Bizarre Foods: Adventures in Louisiana Cuisine
Yesterday it was swimming, slithering or crawling but today it is on your plate. That’s the beauty of Louisiana swamp food: it’s local and it’s fresh. But the creepy crawlies might be tricky to digest if you are not accustomed to bizarre foods. When it comes to adventure travel, sometimes the most daring thing you can do is sample the local chow. Especially if the indigenous menu includes boiled mud bugs, sautéed alligator or creamed squirrel. Here is a short list of what you might find on your plate the next time you visit the Pelican State.
“Pinch dem’ tail, suck dem’ head” is the motto of local foodies. The saying guides visitors like me, who don’t know what to do with a plate piled with mud bugs. This swamp delicacy, better known as crawfish, is so fresh because the little critters are cooked live. Louisiana harvests 54,800 tons of crawfish annually, and with that kind of tonnage being pulled out of the swamp, even the most contemporary chefs can’t resist a modern take on the Cajun staple. My favorite is still the old-fashioned version found at Acme Oyster House in New Orleans.
With the Kisatchie National Forest filled with squirrels, it’s no wonder that the furry varmint is a hot ingredient in Louisianans’ stews. On the first day of squirrel hunting, schools close and employers look the other way when folks head out to the woods. The delicacy is usually eaten at home in a stew, gumbo or étouffée.
Sipping an Abita beer and chewing alligator tail might just be the most relaxing dining experience—if you can find a little catfish shack on the side of the road or bayou. Tunk’s Cypress Inn on the banks of Kincaid Lake near Boyce, Louisiana, is where I experienced my first bite of alligator heaven. I’m just glad that the gator didn’t bite me back.
A local festival is a great place to discover what tickles the local taste buds. At the outdoor Lecompte Pie Festival, Terry Foglemae stood over a huge black vat of bubbling lard with what looked like a stainless steel canoe paddle. Stirring cubes of pork belly roiling in the pot, he explained, “Once it starts sounding like the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies, they’re almost done. That’s why we call them ‘Cracklins.’”
In Louisiana bayou country, the frogs are as big as your head. So although usually on the appetizer menu, the amphibian’s legs make quite a hefty meal in themselves. I met a woman who told me that frog leg dinners are a popular fundraiser at her church. “Do you buy the frogs from a commercial food distributor?” I asked. She looked at me kind of funny and said, “No, the parishioners go out in the swamp with forks and fetch the frogs back to the church.” The saying, “leap of faith” will always have another meaning for me.