily.

Nowadays, a community boucherie is a rare event. If you want your gratton fix, you can usually find them wherever boudin is sold. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try making them yourself, but be prepared to scrub the resulting oil slick off of your kitchen floor and have your house smell like fried pork for a week (not a bad thing in this Coonass’s opinion).

#27 Deep Fried Turkey

Cajun people loved fried food. Name a food, and it can probably be made ten times tastier by dropping it in a vat of hot oil, at least that’s the Cajun culinary philosophy. Okra, eggplant, boudin and pig skin all benefit from deep frying, so it was just a matter of time until a Cajun figured out how to fry a turkey. Why a turkey you ask…well why not? Cajuns are always trying to top themselves, and a turkey is the largest critter that’s practical to fry. The peanut oil required to fry a whole cow is cost prohibitive (I already looked into it), not to mention the damage it would do to the above ground swimming pool!

The first reaction people have when they hear about fried turkey is that it’ll be too greasy, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, the turkey isn’t battered, so there’s not much for the fat to hang onto in the finished turkey. Secondly, a turkey is a big bird, with a lower surface area to volume ratio than chicken. This reduces the overall fat content per serving. The frying process actually seals in juices, and the high heat cooks the bird with little loss of moisture. The simple fact is that there’s no better way to cook a turkey than deep frying it.

Here’s how turkey frying works. First, you thaw a medium sized turkey, about 8-12 pounds. Then you inject or stuff the bird with seasoning (Cajun injector works best). Next, you lower the turkey into a large pot of hot peanut oil, and after about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on size, you’re done. Remove the turkey from the oil, let cool, carve up and dig in. If done right, you get a nice crispy outside, and the meat inside is the juiciest you’ve ever tasted (yes, it’s even better than your mama’s baked turkey).

I’d like to claim that the Cajuns invented the fried turkey, but I just don’t have any hard evidence to back that up. Famed Cajun Justin Wilson said he observed the practice of turkey frying in Louisiana as early as the 1930s. One thing that is certain, is that this tradition came out of the South, and in recent years, has become quite the rage across the country. This popularity has also led to an increase in the number of accidents, which has given turkey frying a bad name. Usually, it’s some fool that’s drinking and fryin’, or drops a partially thawed turkey into the grease. You’re messin with hot grease couyon, be careful you! If done correctly, turkey frying is perfectly safe. Like most other things, there’s a right way and a wrong way wrong way to do it.

So next time one of the major turkey holidays rolls around, give fried turkey a try. I guarantee you’ll never want to go back to the old way again.

#26 The Atchafalaya Basin

Cajuns love the outdoors, the fresh air, being surrounded by wilderness, and there’s no better place for this in south Louisiana than in the Atchafalaya Basin. The Basin’s our backyard, a place we can get away to on the weekends and wind down with a little camping, fishing, and beer drinking — everything a modern Coonass needs.

When I was young, my grandfathers would take me to the Basin every few weeks. We’d drive on top of the Henderson or Butte La Rose levees and choose a good place to launch our boat. We’d ride out to our secret spot, moving past house boats and navigating a maze of cypress knees, careful not to hit any underwater stumps. Sometimes we’d fish, other times we’d pick up nets that my grandfather had set out earlier. Sometimes my grandfather would hand me a shotgun with instructions to shoot pretty much anything that flew over my head, endangered or not. To my grandfathers, hunting and fishing laws were more suggestions than anything else. Nobody was going to tell an old school Cajun what he could or couldn’t shoot. Luckily for the birds, I was a pretty bad shot.

South Louisiana contains 40-45% of the wetlands of the lower 48 states, and the Atchafalaya Basin makes up a huge part of that. With 865,000 acres, the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest swamp in the United States. The Basin is over 15 miles wide running east to west, and 150 miles long. The word Atchafalaya comes from its Choctaw name “hacha falaia” which means “long river”. The Choctaws used this word to describe the Atchafalaya River that feeds the Basin. For those that don’t want to get their hands dirty, the Basin can most easily be seen while driving the 18.2 mile stretch of I-10 that runs between Henderson and Marigouin.

The Atchafalaya is home to a wide array of wildlife, including over 300 species of birds and the largest population of bald eagles in the south central United States. It also hosts a large population of American alligator along over 54 types of reptiles and amphibians. In addition, over 90 species of fish, crawfish, crabs, and shrimp also call the Atchafalaya home, and provide a livelihood to many Louisiana fisherman. The fishing industry brings 300 million dollars into Louisiana each year, and the Atchafalaya is part of that.

The Atchafalaya Basin serves an important role as a buffer marsh. As a wetland, the Basin performs many vital functions, including flood control, water purification, and storm buffering. It is home to endangered species such as the Louisiana black bear and the bald eagle, and native wildlife like grobecs (delicious), osprey, herons, egrets, beavers, and alligators.

In the early 20th century, it became quite evident that the Mississippi River, seeking a more direct route to the Gulf of Mexico, was attempting to reroute itself over the Atchafalaya River. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 triggered a max exodus from communities like Bayou Chene, Sherburne, Atchafalaya, and Pelba as these towns were ravaged by Mississippi floodwaters. To prevent future flooding due to the Mississippi’s repeated attempts to redirect itself, the US Corps of Engineers erected huge floodgates at the intersection of the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers. An extensive system of levees and channels was also built to help control future flooding.

In recent years, control of the Mississippi’s flood waters has become a controversial issue as many point to it as a major reason for land loss in Louisiana. Much of the Mississippi’s valuable silt is now being deposited over the continental shelf, rather than into surrounding buffer marshes, which depend on this silt for replenishment. These marshes play an important role as buffers against storms and hurricanes. It is estimated that over 29 square miles of Louisiana land is lost each year to erosion. I’m no scientist or tree hugger, but I love the Basin, and want it to be around for future generations to enjoy. If that means I have to make a few sacrifices in the short term, than so be it.