by Judith Fein

photos by Paul Ross

After ten glorious days of meandering through southwestern Louisiana bayou country, my husband Paul and I are having a bad case of Cajun withdrawal. The pronounced symptoms are cravings for crab boil, accordion music and the open-hearted hospitality of the easygoing Cajun people.Our addiction began the minute we opened the door to B & C¹s Cajun Restaurant in Vacherie (a forty-five minute drive west from New Orleans) and walked over a huge floor paining of an alligator to get to our seats at a long wooden table.What¹ll you have?² the waitress inquired.Blackened redfish,² I answered with hip assurance.

Blackened fish?!² a nearby Cajun diner said, laughing. Paul Prudhomme burned some fish by mistake, thought it wasn¹t half bad and began to serve it. Now just order some real Cajun food–crabs and gumbo.²

The gumbo, in a thick roux, was followed by a tray full of huge crabs that had been cooked in a piquant boil. Paul and I exchanged looks: this was why we had come to Louisiana

The waitress showed us how to crack the crabs, and another patron gave us a quick lesson in Cajun

They set out from France during the 17th century, seeking a better life in eastern Canada. They farmed, fished, trapped and knew halcyon days in an area they called Acadia, which is now Nova Scotia. They were so successful, that the British became covetous of their fertile land. In an act of cruel deception, The British separated wives from husbands and children from parents, and sent the Acadians off on ships into exile in 1755. Some returned to Europe, close to half died, and another group made their way to the American Colonies and ended up in the bayou area, which they named New Acadia. During the next decades, thousand of other exiles joined the first band. They turned misery into opportunity, worked the land, fished, and maintained their Acadian, or Cajun, culture to this day.

Do you still speak French?² I asked my impromptu history teacher.

Oui, oui, je parle francais,² he said, in the strangest accent I¹d ever heard.

It turns out that Cajun French is actually old French, brought over by the early immigrants; it¹s a cultural treasure, preserved in spite of the Diaspora. In an attempt to assimilate the Cajuns into mainstream culture in the 1920¹s, children were forbidden to speak their language in schools, and were spanked for infractions. Slowly, it began to die out. Today, it is mainly the older Cajuns who know how to parler the old francais. French is being reintroduced now in school, but it¹s modern

By the time I had finished my crème brulé, several other diners joined in to give us a Cliff notes version of the Cajun story. This was true everywhere we went; the Cajuns we met seemed to love visitors who were interested in their culture, and they were garrulous and great raconteurs. And dancers.

Do you like Cajun dancing?² a woman asked me.

I don¹t know,² I said. I¹ve never tried it.²

Soon I was trotting to Cajun music on a canopied boat called the Alligator Queen as we cruised through the Alligator Bayou (45 minutes from Vacherie, close to Baton Rouge, in the town of Prairieville). The guys who run the wackiest bayou tour in the area (it¹s a combination of stand-up comedy, eco tourism and dance lessons) are actually serious environmentalists. In 1993, Jim Ragland and Frank Bonifay, both around forty years old, learned that hundreds of acres of bottomland hardwoods from Spanish Lake (about three miles from Alligator Bayou) were going to end up in a lumber mill, and the bayou would probably be chopped up into suburban backyards. They took the considerable money they had earned in the workaday world as roofers (they hit it big after Hurricane Andrew), purchased the land, and created a wildlife refuge and botanical gardens.

Come with me,² Jim said, as I stepped off the boat after the ninety-minute cruise up the bayou and to the flats. I want you to meet some of my friends.²

Jim¹s friends² are a pond full of alligators. As a twelve-footer came slithering out of the liquid slime, Jim handed me a chicken leg and told me to drop it into the gator¹s open maw. Flush with my success as a dancer, I fed the beast, and only after I heard the sound of its jaw snapping shut (which can best be compared to the slam of a car trunk) did I realize how brave or stupid I had been.

After every experience in bayou country, the reward is another great meal. Cajuns, it seemed to us, are obsessed with eating. Before one meal is even finished, they are planning for the next. So we began to act like Cajuns. We drove half an hour to Donaldsonville (30 miles south of Baton Rouge) to eat at The Grapevine Café, a new restaurant opened by Dickie and Cynthia Breaux, who created the famed Café des Amis in nearby Breaux Bridge. I have only six words to say about the restaurant: turtle soup, barbecued shrimp, baked duck. Trust me. And don¹t forget to mop up the sauces with French bread. If you can think about anything but food, check out the photography and paintings that line the walls and spill over into the courtyard; it¹s all good and all for sale. The artists change every two months and the prices range from $500-$1200.

Now well fed, and knowing the basic Acadian dance steps, we drove ninety minutes to Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country (132 miles from New Orleans). There were a host of charming B and B¹s, and we chose Bois des Chenes, a very affordable restored 1820¹s plantation home, where we slept in a four-poster bed in the adjacent carriage house. The owners, Coerte and Marjorie Voorhies, whisked us into a world of their Louisiana antiques, great stories, and wicked humor. Marjorie¹s specialty is pain perdu, which translates as lost bread² but tastes like gourmet French toast. Coerte¹s speciality is three-hour Atchafalaya swamp tours.

Coerte is a dead ringer for Papa Hemingway; he¹s also as macho and brazen. He lowered us into his skiff, passed by what he called the geriatric boats,² and sped us deep into the swamps where we had the privilege of coming face-to-bark with magnificent old Cyprus groves, and face-to-beak with stunning white egrets. Our skipper apologized that we didn¹t get a chance to handle baby gators and we never saw the beaver, otters, nutria, mink, deer and 38 species of bird that call the swamp their home; the waters had risen to an unusually high level, and the fauna were hidden from view.

After the swamp tour it was, you guessed it, time for dinner. Prejean¹s is a legend in Lafayette, and we somehow found room for popcorn crawfish, crawfish enchiladas, smoked duck and andouille gumbo, and Cast Iron Bread Pudding that was laced with Jack Daniels. It all went down quite nicely to the accompaniment of live, toe-tapping Cajun music: accordian, bass and violin.

The next day, we drove thirty minutes southeast to St. Martinville, where we figured out that Longfellow was the first publicist for Cajun country. His 1847 poem, Evangeline,² about two star-crossed Cajun lovers who were separated forever by the exile, catapulted the Cajuns into public consciousness.

St. Martinville might as well be called Evangelineville. There is the Evangeline oak, Evangeline¹s tomb, a statue of Evangeline. On a more serious note, there is also the Cultural Heritage Center that shows the parallel between the African and Cajun diasporas. Next door to it is an expansive mural of the Acadians landing on our shores, and a monument with a burning flame to remember the courageous and decimated pioneers. There is also a wall with the names of the honored ancestors. Like many Cajuns, our guide had just begun learning about her genealogy, and she began to weep as she pointed out her own family names.

I was drawn to Cajun counry partly because of my interest in traditional healers, and I had heard about the traiteurs of Louisiana. Although they aren¹t advertised anywhere, many Cajuns have their own favorite treater, and we were regaled with stories of warts that dropped off, sinus problems cured, shingles that vanished, and people miraculously brought back from the threshold of death. The traiteur¹s tool bag contains magical treatments² which are usually prayers that are passed down, orally, from one treater to another.

I dragged my husband to Erath, a half-hour south, where, at the wonderfully eccentric local Acadian Museum (it¹s like grandma¹s attic before the antique dealers got there) we met the Simon brothers, Allen and Claude. Both are traiteurs and they worked on my allergies right there, amid the photos and artifacts. Allen, an articulate, passionate man, used to be a Cajun country guide, and he has spent his life loving and preserving the language and culture. After he treated me with prayers, my non-believing husband actually agreed to be treated by Claude for his allergies. I almost fainted. He reported that he felt well and balanced afterwards.

Claude has expanded his interest in healing into other metaphysical realms. He works with a home-made pendulum that he constructed out of an empty film canister and fishing line. He asks it questions that can be answered with yes² or no² and it swings back and forth or side-to-side with answers. Surprisingly, he gave it to me as a gift. Claude also uses a homemade dowser. He recently helped to build a labyrinth in a public park in nearby Abbeville. He is excited, alive, anxious to heal, to help, to learn about the mysteries of the universe.

Everyone we met in Cajun country was a character. We drove from Erath to Meaux (ten minutes west), where we visited with a larger-than-life traiteur named Lousay Aubé. He explained that although most treaters have a specialty, he can cure everything and anything.² He charges nothing (none of the traiteurs seem to) and he generously offers his services to anyone who shows up. He said two prayers for my allergies; I felt nothing after the first one, but after the second I had to sit down because all my muscles went flaccid. I am not sure if it was Lousay or the Simon brothers or the power of suggestion, but I hardly noticed my allergies after that.

A one-hour drive (everything is within easy driving distance, and we were never farther than four hours from New Orleans, although we felt as though we were in another country) took us to Rayne, the self-proclaimed frog capital of the world.² The walls of many of the buildings are covered with bold, splashy, humorous frog murals. At one time there was a great frog industry in Rayne, but today the memory persists mainly in a yearly frog festival. We missed the latter, but we did manage to drive back to Lafayette to attend one of the major events: the annual Festivals Acadiens.

If there is a more upbeat festival, I have never attended it. In sprawling Girard Park and on the grounds of the Natural History Museum, during a weekend, there is non-stop Cajun, Swamp Pop and Zydeco music. The tunes pull you up by the seat of your pants and make your feet tap all by themselves. People everywhere start dancing spontaneously to groups with names like Red Stick Ramblers, La Bande Feufollet and Jambalaya. There are traditional and contemporary Cajun craft booths (with wares from magnificent accordions to wooden boats to Mardi Gras masks to jewelry and clothes and art and CD¹s), storytelling, craft demonstrations, and, of course, food. Throughout the year, there are other Cajun festivals, other chances to forget your troubles and party.

One of our favorite activities in the land of bayous and boudin (sausage) was getting lost. After one fortuitous wrong turn, we ended up in tiny Duson. It was lunchtime, and we tried Thibodaux¹s, a local eatery. It¹s the kind of authentic place locals love, guidebooks don¹t write about and fortunate tourists discover by chance. Within fifteen minutes, a diner named Larry Thibodeaux (no relation to the owner of the restaurant) offered to take us around the area. We were curious about those crop cousins

When the sun set in Cajun country, I kicked off my tennis shoes, put on my black pumps, and we headed for the famous dance halls. At Randol¹s, in Lafayette, we sat with a gaggle of Brits who had fallen in love with Cajun country, bought a vacation house there, and visited five or six times a year. One of the men had become an expert Cajun dancer, and he led me around the wooden dance floor with such verve that it was a better workout than an elliptical trainer. The manager, who goes by the nameMama Redell² and is also a chef, has recently started Cajun cooking classes at Randol¹s. They are open to the public, and are as entertaining as many of the shows on the Food Channel.

At Mulate¹s in Breaux Bridge (15 minutes from Lafayette), we were eating, laughing with the staff, and then dancing. A local leaned over to tell us that we had learned the most important lesson in Cajun country: to laisser les bon temps rouler.

On our last night in the bayou, it wasn¹t our birthday or anniversary, but we acted as though it were. We checked into one of the most elegant and luxurious B and B¹s in the area

When we arrived at the New Orleans airport, I swore I would never eat sausage or gumbo again, but that¹s what all addicts say, isn¹t it? {NOTE TO EDITOR: There is a circumflex (^) over the first e² in the word Chenes}. IF YOU GO:

The guidebook locals recommend is CAJUN COUNTRY GUIDE, by Macon Fry and Julie Posner, Pelican Publishing.

For a comprehensive website:

Call 1-800-33GUMBO for a free guide, highway maps and specific brochures

B and C Cajun Restaurant: 225-265-8356. Address; 2155 Highway l8 in Vacherie.

Alligator Bayou: 1-888-3SWAMPS or 225-642-8297. email: The address is 35019 Alligator Bayou Road, Prairieville, LA, 70769.

The Grapevine Café: 211 Railroad Ave, Donaldsonville. 225-473-8463 or 8486.

Bois des Chenes B and B: 338 N. Sterling Street, Lafayette boisdchene@aol.com337-233-7816. Suites are $100-$150. Contact information for the Atchafalaya Swamp Tour is the same as above. Rates are $40 pp over l4, $20 pp from 8-14, and the little ones, if they don¹t get eaten by alligators, are free.

Prejean¹s: 3480 I-49 North, in Lafayette 337-896-3247 or St Martinville Tourist Information Center: 337-394-2233

For information on Erath and Abbeville, call the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission, 337-898-6600 or

The Caldwell B and B: 105 E.Vermilion Street, Abbeville 337-892-7090 Room are $160-$300.

Randol¹s Restaurant and dance hall: 1-800 YOCAJUN or Cooking classes with Mama Redell² are Monday to Friday, 10 am-5 pm. The cost is $15 per person or $25 per couple.

Mulate¹s Cajun Restaurant and dance hall in Breaux Bridge: 1-800-42CAJUN



PLEASE NOTE: Photos are available for all locations and articles listed in the “articles” section. Please contact us for samples and pricing