By RICH GRANT
LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana – There are no hard and fast rules about boudin. People don’t even agree on how to pronounce it. Some people say this tasty, sausage-like, south Louisiana finger food should be called “boo-dan.” Others add a little French flourish on the end and say “boo-dehh.”
Either way, it’s usually pork mixed with rice, onion, green pepper and seasonings, pulverized in a meat grinder, stuffed in a sausage casing and eaten steaming hot. But you can also add beef, liver, alligator tails, shrimp or crawfish. You can snack on it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It can be served fancy on lettuce, tossed on a hot dog bun, boiled, smoked, grilled, made into little balls or jammed in an egg roll and deep fried.
Just about the only thing certain with boudin is, if you’re eating it, that means you’re somewhere in south Louisiana. And as they say down here, that means “you’re eat’n good.”
Homemade boudin is mainly found in snack shacks, Cajun restaurants and convenience stores along the Boudin Trail, which follows Interstate 10 as it slices west to east across Louisiana from Texas to Baton Rouge. This is where the West meets the South, with a whole lot of African, French and Spanish culture thrown into the pot, all making for one rich and tasty gumbo of a regional cuisine.
And it’s culinary tourism along the Boudin Trail that is helping Lake Charles, Louisiana, a city of 75,000, explode with gorgeous new resorts and Las Vegas-chic gambling casinos. Of course, Lake Charles is also the 12th-largest port in the United States, but it’s certainly not the oil and gas industry that’s causing a boom right now. There are more than 6,000 hotel rooms in the Lake Charles area (roughly one for every 12 residents), with more on the way. The thousands of tourists heading this direction are coming for grub, golf, gambling … and strangely enough, gators. Nearby Cameron Parish (they call a county down here a “parish”) has the highest concentration of alligators in North America – two gators for every human. There are also 400 species of birds, making it one of the principal birding centers of the nation.
Of course, it hasn’t hurt that southern Louisiana has also become the new Hollywood with dozens of film and TV series from “True Blood” to “True Detective” being filmed in the area. The word has gone out to film producers, if you want crazy, from vampires to voodoo to ritualistic serial killers, in a bizarre and atmospheric landscape of petro-chemical plants, bayou waterways and cypress swamps, all with a distinctive regional music, language and food, then south Louisiana is the place for you.
So bring an appetite and a belt with some extra loop holes and here are some things to do in Lake Charles.
Boudin, like almost every type of food in southern Louisiana, goes back to the region’s complicated cultural past. Cajun refers to French colonists who were thrown out of eastern Canada by the British in 1755 and ended up scrubbing out a living in the bayous, prairies and backwoods of Louisiana as hunters, anglers and trappers. They brought with them the French language, Catholic religion, a love of fiddle music and flavorful and spicy food, such as blackened fish that got its taste from being cooked in a hot iron pan. Most of their dishes can be made in one pot.
Creole comes from the Portuguese word “crioulu,” which means “homegrown” and originally referred to anyone of European or African descent who was born in the New World. Today, it’s come to mean a mingling of African, French and Spanish language, culture and cuisine, which features more elaborate ingredients and courses. But in the end, who cares? You’ll see both words used to describe the seafood gumbos, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, shrimp creole, fried catfish, shrimp boils, smoked sausage and po-boy oyster sandwiches that are just some of the local treats.
There are four massive casinos in Lake Charles, but it does them a disservice to describe them as such. They are actually full resort cities.
The Golden Nugget with 740-rooms and 300 more coming and the 1,000-room L’Auberge are connected by a boardwalk and beach along the Bayou Contraband. There are golf courses, stunning pools, spas, a dozen restaurants … and a view of a petro-chemical plant with huge tanker ships sailing by. Welcome to Louisiana. It’s strange mixture that somehow all works. Locals and tourists blend in the resorts, which have live music, food and much more than gaming.
The Creole Nature Trail is one of only 43 roads in the United States proclaimed to be “All-American Roads.” It’s the perfect introduction to the wild ecosystems of Louisiana’s Outback, which includes fresh and salt water marshes, cypress swamps and some other nasty-looking terrain – all teaming with alligators, snakes, frogs and some of the most beautiful birds on the planet.
You might not want to be out here walking alone at night, but with guides, it can be wonderful. Grosse Savanne EcoTours will take you by boat onto their 500-acre private marsh, where you can glide silently up to herons, roseate spoonbills, sandhill cranes and pelicans. There are 30 miles of marsh between Lake Charles and the gulf. This is the type of “off the grid” area where “True Blood” takes place.
It’s easy to believe that a town of vampires, werewolves and shapeshifters could exist completely unknown back here. At Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, you can stroll on boardwalks through the swamp and get fabulous photos of hundreds of birds taking to the air. There’s fishing and crabbing … and if you make it to the gulf, 26 miles of beaches for swimming and shelling.
Although America’s most famous party parades through the French Quarter of New Orleans, Lake Charles offers the nation’s second-largest Mardi Gras – a more family-friendly affair where regular people can mingle with the krewes the night before Fat Tuesday (something that would NEVER happen in exclusive New Orleans), before 75 floats throw literally millions of beads to the throngs of people along the route.
Any day of the year, you can see the world’s largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in a simply incredible, rat’s nest of a museum – the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. It’s a hoot. Twisting and turning hallways take you through a never-ending collection of over-the-top, feather-and-sequin costumes, many of which you can try on for photo ops.
Or even better, hop on a float yourself and participate in one of the true fun events of the region – a Chicken Run. In the nearby town of Iowa (pronounced Eye-Oh-Way), a half-dozen floats (flatbed trucks with a port-a-potty strapped on) drive through rural neighborhoods, stopping at various houses where the “Captain” will dance until people in the house provide an ingredient for gumbo. The parade continues, collecting chicken, rice, okra, spices and other ingredients, which are all then cooked up into a giant meal for the whole community.
Along the way, the captain lets loose a poor rooster, which is then chased by dozens of kids across the countryside. Don’t ask why. It’s just fun. There’s a zydeco band (a blend of accordion, washboard, spoons, fiddle and anything else that makes noise) … and each float has plenty of beer (hence the strap-on port-a-pottys.)
South Louisiana is a strange and different land inhabited by friendly and fun-loving people who know how to cook. Millions of visitors are familiar with New Orleans, but it’s definitely worth the time to get out into the countryside and see the wild landscape that created Cajun and Creole cooking, meet the people and enjoy their language, accents, music and absolutely unique lifestyle.
You can do no better for a guide than to search down Harold Guillory, the Lake Charles King of Zydeco Dance, and get a lesson on this easy dance step. Google him on YouTube, and you’re on your way!
For more information about Lake Charles, check out the St. Charles webpage.