The people of Louisiana are renowned for “passing a good time,” which for the uninitiated means turning just about any event into an excuse for a celebration. From crawfish boils to tailgates at LSU, the Gonzalez Jambalaya Festival to the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, Louisiana folks just know how to throw a party. They have a natural hospitality which permeates everything they do, and a way of making an outsider feel at home. Last year, I got to experience this first hand at beautiful wedding I attended just outside of Baton Rouge. I had never met the bride or the groom, any of the guests, or even set foot in the town before, and it hardly mattered; by the end of the day I was a convert, and convinced that I had just attended the best wedding ever.
Over the years, I have attended more than my share of bad weddings, so when Mrs. Cajun told me we were flying home for her friend’s wedding, I was less than sold on the idea. Being from Northeastern NJ, a wedding to me meant a host of bad but not totally inaccurate stereotypes: loud Italian aunts and grandmas with big hair and bad jewelery; a DJ who insists on playing the “Chicken Dance” and tacky bridesmaids with orange skin and a palpable air of desperation; elaborate Viennese tables, passed hors d’ oeuvres, and disappointingly chewy lobster or steak as a main course; and the shakedown for cash of course, as in NJ a wedding was a minimum gift of $200 per couple, depending on how close you are to said couple. So, needless to say, the thought of repeating the above scene 1,500 miles away had little appeal for me. Mrs. Cajun assuaged my fears, however, and assured me I would have a great time. Since she is a wedding and event planning professional, I had no choice but to leave myself in her capable hands, and I am glad I did.
The morning of the wedding was breathtakingly glorious, a cloudless blue sky and a breezeless 75 degrees. It was the kind of day that only occurs about ten times a year, I was told, in Southern Louisiana. It was the epitome of an April day. The wedding was to be held in a small Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, with the reception to follow at the family home on the Amite River, the town I am still hazy on.
As is typical for any event involving Mrs. Cajun, we were a few minutes late for the start of the church wedding, and fortunate not to have walked in with the bride and groom. I seem to vaguely recall the Mrs. having a coughing fit, and having to go outside, leaving me alone in the church with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I also remember, oddly enough, the sermon from the mass. The bride and groom, we’ll call them K and L, were restaurant people like me and the Mrs., a server and a chef respectively, and the priest rather humorously but poignantly was able to highlight the similarities between the service industry and marriage, not the least of which was tolerance even for the occasional “bad customer.” The bride, of course, was effusive and beautiful, and like any chef, the groom looked happy but somewhat stunned to be out of the kitchen and in the spotlight, a circumstance that is only comfortable for TV chefs. They stood before family and friends and exchanged their vows, committing themselves to each other forever. Even yours truly was a little choked up dear readers (and it was definitely a good thing Mrs. Cajun wore the waterproof mascara). I have to admit in these pages, however, that as happy as I was to see two great people marry each other, I was even happier to know that the reception would be a crawfish boil on the Amite River without a big haired Aunt or a cheesy DJ in sight. This is why I had come!
Leaving the church, we followed the winding roads out of Baton Rouge to an area that became steadily more rural until we pulled onto a small road of sparse houses. The windows were down and my nostrils were immediately filled with scent of crawfish, corn, potatoes, sausage, and cayenne, the beautiful melange that defines the boil. I was overcome with joy and desire as I gazed longingly on the mounds of mudbugs piled high on tables. I wanted in.
Now, truth be told dear readers, over the years I have consumed crawfish in many forms, but the reception would be my first actual boil, and I will admit to being more than a little nervous that my crawfish etiquette may somehow be lacking. Despite the tutelage of the missus, there was nothing that could replace experience, and nothing worse than looking like a rookie. Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about, I was in Louisiana, and where I would have been mocked for my poor technique if I was in NYC, the locals took me under their wing to show me the best way to enjoy the bounty of the boil. Pretty soon I was cracking crawfish like a seasoned vet, enjoying the juicy tails and the luxurious orange head fat. My only regret was that it was over too soon, as a group of Louisianan’s can eat their way through a couple hundred pounds of crawfish faster than a New Yorker can talk. I learned that day not everything happens slowly in the south.
I returned the favor by shucking plates of oysters for my new friends while tending the Abita keg as well. Being a seasoned shucker, I was able to quickly pop open those large gulf coast oysters that the hosts so generously provided, lazily tossing the shells into the Amite River. The sun basked all around us, and the light breeze brought more tantalizing scents towards me. Soon I was greedily inhaling the aroma of Nachitoches meat pies and boudin balls. Abandoning my shucking station, I headed towards the house in search of said delicacies.
Before I delve into the delights of cajun delicacies, it is worth noting the house itself, where we were so generously hosted. It was built along the river, almost similar to a hunting “camp.” The bottom floor was made of concrete blocks punctuated with large areas of screened windows to allow the breeze to flow through (and water as well). The remainder of the house sat high above this first floor and was made of wood, raised ostensibly so that any floodwaters would have to be twelve or so feet high to actually reach the timber. The large airy layout of the ground floor made it perfect for hosting, and was festively adorned with old beer bottles, Mardi Gras beads, antique signage, and other quirky memorabilia that looked like it was hand collected by the owners. The first floor bathroom had a toilet seat that was made of clear plastic in which coins were suspended. Everything in the dwelling said “Relax, grab a drink, get something to eat, and enjoy yourself,” and I couldn’t help but comply. Within an hour, I was gorged on crawfish, oysters, boudin balls and meat pies, full of Abita Amber, and passing a good time with everyone I met. The ease with which hospitality happens in Louisiana never ceases to amaze me, and I happily drifted in and out of conversations, stopping occasionally to walk along the river and wave to the occasional passing boat. I could have spent the rest of my life in that day and never have wanted for more.
I was still rapt in my bliss when I heard a loud bang, a howitzer like explosion that filled the air with the scent of slightly charred spud. The sound was followed by laughter and cheers. Naively thinking it might be fireworks, I heard the missus exclaim “Potato Gun!” I turned to see a large PVC tube being loaded with a russet potato, the chamber being filled with some kind of accelerant (hairspray I was told), and ignited, launching said spud hundreds of yards into the air. I couldn’t help but be impressed, both by the power of the projectile and the complete lack of concern for safety on the operator’s part. As boats passed beneath our barrage, we continued to salute the happy couple, the long rays of afternoon growing shorter and dusk beginning to creep in. It was almost time for the missus and I to head back to New Orleans, where we would spend the remainder of our trip.
We were definitely torn as we said our goodbyes, implored to stay just a little bit longer, but we knew he had to get back to New Orleans before it got too late. As I turned to look longingly at the house, now softly glowing, I couldn’t help but feel a little sadness upon leaving. On some level, I was given a glimpse at the life I have always wanted. A life of family, friends, food and freedom, free from the pretense that punctuates so much of life in the Northeast.
Today is the first day of April, a dreary 37 degree rainy day in Hoboken, NJ. The skyline of NYC floats hazily on the banks of the Hudson, suspended in the cold spring mist. I sit near the wood stove in our loft, absorbing whatever heat I can to counteract the damp brick walls of the old factory we call home. My mind is not here though. My mind is happily shucking oysters and twisting the tails off of crawfish, sitting in eternal sunshine on the Amite River.