FOOD&TRAVEL: Trip to BountifulArlene takes us on a gastronomic journey through southeast Louisiana - Cajun food heaven.
By: Arlene Coco Buscombe, Living North Magazine
Home for me was 13 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, Louisiana where my parents raised squabs, chickens and tomato plants over six feet tall every summer. The fridge was stocked with fresh produce from harvesting a garden three seasons a year. Given the rich heritage of the fertile Delta, my family’s French background and my own journey of logging decades behind a stove, a trip home is virtually a movable feast. My itinerary is always a bit off the beaten track so I thought I would share some of the secrets of an insider’s trip to the bayou country.
Since time is always short, I normally fly into New Orleans and drive to Baton Rouge. This gives me a chance to visit some of my old favorite eating haunts in the crescent city. Instead of one big meal, I meet up with friends and table hop from place to place. I like to begin in the Garden District of New Orleans at Commander’s Palace Restaurant for their historic Turtle Soup au Sherry. Rich and thick with bits of veal instead of the original turtle meat, the waiter ceremoniously pours it in my gleaming bowl with a silver cup and spikes it with a dash of sweet sherry. It sets the tone for the evening of relaxation to come. Afterwards, we meander around the Garden District to take in the balmy night air and catch the streetcar back to the French Quarter continuing our gastronomic journey. The next stop is to see my old comrade, Chef Richard Hughes. We had worked together back in the day at a Creole restaurant where we cooked brunch together every Sunday for extra money. Richard now owns the Pelican Club which is legendary for its authentic cuisine from a local son. The menu is a contemporized twist on traditional favorites. He does wonderful things to sometimes old and tired usual sauces, but he keeps with the centuries-old recipes while adding a new interpretation. I always order the seafood martini – its served up with lobster, crab and shrimp and a delicious spicy ravigote, a vinaigrette dressing style sauce with chopped capers and herbs.
Following the Pelican Club, we saunter on down the street to the last but not least stop of the night, the Napoleon House. It’s considered the oldest bar in New Orleans and is housed in a building from the 18th century. We sit outside in the lush courtyard, lined with banana palms and tattered stucco archways sipping coffee drinks and listening to classical music while admiring portraits of Napoleon that adorn the ancient walls. I start to slip into the lifestyle soaking up the New Orleans essence I remembered and enjoyed so well while I lived here – slower, sociable and delicious.
Up early the next morning, I make a stop at La Madeleine French Café in my old neighborhood where the Mississippi River bends around the city, a stone’s throw from Carrolton and St. Charles Avenue. The café is the brainchild of founder Patrick Leon Esquerré. I knew Patrick when I lived in Dallas and always loved his concept of food prepared in the French country manner. The coffee, always strong and fresh, wakes me up for the drive. French bread baguette in hand warm from the oven; it was a great way to start my journey to Baton Rouge. I normally drive straight through, a short 60 miles through the wetlands north to more mouth-watering cooking and family. My mother would always have her worn black iron pot brimming with seafood gumbo on the stove waiting for me along with a pan of locally grown baked sweet potatoes still in their jackets. She knew that was what I craved the most from her kitchen. After lunch, when my daddy was alive, we used to examine the garden. He always had something in the ground. Among his favorite crops were Rattlesnake green beans and Early Girl tomatoes in the summer months and Southern Giant mustard greens in the winter. The garden was the outdoor produce bin for our family and my job as a kid was to pick vegetables for supper under my mother’s exacting instructions. Now, the next generation has inherited the gardening gene and makes sure we have fresh vegetables at our reunion.
All my immediate relatives live in a 10-mile radius of each other so impromptu dinners can be planned on the fly with dishes made with inventory on-hand for a come-as-you-are pot luck. My brother Warren has the same obsession with hunting and fishing as I do with cooking, so he always rolls out something wild for dinner. My favorite is the Cajun duck hunter’s special – a Mallard duck breast wrapped in bacon, grilled and brushed with orange marmalade.
On my second day at home I start with a long walk with friends on the Mississippi River levee. After a bout of speed shopping at the Mall of Louisiana we head to lunch at the famous King Buffet. Although I am not a big fan of Asian all-you-can eat buffets, this one is an exception. From boiled crawfish to chicken feet to sugar-free desserts and every kind of fresh seafood in-between I’m a hopeless glutton when it comes to mounds of shiny, fresh food. Being my mother’s favorite after-church spot, I have to agree if you can’t find something delicious here, you are not hungry. They also include local specialties like spicy steamed blue crabs, crispy shrimp, spinach Madeleine (a local favorite of cheesy baked spinach) and oysters on the half-shell.
At least one evening, I try to go over to see my gal pals in Natchez, Mississippi. A quick hour-and-a-half hop east from Baton Rouge along the Antebellum Trail though St. Francisville, it’s a quiet scenic drive to Natchez. I stop first to visit my good friend Ann Vidal Willet who owns the Pig Out Inn & Barbeque Restaurant. I stand in her restaurant’s kitchen nibbling on succulent ribs that have been slow cooking to perfection in her pit as we catch up. After grazing we go to Fat Mama’s Tamales and sit on their famous deck for drinks. One would never know there was a decline of business in other parts of the world. “We were invited to the recession, but we declined the invitation”, says Ann Vidal in her perfect southern accent. Her two thriving restaurants and catering business can attest that this is in fact true. Restaurants will always be the last thing a southerner will give up.
Back in Baton Rouge, on my way out of town I grab a quick breakfast with my nephews and their families at my favorite morning spot called Frank’s Restaurant and Smokehouse. Grits done to perfection, boudin (a highly seasoned rice sausage from the Cajuns that makes your mouth pucker from cayenne) and biscuits with rock star status as big as a cat’s head, all washed down with local coffee. I am in Cajun food heaven. These are the meals that I will remember all my life as they evoke childhood memories every time I eat them. I can go back to being a kid in simpler times, if only for a few days.
Arlene’s Place of Interest:
1403 Washington Avenue
312 Exchange Place
500 Chartres Street
La Madeleine French Bakery
601 South Carrollton Avenue
6230 Bluebonnet Blvd
Frank’s Restaurant and Smokehouse
8353 Airline Highway
Pig Out Inn
116 South Canal Street
Fat Mama’s Tamales
500 South Canal Street