Monday, January 13, 2020 - by Ann N. Yungmeyer
From “Feed your Soul” to “Let the Good Times Roll” Louisiana’s fun slogans are certainly fitting in Lake Charles, a vibrant city in the southwestern corner of the state. Known as Festival City, Lake Charles hosts more than 75 fairs and festivals each year, including the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is more famous, but Lake Charles’ version of the Fat Tuesday festival feels a bit different with a focus on family-friendly events and Cajun traditions.
Along with the pomp and pageantry, zydeco music and dancing, there is the famous chicken run, in which participants chase chickens through the countryside, honoring an old tradition of garnering ingredients for the community pot of gumbo.
Mardi Gras season begins in early January with Twelfth Night parties and various events leading up to the actual Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) on Feb 25, 2020, before Ash Wednesday. Lake Charles hosts a variety of celebrations during Mardi Gras weekend including the children’s parade featuring 80 floats and lots of bead throwing, boat and canine parades, a gumbo cook-off and the Royal Gala, where the public is invited to view the royal court costumes of all the krewes. Among favorite Fat Tuesday events, the Iowa Chicken Run is held in a nearby community, and the grand Krewe of Krewes parade through downtown culminates the Mardi Gras celebration.
You don’t have to attend Mardi Gras to get the lowdown on the longstanding traditions; you can learn what the pageantry is all about at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu, which holds the largest costume display in the South. Open year-round, the museum has exhibits on festival history, how the elaborate costumes are designed and made, and the legendary King Cake.
Other notable festivals in Lake Charles include the Crawfish Festival and The Louisiana Pirate Festival, where pirates sail in on the waterways and “storm the seawall” in a historical reenactment of John Lafitte privateering. Summer brings the Cajun French Music and Food Festival, the Arts and Crabs Fest, and Boudin Wars. Wintertime favorites are Christmas Under the Oaks and Light up the Lake Christmas Festival.
Cajun or Creole?
Deeply rooted in Cajun and Creole traditions, Lake Charles is the heartbeat of Calcasieu Parish, which includes the rural towns of Sulphur, Westlake, DeQuincy, Vinton and Iowa. I learned on a recent visit that Cajun and Creole cultural and culinary influences are closely linked, though subtly different. Both cultures exhibit “joie de vivre” (joy of living) and share a love for music and dance. Both combine culinary flavors from Native American, African and European cooking, and many dishes are made with the “holy trinity” (onions, bell peppers, and celery).
“Creole” is derived from the Portuguese word crioulu, meaning homegrown. The distinctive European culinary styles and West Indian influence call for a lot of sauces, fresh herbs and spices. The French Canadian (Cajun) influence comes from French colonists in eastern Canada who were displaced by war in the late 18th century. They came to Louisiana with great resourcefulness and ability to live off the land. Their cuisine is often more rich and robust and is usually made in one pot.
Good Eats, where the spice is right
Being a gumbo-lover, I sought to try Louisiana’s signature dish everywhere I went. By definition, gumbo is an improvised dish, so I found no two that tasted alike; and most surprisingly, none that I sampled was made with okra. Basic ingredients for authentic Louisiana gumbo are the roux (made with flour and oil), seafood, various spices and water. Usually the trinity ingredients are included for flavor, along with sausage and/or chicken. Perhaps gumbo made with okra is a matter of preference, but I plan to keep using it in my home recipe.
Boudin is Southwest Louisiana’s most adored specialty, a hybrid sausage made of pork or beef, liver, rice, parsley, onions, and spices. It combines the traditions and flavors of German, Cajun and Creole cuisine. If you drive the designated “Boudin Trail” you can sample many varieties: boudin blanc, crawfish boudin, shrimp boudin, alligator boudin and more. You can watch it being made at LeBleu’s Landing, a family-owned Cajun meat market and café.
Check VisitLakeCharles.org/boudintrail for a map and listing of markets and restaurants along the trail.
Seafood lovers are in heaven in Southwest Louisiana with countless choices of fresh Gulf Coast fish and shell fish. Head for Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp for brunch and a delightful menu of Cajun/Mexican fusion. For downhome cooking, try Southern Spice, a cozy restaurant featuring fried catfish, shrimp and grits, and Cajun dishes including Étouffée and jambalaya. The Jack Daniel’s Bar & Grill at L’Auberge Casino offers some of the best Louisiana cuisine by award-winning chef Lyle Broussard. Along with Jack Daniels’ craft cocktails and grand selection of beers on tap, the menu features oysters, shrimp, gator bites, gumbo, boudin balls, catfish, redfish and barbecue.
Craft beer lovers will find the newest craft brews in town at Crying Eagle Brewing, and rum drinkers will want to visit Bayou Rum Distillery & Louisiana Spirits, the largest private rum distillery in the U.S. Bayou Rum is handcrafted on-site in a traditional copper pot using 100% natural unrefined Louisiana cane sugar and molasses. Distillery tours and tastings are offered.
Whether or not you visit Lake Charles during one of its lively festivals, you’ll find countless opportunities to discover Louisiana’s rich heritage and culinary highlights, as well as year-round attractions, from casino gambling to nature parks, bayou tours and outdoor adventure.
Getting there: Lake Charles has a small train depot serviced by Amtrak and a small airport serviced by American and United Airlines. https://www.visitlakecharles.org/
Ann Newell Yungmeyer is a freelance writer and enjoyed learning about Cajun traditions near her family’s namesake town of Newellton, La.