Capital Touring on the Cajun Prairie
Within the famous triangle of parishes called Acadiana lies a smaller triangle called the Cajun Prairie – Evangeline and Acadia Parishes and spilling into St. Landry and Jeff Davis – which claims to be the heart of Cajun Country based on its music, food and agriculture, plus traditions like the Courir du Mardi Gras rides every spring in almost every town. The region’s promotional literature, in fact, is dominated by dancehalls (“traditional Cajun,” zydeco and swamp pop) and meat markets (purveyors of the prairie’s famous smoked meats) – assets that have given rise to so many “world capitals” that le petit triangle could claim the title of “Most Capitals per Capita.”
The story of the cuisine began when the “tall-grass” prairie of the colonial era became a vast vacherie –grazing land for cattle – and that abundance of beef plus the influence of German colonists gave us the tradition of distinctive meat smoking that we still enjoy. Eventually, however, cotton (after its coronation) claimed the ranchlands, but soon was dethroned by the arrival of rice, introduced by Midwestern farmers when they learned that our prairie topsoil rests on clay that can support heavy equipment and prevent the seepage of irrigation waters. That’s when rice appeared in our boudin, pork replaced beef in our tasso and Cotton Country began its final retreat, even beyond Ville Platte, which nevertheless clings to the tradition of its Louisiana Cotton Festival.
The prairie boasts eight major fall festivals in all, making this the best season for visiting, and the best tour routes are north-south La. 13 which bisects the triangle, U.S. 190 which crosses from Opelousas to Kaplan, and I-10/U.S. 90 which run along its base.
From Turkey Creek (the “Gateway to Acadiana” at the top of the triangle), drive south on La. 13 to La. 10, then east on 10 which becomes Main Street in Ville Platte. After snacking on sausage and tasso at Teet’s (2144 W. Main St.) and browsing at Walker & Sons Country Store (1101 W. Main, birthplace of “Slap Ya Mama” Cajun seasonings), visit the Chamber of Commerce (306 W. Main St.) for a guide to points of interest like the Native Plant Heritage Garden (888 E. LaSalle) and the new statue of the parish’s namesake heroine at the Evangeline Courthouse (200 Court St.). Then ice up your cooler and, with the Chamber’s meat market list in hand, decide for yourself which has the best smoked meats in the Smoked Meats Capital of the World.
Ville Platte is also Swamp Pop Capital of the World, and a century-old depot at 205 NW Railroad St. houses the Swamp Pop Hall of Fame, with wall-to-wall photos, instruments, apparel and original 45s. Many of the stars and hits were introduced by Floyd Soileau’s recording studio under his Swallow and Jin labels, between 1957 and ’75, and he operated his famed record shop at 434 E. Main till 2013 when it became a strictly online enterprise (floydsrecordshop.com).
Oct. 7-12 brings the Cotton Festival and its Tournoi, a tradition transported from France in the 1800s and revived in 1948 – a variation of jousting that requires riders to lance not each other but 21 dangling rings representing enemies of cotton, like boll weevils. Eric Guillory, a five-year veteran of the sport and the third generation of his family to ride, won in 2012 and ’13 and will defend his title on Oct. 12 at the Tournoi Track after the festival’s Grand Parade.
Back on La. 13 it’s 3.5 miles south to Mamou, aka Big Mamou, named World Capital of Cajun Music for four reasons: its role in creating and nurturing the music; the Cajun sanctum sanctorum called Fred’s Lounge at 420 6th St. (smallest but most famous dancehall in Cajun Country); its Cajun Music Festival (Oct. 4); and the classic “Big Mamou,” written by Link Davis and covered by singers from Jimmy C. Newman and Jimmie Davis to Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings. Fred’s opened in 1946 and the song was released in 1953, but “Big Mamou” is still a hit here and the dancing still starts at Fred’s on Saturdays at 9 a.m. A courtyard across the street features a Cajun Wall of Fame honoring local creators and preservers of the music.
Farther south on La. 13 is Eunice, but we’ll catch it on the westbound U.S. 190 drive that begins at the Opelousas Tourism Center – source of walking-tour maps of Louisiana’s third-oldest city as well as St. Landry Parish tour booklets with arts guide, antiquing list and specialty guides (like the “Boudin Trail,” including Billy’s Boudin and Cracklins right across the street).
The Tourism Center is surrounded by a farmers’ market and collection of historic structures that house the city museum, a two-room Schoolhouse Museum and a vintage train station whose mural and displays commemorate the nation’s 60-year “Orphan Train” program for “foundlings” begun in 1873 (laorphantrain.com). Dwellings range from modest cabins to an 1840s raised cottage, and the nearby 1770s Michel Prudhomme House at 1128 Prudhomme Circle – by appointment, (337) 942-8011 – is a rare survivor of the region’s French Colonial mansions.
Born here in 1925, “Zydeco King” Clifton Chenier made Opelousas the Zydeco Capital of the World, and a Sept. 26 concert (5:30 on Courthouse Square) will feature a reunion of Clifton’s son C.J. Chenier, Wayne “Blue” Burns (Clifton’s bassist for two decades) and Zydeco rubboard maker Tee Don Landry whose father made Clifton’s first “frottoir” in the 1940s.
The famed zydeco dancehall called Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki is located at 8471 Main St. (La. 182), where the music starts about 9:30 p.m. on most Fridays and Saturdays. The 70-year-old Richard’s Club west of town near Lawtell (11154 Hwy. 190) is showing signs of becoming a Zydeco Hall of Fame, and the Zydeco Music Festival in nearby Plaisance was Aug. 30.
Twenty miles west, nearing Eunice, musicians gather about 9 a.m. most Saturdays at the Savoy Music Center (4413 Hwy. 190), the store and home of Marc and Ann Savoy – both musicians. He’s also an accordion maker and she’s also a folklorist, author and Cajun music historian.
In the “Cajun Prairie Capital” of Eunice, stop first at the 10-acre parcel at M.L. King and E. Magnolia where Charles Allen of UL-Eunice and the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society have re-created a small range of the prairie’s primordial tall grasses and wildflowers (cajunprairie.org), then head downtown to a neighborhood of Cajun-culture attractions that’s grown up around a historic theater and spread along Park Avenue and C.C. Duson Street. It was Duson who laid out the town in 1894, named it for his wife, and auctioned lots at the Midland Branch Railroad Station (220 S. Duson) which is now the Eunice Depot Museum of city, Cajun and railroading memorabilia.
Next door, between the depot and Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Center, the Cajun Music Hall of Fame presents photos and bios of inductees, life-size dioramas of early musicians, vintage instruments and videotaped recordings of all previous Cajun concerts at the nearby Liberty Theater.
A block west in the median of Park Avenue, a bronze statue of Eunice Duhon faces the Liberty, a 1927 vaudeville/movie theater converted in 1987 to a concert hall that’s famous for its live Saturday night Cajun presentations (established and hosted for years by Cajun-culture historian Barry Ancelet of UL-Lafayette). Next door, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center (a facility of Lafitte National Park) presents tools, crafts and traditions of the earliest Acadian arrivals, plus cooking demonstrations, jam sessions and demonstrations of skills vital to 18th-century prairie life.
West of Eunice U.S. 190 leads through ricefields to Basile, Elton and Kaplan, all with meat markets filled with boudin and sausages, some even offering hard-to-find ponce bourée (seasoned pork stuffed in pig bellies rather than entrail links, then smoked and thick-sliced to be added to gumbo and gravy recipes). Visit the Coushatta Tribe’s big farmers’ market on Saturdays in Elton’s Koasati Plaza and annual Powwow near the Coushatta Casino in Kaplan (www.coushatta.org), and don’t forget Kaplan’s Cajun Food Fest on Oct. 4 and Basile’s Swine Festival Oct. 31-Nov. 2.
From Elton take La. 26 south past beaucoup rice/crawfish fields to Jennings, then take old U.S. 90 east, crossing the winding Mermentau River, and stop in Estherwood to sample the boudin and memorable beef-pork sausage at the Estherwood Country Store. Opened in 1892 as the J. Kollitz Store, it’s been restored in recent years by owner Diedra Farris. Two blocks back, on Morris at N. LeBlanc, stands Estherwood Manor, a circa-1840 planter’s home (private).
It’s now a short drive east on 90 to Crowley, Rice Capital of America and home since 1937 of the International Rice Festival (Oct. 16-19). An Acadia Parish welcome center is located at I-10 Exit 82, and, one exit west, La. 13 leads south through town (circling the Art Deco Acadia Courthouse) to a city information center in the City Hall building (425 N. Parkerson). Both offer city and parish guide-maps to National Register landmarks and, of course, to lots of meat markets.
Built in 1920 as the Crowley Motor Co., the City Hall building is also home of an automotive museum (Model T’s and the giant elevator that lifted them to the third-floor showroom), an Interpretive Rice Center with its story of Louisiana rice from the days of Sol Wright (pioneer planter and developer of famous Blue Rose seed rice); big wax-figure dioramas depicting Jay D. Miller’s studio from the early days of Cajun recording; and the Crowley Historic Museum.
La. 13 and 3007 lead south and west to Sol Wright’s 1890s plantation, now the Wright family’s Crystal Rice Plantation. Visits –by appointment, (337) 783-6417 – include an aqua-culture tour, Country Store, classic car museum and Blue Rose Museum (depicting the lifestyle of the prairie family fictionalized by Frances Parkinson Keyes’ 1957 national best-seller, Blue Camellia).
Traditions of the prairie’s German settlers live on in Roberts Cove, a scattered farming community shared by descendants of the 13 German families who settled it in 1881. Six miles north of Crowley from La. 13, turn right onto Roberts Cove Road (La. 98) for the 0.3-mile drive to Kelly’s Landing, where Kelly Hundley offers tours and crawfish boils – by appointment, (337) 780-0546 – for individuals or busloads. After a walk to adjacent fields to learn the techniques of ricefield hydrolics and large-scale crawfish farming, visitors see an outdoor display of farm machinery (even some of grandfather Michael’s handmade machines) and a three-building collection of John Deere toys ranging from hand-held playthings to peddle-powered kiddie-tractors. Five Hundley siblings live within a five-mile radius, all rice-and-crawfish families, including Kelly’s brother Michael and his eight children who’ve recently opened a seasonal seafood restaurant called Mo’ Crawfish in nearby Mowata.
From Kelly’s Landing, La. 98 zigzags southeast to St. Leo’s Church and the Roberts Cove community hall/museum, site of the Oct. 4-5 Germanfest and repository of local artifacts and genealogical assets – Tuesday-Thursday or by appointment, (337) 334-8354 – and it’s then just a few more zigzags to “Frog City” on I-10.
A drive down Adams Avenue (La. 35) with its great frog murals makes it obvious what Rayne is the world capital of, and Nov. 15 will bring the Rayne Frog Festival, with typical festival fun plus some unique entertainment, namely the Festival Queen “pageant” which involves contestants dressing like jockeys for a frog race and using riding crops to goose their frogs to the finish line.
Finally, visit the Frog City Café (a mile north of town on La. 35) to try Chef Roy’s fried frog legs and frog leg etouffée. It’s the best way to enjoy frogs and a darn good way to end a tour!
La Musique de Basile