Thursday, February 7, 2008

shadows on the teche

A snow and sleet storm and slick icy roads sometimes puts us in the mood for alpine living. Sometimes it pulls us across the snow crusted fields to memories or anticipations for some warmer and sunnier clime. Like this morning. The wind and metal gray skies sends us to Southern Louisiana outside of New Orleans. The sky is blue. The sun is hot. The fields of purple cane bend in the breeze. There are shadows that stretch along the bayou pretending to be something other than what they are, leading the eye to a story, a tale about to be told.

We are in New Iberia. We’ve come here because of a reading jag. We’ve immersed ourselves in the books of James Lee Burke, that particular and poetic voice of Southern Louisiana whose series of novels feature the beautifully flawed leading man Dave Robichaud. The writing and atmosphere of the books are lush and humid, and the characters are rich, complicated. It’s these stories that lead us to Dave Robichaud’s town of New Iberia, and to the flavors of true French Cajun cooking.

We’ve come to New Iberia specifically for the seafood boil. It’s softshell crab season, and we anticipate crab as well as crawfish and shrimp. The town has one of the prettiest main streets in the South featuring the antebellum jewel “The Shadows”, a classic plantation house on the edge of the Bayou Teche. Cajun country is marked by bayou, live oak, bald cypress, and Spanish moss. Burke writes in his novel A Stained White Radiance, "East Main in New Iberia is probably one of the most beautiful streets in the Old South or perhaps in the whole country. It runs parallel with Bayou Teche and begins at the old brick post office and the Shadows, an 1831 plantation home that you often see on calendars and in motion pictures set in the antebellum South, and runs through a long corridor of spreading live oaks, whose trunks and roots systems are so enormous that the city has long given up trying to contain them with cement and brick. The yards are filled with hibiscus and flaming azaleas, hydrangeas, bamboo, blooming myrtle trees, and trellises covered with roses and bugle vine and purple clumps of wisteria. In the twilight, smoke from the crab boils and fish fries drifts across the lawns and through the trees, and across the bayou you can hear a band or kids playing baseball in a city park." Yes, this is why we've come to New Iberia.

We arrive in town a little late for lunch and a little too early for dinner. The boil shacks are closed for the afternoon hiatus. All but one. Bubba’s Seafood Boil also has a bakery, so they are open through the afternoon, and after a little conversation and in true Southern hospitality, they are willing to feed us.

Before the boil arrives, the patroness serves us a little taste: softshell crab legs that have been boiled and then marinated in Italian dressing. They are delicious, the slick dressing on the outside of the shells providing sauce as you suck at the joints to get out the crabmeat. Then the boil arrives, an architectural delight. The boil is also served with a little sausage, potatoes, and hot buttered corn. There are crawfish, shrimp, various hardshell and softshell crab. The elegant long crab legs, like Alaskan King crab, take me back to childhood dinners when Alaskan King was de riguer and my favorite meal to have out at a fancy restaurant. I lived on another sort of bayou, on the muddy banks of the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. There, we have our own humidity, rampant vegetation, and fish fries.

The seafood has been boiled then steamed in a concoction of hot, powdery spices that make the meat so piquant. We’ve read about the big black boil cauldrons you find out on the bayou set up for the fishermen in their pirogues, or in backyards for weekend celebrations. They compliment the bar-b-que. We’ve brought home our own bag of spices for a boil labeled “Slap Ya Mama" Seafood Boil. We contemplate on our snowy day, heat on the tongue if not on the skin and in the air, and we imagine shadows that stretch across the snow driven fields contradicting the flat, gray of the sky and suggesting hidden intrigues and mysteries.


No comments: