Such novels as Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance help me return home, at least in my imagination. In the novel, Paul Thibodeaux (a typical Cajun surname, by the way) ends up in California where he discovers a supposedly Cajun restaurant and decides to try it. Bad mistake, as many of us Louisianians have learned over the years. Don’t get me wrong: many Cajuns have opened restaurants all over the world, and some chefs have taken the time to learn actual Cajun foodways. But, most of what you see labeled as Cajun in restaurants has little to do with those of us from Louisiana.
Anyway, Paul glances over the menu and asks, “What is all this stuff? I thought this was a Cajun place,” to which the waiter replies, “Yes, sir, we have authentic dishes from the bayou state” (80). Paul braves the menu again and chooses the gumbo. A “half hour later his waiter brought a small cauldron of bitter juice so hot with Tabasco that after the third spoonful, Paul broke into a sweat” (81). The waiter proceeds to tell him, “It takes time to develop a true Cajun palate,” and Paul responds, “[I]t sure don’t take much time to ruin one” (81). [The Next Step in the Dance, New York: Picador, 1998.]
There is a fine line between adding hot sauce to a dish to enrich the taste and just plain ruining the dish altogether. In truth, Cajun dishes are not spicy hot and do not call for a cup of Tabasco. Actually, we make dishes with locally available ingredients, and the recipe usually calls for enough of such ingredients to feed a large family. The vast majority include onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic, which add to the taste. In fact, the mix of ingredients in many Cajun and Creole dishes mimics the mix of cultures in the state itself, with African okra adding something extra to seafood gumbo along with filé (ground sassafras leaves) from Native American cooking traditions.
There is no such official product as Cajun mayonnaise or spices, though Cajuns have created such products to make dishes tastier. Still, products that are spicier seem to be automatically labeled as Cajun now. So, the next time someone tries to feed you Cajun turkey or you see it in the grocery store, you may just want to pass it by. Like me, you can bite your tongue and think about the mix of rice, chicken, and sausage mushed together with tomato sauce that makes yummy jambalaya. Or, try your hand at making crawfish etouffee, which is literally crawfish tails smothered in rich gravy and served over white rice. And if you’re not ambitious enough to attempt the recipes yourself, I highly recommend a visit to Cajun country where I promise you’ll eat well, including gumbo, without burning your tongue!
[from Louisiana Legacy, a book of recipes collected and first published by the Thibodaux Service League in 1982]
½ cup butter Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped green onions 1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional)
¼ cup chopped parsley Lemon slices (optional
2 pounds crawfish tails
1 cup crawfish fat, or 1 cup butter
Melt butter in large skillet and saute green onions until tender, about 10-15 mins. Add parsley, crawfish tails, crawfish fat or butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat 15-20 mins. If you want a thicker gravy, dissolved cornstarch in a small amount of water and add to sauce. Serve over steamed rice. Garnish with lemon slices, if desired.