There is a rule for eating well in southwestern Louisiana: When you see a house or shack with a hand-written sign, stop and eat. The worse the handwriting, the more compelling the need to visit. In this part of the world, lax health regulators are the gourmet's best friend. The ingredients will be fresh, and your cook will have spent years perfecting one or two dishes. The boiled crawfish (the locals say "mudbugs") and the boudin blanc are my favorites. The latter, sausage stuffed with pork, rice, and peppers, is for this foodie the best in the United States.
These foods are known as "Cajun"; the reference is to the individuals descended from the displaced Acadians who left Nova Scotia in the 18th century for Louisiana and other parts of the United States. Originally, "Creole" food referred to haute urban styles from New Orleans (e.g., Oysters Bienville, with wine, cheese, and butter) and "Cajun" food referred to Acadian rural dishes such as maquechoux. But since the late 19th century, the styles have become increasingly integrated and blurred.
After Katrina and Rita, there was plenty of hand-wringing about the fate of Louisiana cuisine, but since then much of the publicity has focused on the reopening of the renowned Creole places in New Orleans. Most of these restaurants appear to be back on track, just like the universities of New Orleans. Yet the region's food heart—and some would argue its best meals—can be found in the countryside. With this in mind, I set off on my second food tour of the area—the first was about two years ago—to see whether I might one day be able to come back for a third.
Cajun restaurants and Cajun food have come back strong. When core institutions are functioning in the first place and then left largely intact, a storm is far less destructive. Decentralized individual entrepreneurs, accountable for their own profits and losses, have made the necessary adjustments and are well-positioned to extend their core culinary traditions.
Shortly after the storms, there was chaos. The crawfish market in southern Louisiana took a severe blow. Both Katrina and Rita carried in saltwater, killing the vegetation upon which the local crawfish feed. A previous drought had already tightened supply. Crawfish more than quadrupled in price and at times became unavailable altogether. When your favorite local dish is crawfish boiled live and drenched in a transcendent Cajun red-pepper mix, this is a blow. The accompanying corn on the cob and potatoes, taken alone, do not suffice. But the classic economic forces of substitution and adjustment came into play. Suppliers drew fewer crawfish from the ruined swamps and more crawfish from the still-intact ponds. Crawfish were trucked in from points to the north and to the west of the usual supply, where salt was less of a problem. The market recovered within months.
Crawfish are once again available in all the traditional locales, including local supermarkets, the informal cooking shacks of Acadiana, and the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants run by the area's recent immigrants. The going retail rate for four pounds—$10 a year ago, before the post-Katrina spike—is already back down to $13, and the new spring crop should drive prices down further.
Large and juicy crawfish—which are considered a special prize—are to be had in most crawfish joints. The pepper-induced tears in my eyes and the difficulty of prying open the steaming-hot shells did not keep me from eating as many as possible, as quickly as possible.
Chinese crawfish imports have established a greater foothold in Louisiana since the storm, but this product is "tail only." Some Cajun natives might scorn me, but I cannot tell the difference. Usually the Chinese product is cooked into a larger dish, such as a jambalaya, with spices and other kinds of seafood. Whole crawfish—the best kind—remain a local product. You can tell they were boiled live—the ultimate sign of freshness—by looking for the curled-up tail.
Cajun food has recovered from previous crises; this is testament both to its quality and to the dedication of its cooks. And since the region is not economically diversified and the range of jobs available is limited, cooking for tourists, locals, and energy-company visitors remains a financially attractive option. Cajun cuisine arguably peaked during the oil boom of the early 1980s, when the region was flush with cash. Restaurants opened in unparalleled numbers. When oil prices fell and the sector shrank, local food entrepreneurs looked to tourists to keep them going. The current problems in food markets do not compare with the previous disruption, and this perspective gives locals confidence. Many of the people in Cajun country do not identify much with New Orleans or its problems; I heard comments tinged with schadenfreude more than once during my chats.
Some locals even believe that the storm will prove good for the cuisine by creating a diaspora of those familiar with the food. Former New Orleans residents are spreading around the country, either opening new restaurants, looking for the food, or talking about it to their new friends and neighbors. The national demand for Cajun food may increase.
As it becomes more popular nationally, Cajun food is becoming less tied to its region of origin. The dishes will deviate more from what is served in Abbeville or New Iberia. But Louisiana food is already less "Cajun"—in the narrow sense—than most people think.
The prominence of seafood in the region dates from the 1920s and 1930s, when electricity, refrigeration, and good roads revolutionized local food markets. Crawfish itself achieved its current focal role only in the last 50 years, when it displaced the less-tasty gar (a long, narrow fish, now hard to find on menus). Turtle, squirrel, muskrat, alligator, and nutria (a kind of rodent) have all lost ground in the Cajun diet and especially in local restaurants. Zealous regulators forced blood sausage—which includes pig's blood mixed with fat—underground. Modern Cajun food has little to do with its original 17th-century version or even the early-20th-century version. It will adapt to new circumstances as it has done in the past. Emeril Lagasse, perhaps the best-known purveyor of "Louisiana cuisine," is from Fall River, Mass.; his ancestry is mixed French-Canadian and Portuguese.
My advice for foodies? Take a three- or four-day tour of southwestern Louisiana; many of the best places are no more than two hours from New Orleans. Eat in towns of fewer than 10,000 people. Refuse any restaurant with its own billboard or Web site, no matter how strongly recommended it comes. Cajun foodways have survived the storms, and they will survive the likely economic and population decline of New Orleans. The aftermath of Katrina will not keep you from encountering a great American cuisine riding high.