Friday, April 10, 2015

an outing to warm the heart of Calvin Trillin

In fact, the tribune of local food should come out (come back out, I'm sure) to New Iberia, in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun wetlands country, and take it.

The most productive thing I did on my Louisiana trip was to visit the Tabasco pepper-sauce factory on Avery Island, the cap of a huge underground salt dome (and consequently the only hill in southern Louisiana) outside of New Iberia. I'm not a big Tabasco fan, actually, but it was there and I thought it might be interesting.

There wasn't much to the (free) factory tour. You gather in a small exhibit hall, then a guide ushers you into a tiny theater showing a 15-minute film on the history and making of Tabasco. Then you walk down a corridor with a glass wall overlooking the floor of the bottling plant, and then to another hall with some of the barrels in which the sauce is aged. Outside is a company store with an enormous amount of Tabasco bling, plus many varieties of sauce some of which I've never seen in stores, and which you can taste with chips.

Also at the store was a posted notice for the Tabasco Food Tour, a tasting tour of local cuisine. Three days a week, starting at 1 pm and lasting 3 1/2 hours, $50/person, reservations required. This was Monday. The tour runs on Tuesday-Thursday. I'd still be around on Tuesday. I was here to eat. I tore up my schedule and signed up. Best decision I made all week.

By 1 pm on Tuesday I was back, having carefully avoided eating anything since an early breakfast. There was me and a family of four from New Jersey. A van (holds ten, so that's the tour maximum) pulled up and out popped our guide, George, a genial local boy who doubles as the company's hospitality manager and in-house travel agent - it's a small firm. George explained that for years, visitors to Tabasco would ask for recommendations of local restaurants and then call back saying they couldn't find them or were afraid to go in because they looked too low-rent. So about a year ago they started arranging the food tours: mid-afternoon to keep it in the slow hours.

We visited six purveyors of food, at all of which the natives were friendly and George was welcomed in as an old pal - after all, he brings a gang by three days a week. There were two of those windowless boxes out on the highway whose anonymous, dubious-looking exteriors give no clue to the good food you'll have on the cafeteria tables inside (the best steakhouse on the Central California coast is like that, too), two small downtown cafes, a butcher shop, and a century-old rice mill.

The rice mill was the only one I was already familiar with, as I used to buy their rice mixes when I could find retailers out here who carried them. There we had a sample of wild pecan flavored rice from a crockpot. Ah, I remember it well. At the butcher's, which is just a butcher's, so we were ushered into the employee break room where they'd cooked some food up, we had two kinds (pork and crawfish) of boudin, a Cajun meat-and-rice sausage unknown out here, which I'd never tried before this trip, and whose name I cannot pronounce well enough so that a native has any idea what I'm talking about (every time I ordered some at a restaurant, I had to spell it). This was supposed to be the best boudin in all Acadiana, and it was certainly the best I had: rich and creamy, absolutely delicious. Even more amazing were the fried pork cracklins, which put the ones you buy at Mexican markets out here to shame.

Elsewhere, we had:
boiled crawfish - George taught us the easy way to get the tailmeat out;
three kinds of gumbo - Cajun gumbo is much lighter and tastier than the dark coffee-like stuff you get at Creole restaurants in New Orleans ("They burn the roux," George said in an aggrieved tone);
"loaded baked potato soup," which is much tastier than it sounds;
and a light bread pudding with jellied meringue on top for dessert.

Ah, a great peripatetic meal, and pleasant company. The only hitch was linguistic. At one point George was telling us about what one of our party took as being the pea-corn. She wondered what that was until we took it in that it was spelled "pecan". At our last cafe, the bread pudding chef told us about the restaurant and its decorations, including the boar. I glanced up to the stuffed animal heads hanging from the upper wall, but then gathered that the boar was the large block of wood at which customers sit to have drinks. She explained that the boar was made in California a century ago, and then brought up the bayou by boarge.

Had logistics permitted, I would have come back for full meals at some of these places, and definitely to take some boudin back to my hotel room's microwave (it's a cooked sausage, and they said you can heat it that way). Alas, that didn't work out. So I aim to return for another visit someday, maybe when it's next crawfish season.

No comments:

Post a Comment