Load up on Lafayette’s Cajun Food Tours
By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Marianne Todd
Marie Ducote, a vice-principal and educator of 23 years, hesitated before telling her friends and family that she had made a life changing decision to shift career paths, giving up her professional job to drive a bus around Lafayette Parish.
“I tried to pray it away, but I couldn’t give up on the idea of giving food tours in Lafayette. This is a place where the past is so relevant to our present, and after giving 750 tours, I’m more passionate about sharing our history than ever,” she said.
Ducote’s bus picks up groups of 14 (maximum) for a whirlwind tour of six restaurants in Lafayette and neighboring Broussard. Along the way she shares Acadian history, teaching participants about the region’s Cajun culture through food.
On an unseasonably warm day in January, a group of 13 coworkers wearing matching plastic crawfish bibs and Mardi Gras beads, sat waiting for the tour to begin. Ducote’s tours often introduce Cajun cuisine to people from outside the region, but these participants hailed mostly from New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“I’ve been training for this my whole life,” said Alex Diero, half joking, as Ducote welcomed everyone aboard the bus and delivered her slogan: “Allons manger,” or “Let’s go eat,” maneuvering out of the Doubletree parking lot and towards Cajun Market Donuts and King Cakes, the tour’s first stop.
Cajun Market serves boudin king cakes, a recent creation in the area. The pastry wasn’t particularly sweet, and wasn’t topped with traditional sugary icing (which is probably a good thing). Instead it came drizzled with Steen’s cane syrup and crumbled bacon bits. “Most people think of boudin with casing, but unlinked boudin is also common and popular in the region,” explained Ducote. “That’s what you see in this cake and in various other preparations like on pizza or in an egg roll.”
After enjoying cake and coffee the tourists boarded the bus again for the second stop, just down the road. David Billeaud opened T Coon’s in 1993 with no restaurant experience but six generations of Cajun heritage behind his recipes. “He cooks like we cook,” said Ducote, laughing, “I mean, like me, my mom, and my grandma.”
Billeaud served seafood court bouillon, made with catfish he caught as part of his other gig as a commercial fisherman. The dish also featured shrimp and crawfish. “Court bouillon varies from region to region. Some versions have tomatoes and more liquid, those are served in a bowl over rice like gumbo. Here we make ours with a roux and it almost looks more like a brown gravy, which we would eat on a plate over rice,” explained Ducote. “My grandmother in Evangeline parish had big chunks of bone-in catfish in her court bouillon, which might explain why I like this version.”
T Coon’s court bouillon was delicious, and so were the red beans, served with large pieces of andouille sausage. Ducote’s next stop in Broussard was a ten minute drive, during which she gave a condensed lesson on how south Louisiana became Cajun country.
The French settlers who eventually made their way to Louisiana started in Acadia, in what is now Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The British expelled these Acadians as part of the conflict surrounding the French and Indian War, and some 10,000 scattered across the eastern seaboard and Europe. A decade later, Spanish land grants in south Louisiana led several groups of Acadians to settle there, with immigrants from other parts of Europe and the United States eventually joining them.
The Acadians had their own language – a unique French dialect arising from 150 years of isolation – aside from contact with Native American tribes. French New Orleanians generally considered Acadians less civilized, and their rustic cuisine incorporating local ingredients a far cry from the more traditional French fare served in New Orleans. Acadians became known as Cajuns because, with their accents, the pronunciation of “Acadian” sounded like “A Cajun” to recently arrived American immigrants.
“It’s an Anglo corruption of the word Acadian. The Cajuns were speaking jacked up French,” explained Ducote, the ending of her story coinciding nearly perfectly with the bus’ arrival at Hook and Boil, where a third generation crawfish farmer serves boiled shrimp, crabs and crawfish, as well as other Cajun delicacies.
“They butterfly and devein the shrimp before they boil them,” said Ducote. “I swear it tastes like they were boiled in butter.” The shrimp did have a mild and sweet flavor, and came with a ubiquitous orange sauce comprised largely of ketchup and mayonnaise. Some of the season’s first crawfish were also on the menu; a treat after months without fresh mudbugs available.
The tour’s second stop in Broussard was at Chop’s Specialty Meats, which opened in 2013. “You don’t go to a restaurant for boudin and crackling; you go to a meat market,” said Ducote. “These foods started off as byproducts of a boucherie, or community pig butchering. Boudin was about making sure nothing went to waste. Of course, now most places use higher end ingredients. Chop’s uses Boston butt as well as pork liver.”
Chop’s boasts an impressive selection of locally produced spirits and dry goods, as well as house made sausages ground fresh daily and a variety of meat including rabbit, duck, gator, frog legs and their own smoked andouille and tasso. Guests ate boudin, crackling, corn maque choux, twice baked potato and bacon wrapped pork chased with samples of locally made Swamp Pop soda. The portions were small but incredibly filling. The tourists returned to the bus sluggishly after this destination, as Ducote made a cheerful reminder there was only one more stop before dessert.
The tour’s fifth destination was in Vermilionville, a living history museum and folk life park within Lafeyette that recreates life in the area during the latter part of the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. La Cuisine de Maman sits alongside Vermilion Bayou within the park and serves plate lunches as well as Cajun and Creole specialties. In Vermilionville, people dress in period clothing and recreate period activities. They sell their crafts in a gift shop whose profits support the nonprofit foundation behind the town. The mission is to raise awareness of the area’s history and preserve the environmental health of the bayou.
“Y’all, I usually don’t like chicken and andouille gumbo in restaurants because I don’t think they do it right,” Ducote said, leading guests past the host stand, where a long haired man in a billowy white blouse and leather pants stood. “My favorite gumbo is the one from my kitchen, but this one is almost as good.”
Guests dined on cups of gumbo too delicious not to finish, and prepared for the final stop, where bread pudding finished with a pecan praline sauce was waiting.
Papa T’s, named after Papa Tony Robinson, opened in 2015 and already competes with much older restaurants for the best plate lunch in town. The bread pudding was decadent on its own, and taken over the top with the dark brown praline sauce. As the guests finished eating Tony came out for a meet and greet.
“Why are y’all wearing crawfish bibs?” he said.
No one answered, though someone did have the wherewithal to ask how Tony made his praline sauce. “Oh, this and that,” he demurred, then appeared serious. “A bottle of love,” he laughed.
No one inquired further. With everything learned that day, it was still expected that chefs would have their secrets, especially in Cajun country.
Want to go?
Visit cajunfoodtours.com for a daily tour schedule
or phone (337) 230-6169 for more information.