I’ve not been to Lake Charles, LA yet, but both Norm and I are looking forward to the opportunity. We received the following information from the Lake Charles/SWLA Convention & Visitors Bureau.
It may be hard to believe, but for more than 400 years, visitors to Louisiana have found something a little different about eating in what today is called Calcasieu Parish. Unlike our brethren in other parts of the state whose plates are deliciously Eurocentric and Caribbean-inspired yet formal, the cuisine in Southwest Louisiana, a.k.a “Louisiana’s Outback,” is just as good, yet a bit more rustic and comfortable.
We like to say there isn’t any pomp and circumstance when eating in the outback. There can’t be, when a plate of velvety and spicy catfish courtboullion covered over rice with baked bread or fresh sausage-stuffed mallard ducks served with mashed sweet potatoes is placed in front of you. In order to enjoy food like that, a person has to throw caution to the wind, roll up their sleeves, and let the good times roll!
Eating in Louisiana’s Outback means good food prepared by people who know what to do with the bounty that nature provides. And over the centuries past, people here have become experts in cooking dishes that inspire a working class of people to overcome any obstacle from hurricanes, economic downturns and wars.
Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his starving crew learned that first-hand when they happily partook of smoked oysters prepared by the Ishak tribe members, fore bearers of the 18th Century Attakapas Indian tribes who inhabited Southwest Louisiana in the 1500s. The Native Americans had already found the waters and land teaming with fish, shrimp, deer, wild grapes and honey, persimmons and other fare to feed themselves. Oddly enough, the Attakapas’ influence can be found in local cuisine with goodies like smoked tasso, used as a seasoning meat, and oyster pie.
Wild game, fish, and vegetables grown in these parts also sustained countless outlaws and desperados from the eastern states in the late 1700s when the land between Calcasieu Parish’s eastern line and the Sabine River to the west, was called the Rio Hondo. Spain and the United States argued over who owned the region after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and called it the “neutral strip.” Back then, there weren’t any restaurants or lodging facilities, and the rough-and-tumble lifestyle didn’t lend to upscale dining. Hunting and fishing kept the untamed crowd alive, and an iron pot, spit and fire were the order of the day. That influence is still alive, as countless residents are known to get out of the urban areas, pitch a tent, light a fire and indulge themselves on grilled trout or fried venison tenderloin.
When the Civil War ended, freed slaves from Georgia and Alabama made their way to Choate Prarie, now called Mossville. Wild pigs roamed the area then and provided meat for the new residents. They also brought with them pigs from the east. Pork was adored in these parts, as on any given day a visitor can find barbecued pork ribs and pork steak, baked pork roast, smothered pork stew meat and fried pork chops prepared in homes and mom and pop restaurants.
Around 1760, French settlers staked a claim on Lake Charles, a large inland lake where the parish seat is now located. Those settlers weren’t Cajuns who migrated from Nova Scotia, they came directly from France and brought with them kitchen talents that allowed them elevate any piece of meat or fish from a natural gamey taste to something that led pirates like Jean LaFitte to sail up the Calcasieu River from the Gulf of Mexico to feed his soul. The French settlers learned in their homeland how to take cheap pieces of meat and simple ingredients and make a meal, a talent that is still occurring in black cast iron pots today. If you don’t believe it, then attend a Zydeco or Cajun French dance in the area and spoon up a chicken and sausage gumbo or a stew made with alligator meat and tomato sauce, affectionately known as a sauce picante.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Cajuns started moving into the eastern end of the parish, along with Germans from the northern states who were called “lumber barons”, Italians, Lebanese, and more African-Americans. Each brought their food cultures with them to a land that was booming as a result of the saw mills, small businesses and a growing parish and city government base.
Now, dishes like boudin, smoked sausage, kibbie, muffalatas, hoghead cheese, jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, shrimp creole, rice and gravy, fried catfish, raw oysters, smothered cabbage, and an assortment of other dishes that are known around the state, but prepared a little differently are the hallmarks of our outback cuisine.
Gifts of the modern world can be found all over Calcasieu Parish, but that independent spirit that originated with the Native Americans still exists. In the outback you will find a passionate group of people who don’t mind getting a little dirty when it comes to work, fun and eating. Whether you want a home-cooked meal, plate lunch, or a quiet evening at a steak house, the indelible spirit of enjoying nature’s best ingredients will manifest itself on your plate and in your mouth.
Visit Calcasieu Parish and you can taste, smell and see that eating in the outback means living pleasantly on the wild side.
337-436-9588 or 800-456-SWLA
Follow me: @maralynhill