Saturday, June 30, 2018

This Is The Stuff, A Tale of Two Restaurants

Every now and then, it becomes necessary to head over to Louisiana and visit my old pal Mr. LeJeune for some of his superb meat products, most notably garlic sausage and tasso. In the 40 or so years I've been making this trip, a lot has changed. There are, for instance, more and better places to stay. There's been a resurgence of pride in the local culture. And these two things have resulted in a lot more tourism. Which is a good thing (for the locals making money off of it) and a bad thing. Which we'll get to in a minute.

Now, last week it became essential for me to get out of town before I lost my mind. You know, mostly the same thing that's been oppressing all of us Americans, but also the fact that I just wanted to be somewhere else, even for a short time. I had a short visit to San Francisco in January that was pretty unsatisfactory for the most part (some day I'll realize that that place and I just don't get along, plan the trip so as to get what I wanted done, see who I wanted to see, and leave before my blood pressure gets too much of a workout), but nothing since then. With little money, but my flexible work schedule (I'd just finished the next-to-last chapter of The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 2) it boiled down to a quick drive to Lafayette, overnight in a hotel, visit Mr. Le Jeune the next morning, and come back here.

It's a long trip, but my friend K said she'd like to join me, to keep me from nodding off or becoming too tired along the way. The only downside is that, as in San Francisco, my sense of taste and smell is still intermittent. I'm probably going to have to go see the only doctor who's actually treated me for it successfully, and he's in France. (American doctors, motivated by greed, want to do an operation that works briefly, then shuts off the sense for the rest of your life. I don't want that, thanks. And a flight to France would be way cheaper than the operation, as would be the price of the medications.) These days, though, it's been clearing up in the mornings most days, so that was a plus.

The drive out was hellish, mostly due to a stretch east of Houston, where we sat while three lanes folded into two somewhere around Bay City. We got in to Lafayette about 5 and checked in to a place I'd stayed at before, the Hilton, a giant high-rise and probably the tallest building in town. The last time was in the late '80s, when it was the only decent hotel in town, and I spent most of a day fighting food poisoning I'd gotten at Mulate's, which had once been a decent place to eat before they started courting the still-rare tour-bus crowd.

The hotel's now a Doubletree By Hilton with modernized decor, and it was filled with pre-teen baseball players and their parents, but that didn't matter: I passed out for a half-hour nap as soon as the bed was within striking range. I woke, refreshed, and then the next decision was where to eat. Weirdly, in the middle of a place famous for its food, there weren't many choices. I didn't want to drive too far from Lafayette, like to Breaux Bridge, and crawfish season has been over for a while, so it was a problem. Both of us were dressed fairly casually, which left out Café Vermillionville, which was getting kind of long in the tooth anyway. What remained wasn't very inspiring to say the least: there was a chain called the Blue Dog Café, an annoying reminder of the late George Rodrigue, who made an empire out of a cutsey cur (he was an okay painter before the dog took over his life, but not nearly as good as Francis Pavy). The only remaining choice seemed to be something called the Bon Temps Grill, which Tripadvisor rated #1 in the city and which happened to be real near the hotel. So the Bon Temps it was.

Now, from a cursory glance at the website, I knew this wasn't going to be traditional Cajun food, but food -- described as "swamp edge cuisine" -- that took from Cajun traditions and worked with them. Fine with me. My taste buds had shut down, but that was nothing new. The place was hopping when we got there, so it was evidently popular, and the waitress was top-notch. The only warning of what was to come was a basket of cold, dry garlic bread slapped onto the table first thing. K wasn't very hungry, so she ordered the seafood stuffed mushrooms as a main and a side-salad. I saw remoulade shrimp, which is a traditional dish, albeit from New Orleans, and since I'd only made it myself years ago (and, I should add, made it well), I ordered that, along with a stuffed pork chop, something I'd discovered at the long-gone Stop & Shop supermarket in Lake Charles ages ago. The butcher there was a genius, and his boudin, beef tasso smoked on mahogany, and stuffed pork chops were sublime.

Well, the food came quickly, my shrimp and her mushrooms, followed too quickly by the salads, which caused the waitress to come apologize for that lapse. I assured her that it wasn't as if they'd get cold. My shrimp seemed to taste okay, though, although I could only barely discern the taste, but K was irate: here were these mushroom caps with, well, basically a lump of bread on them, surrounded by supposed tasso-and-pepper gravy that was indistinguishable from the stuff you get on a chicken-fried steak. I soon found out, too, that the shrimp were done like guacamole in a bad Mexican joint: piled on a mountain of shredded lettuce. Then came my pork chop. It was a pork chop. It was thick. Instead of being sliced lengthwise and filled with stuffing, there was a hole a little bigger than a quarter with a tiny plug of stuffing wedged into it. The pork chop was pretty good, but hey, I grill pork chops at home all the time. Annoyingly, they also provided a knife to cut it with that was like a cutlass.

It was while I was sawing away at the chop that K noticed something. "This music is fake," she said. "I don't recognize any of it." What she meant was that the Muzak, which was blues, wasn't the original recordings. And she was right: just then some song I did recognize played, and it was...off. The whole thing left me puzzled. We paid our bill and left, full but unsatisfied.

The next morning the idea was to get to Eunice to see LeJeune before noon and head back, but as usual that's not the way it happened. But there was another restaurant I'd seen on my last trip over that interested me and from what I could tell, it was breakfast and lunch only. The name, though, worried me a bit: T-Coon's. I remember being shocked 35 years earlier by discovering a guy named T-Neg in the Cecilia, Louisiana phone book (slightly smaller than a monthly issue of Reader's Digest). But then I remembered the word "coonass" referring to Cajuns. A lot of them don't like it; some claim it's derived from a regional French word, conasse, meaning a stupid woman, or silly bitch, according to my French dictionary. But the front of the restaurant shows a coon stirring a black pot. And anyway, a decent breakfast is the hardest thing to find in these parts, so we went. Again, the place was packed. Unlike the night before, though, my nose was playing nice, and the smell was excellent. So was the Mellow Gold coffee, a coffee/chicory blend, light on the chicory, that's the house java.

K still wasn't hungry, but she ordered a sausage-and-biscuit combo. The waitress asked her if she wanted pork sausage or a link and I urged the link: that's what we were here for. I was intrigued by the courtbouillon omelet. To me, courbouillon was always (in Cajun cooking: it's a whole different thing in French) a fish stew with a roux-based tomato sauce served over rice. The waitress said it was mixed seafood with a sauce in an omelet. Okay, I'll take it, with a biscuit and grits, which I wasn't going to eat much of. While we waited, I picked up a box of seasoning from the table. It was T-Coon's The Stuff. Okay, I'd seen and used Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning for years, and on one of my recent visits I'd stopped at the Slap Ya Mama! store in Ville Platte on a Cajun friend's recommendation and bought a box of their seasoning, which was a bit better.

The breakfast came, and I noticed a nice touch: both biscuits were wrapped in some paper: old timey! But...where was the butter? K surfaced out of hers long enough to say "It doesn't need any." I took a bite. She was right. And, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I very lightly dusted the grits with The Stuff. Quite different from the others. But enough carbs: this omelet was sending my nose a message that my mouth needed to investigate. The courtbouillon turned out to be much thicker than I was used to, but the mixture of catfish, crawish, and shrimp, not to mention the seasoning, was exquisite.

As we were enjoying the meal, a guy with a T-Coon's shirt that said David on it came over to ask how we were doing. Then he asked where we were from  and K said "Austin." "Well," said David "I'll try to keep from makin' any librul jokes." A chorus of grunts came from behind me, and a couple of ominous chuckles. (I later saw that it was a quartet of gentlemen in camo, either Army or National Guard). I told him that his coutbouillon was different than what I'd encountered before and he was off, talking with passion about how he was about to raise his prices 12 ½ percent because he refused to stint on quality. "That's a quarter pound of crawish goes into each omelet. I have those links made by a friend over in Abbeville to my own recipe. The catfish comes from over in Mississippi and it's fresh, not frozen." It was a nice little conversation.

"I'm gonna change your life," he told me. "I'ma give her a box of The Stuff, and when she starts adding it to your food, well, look out: things are gonna get a lot better for both of you." And he told the waitress to make sure she gave K a box of it.

There it is: The Stuff
By avoiding politics and other minefields, I was rather liking David, because without mentioning tradition, he was still passionate about it. (You can see more of this passion on the front page of his website). As I waited in the car for K to finish smoking -- she only takes a few puffs, but puff she must, and she does it outside, not in the car -- I saw the list of daily lunch specials painted on the front of the restaurant: smothered rabbit, short-rib fricassée, smothered chicken and okra, and that courtbouillon on Fridays. But it was getting on, and we still had to vacate the hotel and get to Eunice.

We did, and now I have 20 lbs of sausage and tasso in the fridge waiting to be packed into freezer bags and frozen, except what I'll use to make red beans and rice (without rice) for dinner tonight. But before I press "publish" on this, I've been thinking about Cajun culture, tradition, and Americans.

My takeaway is this: As I've long realized, Americans are so alienated from their own country by this point that they usually don't know where they are. Oh, sure, they can check their phones and use Google Maps, but that's not where they are. The thousands of people who've moved to Austin since I last lived here, they don't know where they are, either. They've bought into the marketing slogan of keeping Austin weird, mouthed the slogan about the live music capital of America, but they don't know how it got that way in the first place, nor why it actually isn't either of these things any more.

And Americans who go to Cajun country don't know where they are, either. They come to Lafayette and stay there, possibly because they're attending a Ragin' Cajuns football game or doing oil business (not much of that left), or whatever. Few of them have even a superficial knowledge of where they are: the imagery in their heads are of alligators, crawfish, Blue Dogs, and swamps dripping with Spanish moss. There are accordions and fiddles involved somehow, probably to play blues, because the often-subtle distinctions between Cajun and Creole music is of no interest. They probably think Dr. John, Mac Rebbenack, is a Cajun. They don't understand the distinction between New Orleans and Lafayette, let alone New Orleans and Grand Mouton, Eunice, or Ville Platte. And ultimately, this is sad, especially if they spend more time there than we did this time. So they go to the Bon Ton and get their buttons pushed, no matter that it's a mediocre joint just a bit above a fast-casual restaurant. They hear piped-in blues, no matter that that's not the local indigenous music (hey, shaddup, Eddie Shuler), no matter that it's 21st century remakes by the Muzak Corporation or that ilk. They go away happy.

In no way will they want to engage with David Billeaud and T-Coon's, unless they happen in by mistake, in which case they'll be wary and a bit conservative about what they order and then be surprised that it's as good as it is. They're not going to get his cultural conservatism (not to mention his background music, which is mostly zydeco: I recognized two versions of "Hip et Tai-yo," both, I think, by Clifton Chenier), or understand why he'd rather raise his prices than compromise his quality. And if they got to talking politics, well, who knows?

Mr. LeJeune up in Eunice is just as culturally conservative as Billeaud is. He even makes ponce, a rarity which is sausage meat stuffed into a pig's stomach and smoked. I bought one last time I was there but couldn't find anyone to eat it with me. It was, unsurprisingly, excellent. I have no idea what his politics are, and after 35 years, I don't give a damn. Some things are above that, and these men have that figured out. They're members of their community, they practice their faith (which is Catholic: another ominous thing is the incursion of evangelical fundamentalism in Cajun culture, which could erase it before you know it), they interact with their neighbors, like the soldiers and the table of teachers who were finishing up when we walked in. And when I interact with them and their kind, I know where I am, know I'm a visitor who's treated with respect because I treat them with respect, as I would if they were visiting me. This is what's increasingly being lost in this country, as we tribalize and march towards one-party rule and fascism. It's an emergency, like so many other things happening at the moment, and an emergency that's so small it risks getting lost. I feel it because I don't feel at home in Austin, and haven't since returning almost five years ago, so it's a personal emergency for me.

Anyway, that's my takeaway. That and a box of The Stuff.


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