Monday, May 10, 2010

The Best Onion Rings You'll Ever Eat

“Myran’s has the best onion rings you’ll ever eat.”  Onion rings?  We were in the heart of crawfish country, headed for Myran’s Maison de Manger for lunch.  Among her many talents, our friend K. is a supremely good cook.  While we didn’t doubt her, we were surprised that, in this context, she’d give onion rings a starring culinary role.

As we drove toward Myran’s, a sign for “Boudin & Cracklins” reminded us we were in South Louisiana and nowhere else.  Myran’s is located in Arnaudville, which, spurred by the establishment of the Town Market Rural Artists Center, has become an artists’ haven.  Artists and photographers have joined George Marks, Town Market’s founder, in taking up residence and studio space in town.  Marks writes, in “The Arnaudville Experiment”:
 . . . the town is situated on the junction of Bayous Teche and Fuselier.  Lawns gently slope downward to gumbo colored water.  Fields of cane, soybeans, corn, Milo or prairies of native grasses make way to the vast sky.  Lazy trees punctuate the horizon.  Leaning poles frame the landscape.  Here you can live and work in peace.  Here you can cycle, kayak or canoe.  Here you can sing, dance or sit back and watch.  
Myran’s is so down home it has no website, but word has traveled just the same.  We sat at a simple table with a view of the Bayou Teche and ordered oysters, two pounds of boiled crawfish, and sides of onion rings.  I thought a side of cole slaw might be a nice accompaniment, too, but it was not to be had.  K. let us in on a local secret:  “They’re not so big on vegetables here.” (In the interest of full disclosure, the order did come with two potatoes and a chunk of corn-on-the-cob.)

In the end, the lack of cole slaw worked no handicap:  I thought (may Michael Pollan forgive me), I could learn to eat like this.  The onion rings were this side of heaven—thin sliced and enclosed in a delicate crisp batter.  The oysters were delectable; the crawfish, in their gleaming shells, were sweet and tender—every one.  We’ll confess we didn’t attempt “sucking the heads,” but we licked our fingers and dove in for more until every last crawfish tail was gone.

The next day, we were off to Avery Island.  But first, there was breakfast to be had, and that meant stopping smack in the center of Cajun Country, at T-Coon’s in Lafayette.  Now, there are plenty of places north and south where a good breakfast can be found, but T-Coon’s is up there in the top of any I would name.  The advantages of a T-Coon’s breakfast are many, but here are three:  andouille grits, smoked sausage seasoned T-Coon’s way, and my personal favorite—feather-light homemade biscuits such as can’t be had up north for any price.

We lifted ourselves out of our seats as best we could and into Poupart Bakery next door (all right, so we were full—we might end up stranded somewhere and get peckish).  The apple tarts and lemon squares were irresistible, and of course, we couldn’t leave without some pralines, too.

Good as this all was, there was more still to come:  Café des Amis in Breaux Bridge.  Breaux Bridge was founded in 1829 by Scholastique Picou Breaux, a young and enterprising Acadian widow.  A tiny town (pop. 7,500 or thereabouts), Breaux Bridge snagged the title “Crawfish Capital of the World” by an act of the Louisiana legislature and lays claim to the original recipe for crawfish étouffée.  The town has more than made the most of what it has (its website misses not a beat in trumpeting its many wares).  We were enchanted on first look and, in our short time in the area, found reasons to go back twice more.

It was hard not to be enchanted when our introduction to the town was by way of Café des Amis, serving what some call “haute Cajun cuisine.”  The building in which it’s housed has a long and storied history, the most recent chapters of which are these:
When Dickie Breaux originally purchased the building, the downstairs was used as an art studio and the upstairs became a living area.  As time passed, the decision was made to include a coffee shop along with the studio, and Café Des Amis was born in 1992.  Before long food was served too, depending on how much catfish they could buy for $200 that week.  As demand from the customers grew, so did the menu . . . .
And oh, how far the menu has come!  We tucked into fried green tomatoes, smoked soft-shell crab, and crawfish étouffée.  Recalling with everlasting regret how we’d missed out on dessert at Brigtsen’s in New Orleans, we resolved not to repeat that failure, and bread pudding with rum sauce rounded off our splendid meal.

Food and music go together in these parts.  We were not to be in town for the Saturday morning Zydeco breakfast, but, lucky for us, Wednesday night is also music night at Café Des Amis.  The musicians were billed as “friends of” Joel Savoy, well-known locally as a founder of Valcour Records in Lafayette.  Beverly Smith and Carl Jones are accomplished singers and musicians of traditional music, he on the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar, she on the fiddle and guitar.

They were joined along the way by others, a fiddler and a woman who graced our table for a bit before taking up a banjo.  (She lived in Breaux Bridge, but was born and raised in Queens, as it turned out.)  We had front row seats for it all.

It was hard to leave the pretty main street, lit with fairy lights and glowing in the night, but we had to rest up.  The next day was our last in the Atchafalaya Basin before heading back to New Orleans, and our friends had invited us (and a growing list of others) to their camp on the river for a bonfire night.

The weather continued its perfect streak.  A load of hay bales arrived and were set in a ring around the wood laid for the fire.  On the porch, food everywhere, including fresh-caught red fish served two ways (both delicious), and smoked beer-can chicken.  As K. had described to us, and we now witnessed with our own eyes, the chicken sported a half-full can of beer:  stuffing and basting in one efficient stroke.  I don’t know what they’d think of this at Per Se, but for tenderness and flavor, beer-can chicken is hard to beat.

As we filled our plates with seconds, two young men arrived carrying a fiddle and guitar.  Brazos and Jeb Huval are from a family of fourteen.  Though their parents play not a note, every child in the family took up an instrument, and some, like Jeb, also sing.  Brazos Huval is professionally trained and part of a Grammy-nominated group, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys—no second stringers here.  Another of the gathering played a mean New Orleans-style jazz trumpet, and, after a feast of the Huval brothers’ Cajun playing, they all hummed and plucked in search of a tune on which to land.  (In this world within worlds, they found but one:  “When the Saints Go Marching In.”)

The next morning, as we knew Café des Amis was open for breakfast, we decided to forego our last bit of yogurt and granola (what were we thinking?) and head on over.  The breakfast erased all memory of our encounter with frozen Tater Tots elsewhere in Breaux Bridge and replaced it with memories of boudin patties and biscuits that matched the perfection achieved at T-Coon’s.

Thus fortified, we made our way back to New Orleans.  After an astounding sojourn to the Lower Ninth Ward, and with an early flight the next morning, take-out dinner was the order of the day.  We repaired to The Joint, where we ordered up racks of ribs, pulled pork, a variety of sides (including that elusive cole slaw I’d been hankering for), and pecan and key lime pie for dessert.  We couldn’t have asked for a better culinary finish to our trip.

Back on our hillside perch in New York’s Hudson Valley, it’s hard to fathom how much we packed into so few days.  Louisiana, a place we never thought we’d venture, is now a place we look forward to returning soon.  It’s impossible to choose what was top among so many highlights, but here’s the one that stands above all the rest:  our friends, who generously brought us into their communities.  Thank you for giving us the gift beyond price of your Louisiana.



To listen to Beverly Smith & Carl Jones sing "On the Sunny Side of Life," click here.  To purchase the wonderful album Glow, on which the song appears, click here.

Credits:  Many of the onstage photographs, including some great close-up shots of the musicians, were taken by Marie Constantin. 

Postscript:  Carol-Ann has written eloquently about the most recent calamity to befall South Louisianaand the entire Gulf coast regionreminding us once again what a fragile, complicated place this is.  John McPhee, in writing about the Atchafalaya Basin in The Control of Nature, made clear how entangled humankind’s and nature’s endeavors are in this part of the world.  But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do:  as Carol-Ann noted, even small steps can make a difference.  New Orleans and South Louisiana are multifaceted jewels in our American landscape.  They need and deserve our continual protective embrace.

This is the last of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana.  To read the first post, about New Orleans, click here.  To read the second post, about the Atchafalaya Basin, click here.  To read the third post, about visiting egret and spoonbill rookeries, click here

7 comments:

  1. This 4-part series is the most enticing description of South Louisiana and New Orleans that I've ever read; you lay out a wealth of insider information that would help anyone planning a trip to this fascinating part of the world so much richer - though armchair travelling through it is almost as rewarding.

    Love your descriptions of the food in this post - the Zydeco breakfast at Cafe Des Amis would be enough to get me there!

    Thanks for taking us along on a very entertaining journey.

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  2. Jan in New OrleansMay 11, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    Sue,

    I am so glad that you experienced and wrote so cogently and movingly about this place when you did. It's going to be so diminished and wounded when you return. The idea that all that incredible sea food that you ate may be lost to us for decades is unimaginable.

    When will we ever learn?

    Still, as some musician said, They can flood us with water and innundate us with oil, but they can't take away our spirit and our soul which is in the music. (And I might add in the DNA of the people)

    Hope to see you soon. Keep writing--I love these blogs.

    Jan

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  3. It's been a fascinating virtual journey to be on.You so well evoke the area's particular character.When news came on tv about the oil spill we were of course very saddened/angry and more so because we knew the context.Thanks for taking us there.One day I hope see more of the U.S. and its vegetables.Well done, Sue.

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  4. T-Rouge-replys,
    THANKS for the incredible write up, glad you enjoyed youselfs.My home town B.B.& surrounding area, didn`t fail you. Music,food & the great people.Thanks again & please come back cher`.

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  5. This is truly a grand finale of your remarkable series on the culture, the nature, the food and the music of South Louisiana.

    Through your words, photographs and informative links you have shown a new look into the many facets of the region.

    What a wonderful journey!

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  6. RA - I am glad to see you observing Michael Pollan's Rule 64 - "once in a while, break the rules!" This trip certainly seemed like the place to enjoy anything and everything New Orleans has to offer.

    I agree with Carol-Ann that this post is enticing, and the one that evokes a quite visceral response, or should I say, Pavlovian response. I am hungry!

    Thanks again for taking us along vicariously.

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  7. Many thanks to everyone who read and commented on the Louisiana posts. It has been a thrilling journey, and a journey we would not have had without the generosity and guidance of our friends in Louisiana.

    Carol-Ann: Methinks you do not, like I do, have two left feet, as there is clearly fancy footwork going on at the Zydeco breakfast! So glad you enjoyed these posts.

    Hamsterfree: Must comment to recognize your incredible restraint with regard to the lack of veg!

    T-Rouge: How very nice of you to write, and yes, we look forward to a return trip to BB soon!

    WOS: I suspect we may have violated EVERY Michael Pollan rule. So glad you enjoyed these posts!

    Jan: Thank you so much for writing. The resilience of spirit evidenced by the musician's quote is at once remarkable and at the same time emblematic of our experience of the people of New Orleans and Louisiana. You are in our hearts, and we look forward to visiting again soon.

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