#38 Cajun Microwaves

Most of the foods and activities we’ve discussed so far have been rooted in Cajun tradition for decades if not centuries.  All this talk of tradition might have you thinking that Cajuns are stuck in the past, but don’t go confusing us with the Amish.  Unlike our friendly bearded friends, Cajuns aren’t afraid of innovation.  If there’s a better way to get things done, we’re all ears.  The faster we can get a job done, the quicker we can move on to the more enjoyable things in life.  Cajuns we don’t sit idly by, waiting for the outside world to make things easier, we problem solve. When faced with the question of how to better season their meat, the Cajun Injector was born.  When faced with the daunting task of cooking beer flavored chicken, the ChickCAN was born.    Today’s showpiece of Cajun inventiveness is #38 on the list of Stuff Cajun People Like…the Cajun Microwave.  And please don’t write me to say it was invented by some Cuban guy, cause I’m not listening (la la la).

The Cajun Microwave is basically an outdoor convection oven with a charcoal box on top.  This wooden box with a stainless steel interior solves the problem of how to prepare a large piece of meat, like cochon de lait,  without having to dig a large pit in the ground.  With a Cajun microwave, simply place your seasoned pig or other meats in the Cajun microwave, close it up, and place hot coals on top.  Like a dutch oven, this cooking method keeps moisture in, resulting in a juicier meat.  Some deluxe Cajun microwaves even have a grill on top so you can grill out while you wait for the main course.  With a Cajun Microwave, you can feed 75 of your closest friends being the envy of the all your fellow tailgaters.

Now Cajun Microwaves aren’t for everyone.  For one, they’re sort of pricy, ranging from $500 to well over $1000 depending on size and materials.  This is pretty expensive, considering the alternative is digging a big hole in the ground.  Of course, plans are available online, so you can always build one yourself rather cheaply.  Another criticism is the lack of smokiness, since the Cajun Microwave roasts your meat rather than smoking it.  These are all valid criticisms, but for many the advantages make up for any shortcomings.  For one, using a Cajun Microwave is more efficient than the in-ground method, and it’s faster than open pit cooking.  And most importantly, it looks cool as hell.  Say what you want, but MacGyver ain’t got nuthin’ on a hungry Coonass.

#36 Frogging

‘Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails’. Boys around the world are fascinated by bugs, reptiles, and just about anything else slimy and green. They chase their screaming sisters around with lizards and frogs. Well, Cajun tee garçons are no different, except that they never quite outgrow their love of one green creature in particular – the bullfrog. Where most people see slimy, creepy critters, Cajuns see opportunity…for their bellies. You see, bullfrogs are the perfect prey: easy to catch, dumb as a rock, and simply delicious.

Once the sun goes down, and the air is filled with the sound of croaking frogs, it’s time to start getting ready because, unlike other outdoor activities, frogging is a night sport. Effective frogging requires two or three people: one to drive the boat, one to handle the spotlight, and one to catch the frogs. With a head mounted spotlight, you can get by with two people. Catching a frog is pretty straightforward. One person scans the banks of the swamp or bayou with a spotlight, looking for illuminated frog eyes. While the frog is momentarily stunned by the beam light, the boat driver heads straight into the bank near the frog, and the catcher, positioned at the front of the boat, grabs the frog and deposits his catch into a frog box or sack.

While I’m a hand-frogging purist, many other Cajuns like to gig frogs. A gig is a long stick with a pointy barbed end used to stab the frog. It’s a lot less messy, since you don’t have to reach over the boat and get your hands dirty. It also lowers the risk of getting snake bitten, since you’re not blindly sticking your hand into the weeds. A lot of guys who frog from airboats like to gig. I prefer catching frogs with my hands for a couple of reasons. First, I can deposit the unharmed frogs into a box and clean them in the morning, resulting in fresher meat, and more sleep for dis Coonass boy. It also gives the frogs time on death row to reflect upon the lives they’ve lived (just kidding, did I mention how stupid dem frogs were). With gigging, it’s best to clean your catch right away, before the frogs die and the meat goes bad. Secondly, it’s just more fun and rewarding to catch a big bullfrog with your bare hands.

After waking up from a long night of frogging, it’s execution time. Some people like to whack the frog in the head with a hammer. I just grab the frog by its legs, and swing its head into a clothesline post. Before you PETA people get your panties in a bunch, realize that a frog is just barely above a lobster on the intelligence scale, and a whack on the head is one of the most humane methods for killing them.

Once your meat is cleaned, it’s time for cooking. There are two ways I like my frogs prepared: fried frog legs, or frog sauce piquant, a spicy tomato based Cajun dish. If you non Cajuns can get past the idea of eating a frog, I promise you’ll love the taste. And no, it doesn’t taste a bit like chicken.

#33 Catfish Courtbouillon

Catfish Courtbouillon (coo-bee-yon)If you’re a regular reader, you might have the impression that I’m a tomato hater. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Fact is, I believe that there’s a place for everything, and the best place in the world for a tomato is in one of my favorite fish dishes…the catfish courtbouillon (pronounced coo-bee-yon).

Catfish courtbouillon is a simple dish consisting of tomato sauce, bellpepper, garlic, onions, and catfish. The ingredients, excluding the catfish, are simmered together in a black iron pot for at least an hour, until all the flavors blend together and the tomato taste mellows out a bit. The longer you let everything simmer, the better the final dish will be. Near the end of cooking, the catfish pieces are dropped in, starting the hands-off phase of cooking. Once the fish hits the pot, there’s to be absolutely no pot stirring. Stirring would break up the fish, so it’s replaced by the occasional twisting of the pot to make sure the fish doesn’t stick. I remember watching my mom-mom twisting her pot back and forth, her big grandma arms flapping as she did it. It’s like you get to cook AND exercise at the same time (mais, buy the Cajun Black Iron Pot Workout™ video today and watch the lard melt away chére!).

It’s really hard to mess up a courtbouillon, but there are three rules that should never be broken. First, always use freshly caught wild catfish instead of pond raised fish. I believe it’s the wild catfish’s scavenger diet that gives it its signature taste (coupled with a bit of good old Louisiana water pollution). It’s also a lot of fun to catch the ingredients. The second rule is to cut the fish into steaks, not filets. Leaving the bones in will keep the fish from falling apart in the pot, and if you use larger catfish, the bones will be large enough to pick out. There’s nothing worse than picking small fish bones out of your food. And last but no least, always toss the catfish head in the pot. There’s some good meat on the head that shouldn’t be ignored, and don’t worry ’bout having to look your catch in the eye, cause you pop dem eyeballs out first.

The final dish is served over rice with some moque choux corn on the side. Here are a couple of good recipes I found, if you want to try making some for yourself.

#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.