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The Food of Lake Charles, La. – Alligators, Boudin, Cajun/Creole & More

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By Hope S. Philbrick

For a place that boasts of its history as a “no man’s land,” Lake Charles has much to offer its visitors—most especially to those who are hungry. Located in a section of Southwest Louisiana that was not included in the Louisiana Purchase, for many years the region was a dangerous and lawless frontier inhabited by swashbucklers, prospectors, natives, outlaws, rustlers, thieves, explorers and adventurers. A ‘Wild West’ sensibility lingers to this day, as does the tendency to live off the land.

“There are lots of hunters and fisherman here,” says long-time resident Monte Hurley. And there’s no shortage of wildlife worth eating. “There are more varieties of duck and geese here than anywhere else in the United States,” says Shelley Johnson, executive director Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s a smorgasbord!” Indeed, area marshes and bayous boast fish, blue crab, shrimp, crawfish, oysters and much more.

Castnetting near sundown. Photo courtesy Lake Charles CVBCastnetting near sundown. Photo courtesy Lake Charles CVB

“Our cuisine developed out of local ingredients and over generations of time—often hard times,” says Hurley. Today locals dine on fish or game that they themselves have caught an average of twice each week. “It may be out of necessity for some,” says Johnson, “but it doesn’t have to be.” Fresh ingredients may be cost savers, but they’re also just plain good.

Visitors need not miss out on the opportunity to savor local fare since it’s routinely showcased on local menus. “Louisiana is famous for food,” says Chef Briant Smith, owner of Blue Duck Café. “Settlers lived off the land and used the cooking techniques they knew—Provincial French, Spanish, African, whatever—and it all came together.”

Cajun and Creole, the cooking styles for which Louisiana is most famous, are fusions of such influences. To prove that Southwest Louisiana regional cooking traditions are worthy of serious foodies’ attention, at a recent wine dinner Smith prepared a menu of upscale “camp food.” A dish he dubbed ‘redfish on the half shell’—a redfish filet blackened over coals to harden the skin—was simply grilled and yet one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever consumed. That meal stands in memory as equivalent in quality to the outstanding world-class seven-course meal I enjoyed at La Truffe Sauvage a few days later.

Gumbo, the most famous of Louisiana's comfort foods.Gumbo, the most famous of Louisiana’s comfort foods.

While local residents have long held onto to their culinary traditions, they have overlooked its marketing appeal until recently. A new “Boudin Trail,” which made its début in October 2009, links 17 culinary destinations in eight towns across the Calcasieu Parish. Boudin (pronounced boo-dan) itself is nothing new to the region, but the trail concept is and has already helped boost interest in the foodstuff.

“Boudin could be called the spiced-hybrid cousin of beef or pork sausage,” says Eric Cormier, food columnist for the American Press, a newspaper covering Lake Charles. Boudin is available in several different varieties including pork, beef, shrimp, crawfish and/or alligator. The meat is mixed with rice, onions, parsley and dry seasonings and stuffed into sausage casings. Boudin can be mild or spicy, boiled or smoked, left in links or rolled into balls and fried. “It’s a true fusion food item that melds the best from Cajun, German and Creole culinary traditions and traces its history back to Canada by way of France,” says Cormier.

Locals consume boudin for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Driving the Boudin Trail can take a full day—or longer if you linger over each bite and chat with producers along the route. One of the trail stops, Hackett’s Cajun Kitchen, offers a seafood boudin that is quite tasty but don’t miss the alligator sausage—I’ve been craving it ever since returning back home!

A heaping plate of cooked blue crabs. A heaping plate of cooked blue crabs. Photo by Hope S. Philbrick

Rice, a key ingredient in boudin and many other local dishes, grows on 525,000 acres in Louisiana. The Farmers Rice Milling Company, a family-run business that was launched in Lake Charles in 1917, is today one of the largest rice mills in the world and is capable of processing over 800 million pounds of rice per year. Visitors are welcome to tour the facility and learn more about rice and rice production.

Rice is a great crop for a region where the climate is semi-tropical for ten months each year. “The rice crop is among those least susceptible to failure,” says Johnny Hanskin, a company representative. It can endure hot humid weather and even survive hurricane winds up to 120 miles-an-hour. What’s more, it’s a crop frequently raised with minimal chemicals so that it can coexist with another important source of income. “Rice production is mixed with crawfish production,” says Hanskin, “so farmers don’t want to risk one crop by fertilizing another.” A total of 98 percent of the crawfish harvested in the United States comes from Louisiana.

“Rice and gravy are staples in this area,” says Chef Scott Landry, host of Chef Landry’s Comedy Dinner Show and arguably Lake Charles’ most famous chef. But there is no one universal recipe for any dish. “Ask 100 Cajuns for a gumbo recipe and you’ll get 150 different recipes,” says Landry. And having a long culinary history doesn’t mean all recipes have been written down or fully refined. As an example, Landry shares his grandmother’s secret to roux: “You put a little in, but not a lot. Just enough.” Roux, a mixture of flour and oil, is a key component of renowned soups and stews like gumbo and étouffée, which grace area menus alongside dishes like shrimp creole, jambalaya, muffalatas and more.

An overnight or weeks-long stay in Lake Charles will prove one thing: Whether you seek a one-pot or a seven-course meal, any time is a good time to eat. So Bon Appetit!—or, as the Cajuns and Creoles in Southwest Louisiana say, Allon Mengé!

Bonus

4HomeCooks

In lieu of cocktail sauce, this taste of Southwest Louisiana is typically served as a dipping sauce for grilled or boiled shrimp:

Blue Duck Remoulade
1/4 cup celery, finely chopped
1/4 cup onions, finely chopped
1/4 cup green onions, finely sliced
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
1 quart (16 oz.) Hellman’s mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons Frank’s hot sauce
1 Tablespoon French’s yellow mustard
1 Tablespoon honey
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Mince celery and onions in a food processor. (Do not over-process or it will get too watery.) Add to all other ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight for best flavor.

—Recipe Courtesy Briant Smith, chef/owner Blue Duck Café, copyright 2006

If You Go

Where2Stay

L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort
777 Avenue L’Auberge
Lake Charles, LA 70601
337.395.7777
www.ldlcasino.com

Where2Eat

Blue Duck Café
345 Broad St.
Lake Charles, LA 70601
337.721.1967
www.blueduckcafe.com

Delicious Donuts & Bakery
2283 Country Club Rd.
Lake Charles, LA 70605
337.479.2986
http://deliciouskingcakes.com

Hackett’s Cajun Kitchen
5614 Gerstner Memorial Dr.
Lake Charles, LA 70607
337.474.3731
www.hackettscajunkitchen.com

Le Truffe Sauvage
815 West Bayou Pines Dr.
Lake Charles, LA 70601
337.439.8364
www.thewildtruffle.com

Seafood Palace
2218 Enterprise Blvd.
Lake Charles, LA 70601
337.433.9293

Sylvia’s Bistro
329 Broad St.
Lake Charles, LA 70601
337.433.8028
www.sylviasbistro.com

What2Do

Cameron Prairie Visitors Center
1428 Hwy. 27 in Bell City
337-598-2216
Hours: Mon. – Fri. 8-4:30 Sat. 10-4
www.creolenaturetrail.org/

The Creole Nature Trail in the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 9,000 acres of fresh-water marsh and coastal prairie. Bring a camera for gator sightings as well as for great birdwatching.

Chef Landry’s Comedy Dinner Show
706 Joe Miller Road
Lake Charles, LA 70611
337-515-2458
www.cheflandry.com

Imperial Calcasieu Museum
204 W. Sallier St.
337-439-3797
www.imperialcalcasieumuseum.org

Cultural museum with historical exhibits and a half dozen temporay exhibits a year showcasing local, regional and nationally known artists. Also owns an extensive collection of Audobon prints.

J&R Carriage
110 W. Railroad Ave.
337-570-9909 or 337-842-0778
www.jandrcarriage.com

The only full-time carriage service in Lake Charles. Guided tours available.

Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu
809 Kirby St.
337-430-0043

The largest display of Mardi Gras costumes in the world.

4MoreInfo

Lake Charles / Southwest Louisiana CVB
www.visitlakecharles.org

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