In Cajun Country, the good times -- and good food -- roll

April 10, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

On a cool Monday night, things were heating up fast inside Randol's, a Cajun restaurant and dance hall in Lafayette, La. Couples, from teens to old-timers, circled round and round the wooden floor as a youthful band playing accordion, fiddle, guitar and drums switched smoothly between soulful waltzes and snappy two-steps.

Diners at square wooden tables with green checkerboard cloths watched the dancers while chowing down platefuls of beet-red crawfish and giant bowls of spicy gumbo washed down with icy beer.

As I huddled with three Yankee colleagues, trying to be inconspicuous, a slender man in his 70s with suspenders, a string tie and slicked-back white hair came over and asked me to dance.

I demurred -- I was from New Jersey, I didn't know how -- but he wasn't having any of it. "Come on, chere, it's easy," he said, taking my hand, and pulling me onto the dance floor.

One, two, three, one, two, three, my partner coached as we circled the room. I was doing just fine, he said, his steady smile belying the fact that I was stepping on his toes every other beat. And soon -- well, what do you know -- I thought maybe I was getting the hang of the thing. Visions of "The Big Easy" drifted into my consciousness, and soon this elderly gentleman was my Dennis Quaid and I was his Ellen Barkin and we were waltzing by the bayou on a steamy Southern night.

The end of the dance broke my trance, but that charmed night at Randol's fais-do-do -- as Cajun dances are called -- set the mood for our four-day jaunt through southern Louisiana.

Acadiana, as this region is known, encompasses 22 Louisiana parishes stretching from the Mississippi River to the Texas line and is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Some 4,000 French Canadian "Cajuns," a corruption of the word Acadians, settled in the swamplands here in the late 1700s after they were exiled from what is now Nova Scotia for refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown and renounce Catholicism.

The 800,000 present-day Louisiana descendants of the Acadian exiles make up the largest French-speaking minority in the United States. Their traditions and language -- a patois spiced with Spanish, English and Indian words -- once were threatened with extinction through assimilation.

In the late 1980s, Cajun music and culture became quite the rage. The haute Cajun cooking popularized by Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme and the success of movies such as "The Big Easy," with its Cajun soundtrack and dance scenes, made people who wouldn't know a crawfish from a goldfish rally behind the Cajun credo: "Laissez les bons temps rouler" (let the good times roll).

Our excursion was a side trip from New Orleans, just a few hours -- but a big brash world -- away. Along with its own Creole cuisine and culture -- a mix of French, Spanish, black African, and Indian -- the city had given us a jazzed-up taste of Cajun food and music. Now we hoped to see the natural roots.

We got our wish that first night at Randol's -- and again at its competitor, Mulate's, in nearby Breaux Bridge. Strangers when we arrived, we soon were enveloped by the regulars like long-lost kin who just needed to be reacquainted with the family to fit right in.

Both places are informal, catering to local families and couples as well as to an increasing number of curious tourists. Randol's is a tad more upscale, with smaller tables and less memorabilia cluttering the walls and ceiling.

At Mulate's, autographed photographs of celebrities -- Dennis Quaid, Joe Cocker, Muddy Waters -- line the entrance, thousands of business cards from guests are tacked to the low ceiling, and the walls are painted with murals of swamps. Diners sit at picnic tables that surround the dance area, where it's not unusual to see your waitress taking a spin with a patron between orders.

Dancing, of course, isn't everything in Cajun country -- eating is. Our late April visit came at the height of crawfish season, which meant these small freshwater lobsters were on every menu and prepared every which way but raw.

Legend has it that crawfish originally were big Canadian lobsters that followed the exiled Acadians south and shrank to their present size -- about 3 to 4 inches long -- by the time the arduous swim was completed.

If we were sated on the regional fare, we were always hungry for a scenic feast. At Franklin, for instance, huge oaks shaded streets lined with beautiful Victorian cottages, and in New Iberia, the elegant Shadows on the Teche Plantation, which is open to visitors, backed onto lovely Bayou Teche.

But the most splendid setting was Avery Island, a sprawling tropical garden and wildlife sanctuary about 45 minutes south of Lafayette near the Gulf of Mexico. The "island," which is really a soil-covered salt mound in the middle of a marsh and swamplands, is reached by a little bridge across the Bayou Petit Anse. Its 200-acre "Jungle Gardens" has stands of slender bamboo and an abundance of live oaks, their branches dripping with Spanish moss.

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