Friday, January 27, 2017

Boogie Toes, Part III: Dancing the New Year In

There’s great camaraderie and a blurring of racial and ethnic lines at the dance halls in Southwest Louisiana. Too bad that doesn’t happen on a broader scale.

During our New Year’s Eve Zydeco week, we danced with African-Americans, Caucasians, Creoles, Cajuns, a Mexican, a Frenchman and even an Arab. There were no cliques there. Everybody danced with everybody.

Jean Pritchard displays rice stalks.
We didn’t start the day off dancing on Friday (December 30), though. We visited Conrad Rice Mill in New Iberia, America's oldest working rice mill, established 1912. Some of its machines are almost as old as the mill itself, others date from the 1960s. There are only a  handful of rice mills remaining in LA, the largest being in Crowley, according to tour guide Jean Pritchard, who has been showing visitors around the Conrad mill since 1996. Neither Carol not I could resist buying their Wild Pecan Rice, an all-natural Konriko brand brown rice that contains no wild rice or pecans, at the company store. The smell of it wafting from a small crock pot, combined with its nutty flavor, made it irresistible. 

Our lunch at Duffy’s Diner, on Center Street in New Iberia, introduced us to another delicacy: corn-on-the cob that had been battered and deep-fried.The chicken-and-sausage gumbo was a bit spicy, but tasty and full of meat.

We took a brief detour through Cal’s Western Store, but didn’t buy anything. However, the clerk gave me two George Strait 2007 tour posters when I couldn’t talk him out of the GS life-size cardboard stand-up. After a short rest back at the hotel, we headed for the Blue Dog Cafe nearby. It was far and away the best meal of the week. The seafood wontons appetizer was to die for, and pairing it with their veggie of the day, sautéed squash & onions, made a complete meal for me. The wontons consist of an array of seafood surrounded by Monterrey-jack and parmesan cheeses, fried in a wonton skin and accompanied by a plum sauce for dipping. Their “wonton specialist” comes in once a week and makes 900 wontons in three hours!

My drink was the Blue Dog Martini, a delicious tropical balance of alcohol and sweetness: Grey Goose L’Orange vodka with pineapple juice and a splash of blue curaçao topped off with an orange slice and cherry. However, their bread pudding won’t become a favorite. It was topped with a pecan praline sauce, which we should have noted on the menu. There weren’t any raisins, the sauce was too sweet and we missed the taste of rum often found in these sauces. Their comment card asked us, “How could we better serve you?” We both answered, “Open a rest in Birmingham!”

 Friday night, we danced at La Poussiere again, this time to the music of world-renowned CajunZydeco artist Horace Trahan and the Ossun Express. 

Saturday morning Buck and Johnny’s in Breaux Bridge was serving up Zydeco with its breakfast, but several folks were eating at the hotel and then going to dance. B&J’s replaced Cafe Des Amis, a local tradition that is closed. — temporarily, we hope. A sign in its window said the Cafe would reopen this month (January). 

David and Carol at Vermilionville
We wanted to save our strength for NYE, because we had two places to go that night, so we didn’t dance that morning. We went shopping instead. Both of us wanted new Western boots for dancing, so we hit Cavender’s and Boot Barn. We didn’t find what we wanted, but I managed to spend about $80 on end-of-season clothes at each place. Lunch was in the car in Cavender’s parking lot. We had sandwiches we made from Carol’s leftover rolls and pork loin from dinner the night before at Blue Dog.

Elaine & Dale celebrate NY

After almost a week of nightly dancing, New Year’s Eve seemed like an anti-climax. We had dinner at Randol’s again so we could get in some more Cajun music. We enjoyed dancing again with David Pendergrass of Phoenix, AZ, one of the few dancers that week who, like me, preferred Cajun over Zydeco.  It was raining turtles and alligators outside. We barely got inside before the bottom fell out. The din of the storm was so loud you could barely here the band from the dining room next to the dance floor.

We danced for an hour to the sounds of Lee Benoit, then left for Vermilionville to dance to Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie. Geno plays a more traditional form of Zydeco that isn’t quite as frenetic as modern versions. One guy described him as “monotonic,” and but each squeeze box only plays in one key. Geno started about 9:30, and I gave out of steam around 11 and sat out the remainder of the dances. But I love his music, so didn’t mind just listening. At midnight, we had champagne, then scurried back to the hotel to pack and sleep. Sunday's drive through the pouring rain was long and arduous, but we made it safe and sound.

Click on the YouTube link below and watch for me at 2:23, waltzing by the stage in my shiny new purple-sequined top and waving to Geno (I'm dancing with guy in white shirt and black cap). Stay tuned a few more seconds (2:30) to see Carol with a man in a red cowboy hat.

Friday, January 20, 2017

BOOGIE TOES, PART TWO: History, Culture and More Zydeco

You just can’t do Lafayette and its surrounding towns in a day or two. Carol and I spent almost a week there, and barely skimmed the surface of an area steeped in a rich, cultural heritage.

It was primarily a dance trip, but we like to absorb the culture and history of the places we visit. I wrote about our first night and full day, Tuesday and Wednesday, in last week’s post. Thursday, it was on to New Iberia, where we toured an 1834 mansion and a small local history museum before more Zydeco dancing at two locations.

Built for a wealthy sugar planter, Shadows-on-the-Teche was home to four generations before becoming a National Trust Historic Site. Live oaks draped with Spanish moss cast shadows on the house, gardens and Bayou Teche (pronounced Tesh), which its back door faces. It was an interesting tour, but unremarkable.

We had lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall called Bon Creole. Not being in the mood for Cajun food, I opted for a green salad topped with fried chicken. After lunch, we toured the small Bayou Teche museum, where we learned a lot about the history of New Iberia. It was the only Spanish settlement in Louisiana, and its 11 sugar mills produce more sugar than any of Louisiana’s other 21 parishes. The inner portion of the cane is processed for sugar, but the outer bark is re-used as fuel for the sugar refineries. Molasses and brown sugar are extracted in the four-kettle process. Molasses goes to Wisconsin and into animal feeds, according to our guide Catherine Segura, whose last name matches that of one of the original seven families of New Iberia.
Bon Creole Cafe

That night, we danced at the Feed & Seed and at Warehouse 535, both in Lafayette. Four Zydeco bands played to an enthusiastic crowd at the F&S, a rustic setting that actually started life as a warehouse but is now used for all kinds of events. We were supposed to get food at 7 p.m., but it didn’t arrive until 7:45 and we were famished. However, the scrumptious Cajun fare, cooked by locals just outside the back door, made up for the delay. The price made for quite a bargain, too. A small bowl of red beans and rice with a fried-chicken thigh was just $4; a larger bowl was $6. It was the best RB&R I’ve ever tasted, including my own home-cooked version. 

The high-energy music created an electric-charged atmosphere that made for great dancing at this seventh annual tribute to the man who had such a tremendous influence in his field. The bands playing were Dikki Du and The Zydeco Krewe; Double Trouble, a young Zydeco band fronted by twin brothers; The Corey Ledet Zydeco Band; and Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys, all well-known in these parts.

A highlight of the evening was seeing 85-year-old Zydeco legend Willis Prudhomme join Zydeco Trouble onstage for a song. As accordionist and vocalist, Willis had his own band in 1970, before most on stage tonight were born, as fellow blogger Paul Tamburello Jr. pointed out. (Click on this link to see his dance article: .) His style was more traditional rhythm & bluesy, with plenty of waltzes, which is the way I prefer my Zydeco. The music used to be slower and the dance steps more subtle, because the dances started in Creole living rooms where folks were elbow-to-elbow. I recall my first trip to SW Louisiana back in the late 1990s, when I danced at several clubs with an elderly African-American gentleman who wore a black cowboy hat and string tie. He steps were so subtle and understated that I had to pay close attention to know when he started.

Nowadays, most of the music is so high-energy you can’t help but break a sweat after two or three dances. I’ve seen local (Birmingham-area) guys with do-rags tucked into their pockets or wrapped around their heads like bandanas. Every dancer seems to have his own individual style, and many of the high-steppers and arm-flingers don’t understand that they need to reign it in when on a crowded dance floor. I can’t count the number of times during this week of dancing that I got hit with an elbow or a woman’s flying hair! The latter feels a lot like getting swatted in the face by a horse’s tail!

We were hungry for some Cajun music, so we left a fun party at the F&S to hear Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys at Warehouse 535. It was a big disappointment for a Cajun fan. I thought of Riley as a modern Cajun band, but this night he was all bluesy Christmas songs and funky swamp pop. We should have stayed at the F&S, where we were dancing our tootsies off with folks we had come to know. 

The F&S charged $20 for its tribute to Roy Carrier, while other venues were only $15 that week. We had heard that the extra money would go toward reopening the OffShore Lounge in Lawtell. Dance organizer Dick Brainard says that was the original premise seven years ago, but it’s a lost cause now, because that venue is in such terrible shape. The tribute is what it is — a nod to the man who started the Offshore and used it to help up-and-coming musicians learn their craft by allowing them to play with the pros. There are no extra monies anyway. Even though Dikki Du (a.k.a Troy Carrier, Roy’s son, who uses his childhood nickname as his professional moniker) plays for free, others have to be paid, along with the sound man and the Warehouse owners. Brainard has had to kick in extra money in years past to meet expenses. I just wish we hadn’t left the place early, because we wasted $15 at the Warehouse 535.  

My hat is off to Brainard and Troy Carrier, alias Dikki Du, for planning this annual event.

I promised I'd give you a peek of my own dancing style. If interested, click on the arrow in the dance photo. It takes you to John Moran's YouTube channel. Look for me about 5:37 into the video. I’m toward the right, in the background, dancing with a man in a black shirt and white pants. Enjoy!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Boogie Toes, Part One: Swamps, Zydeco and Local Liqueurs

If you haven’t danced in two years, it takes a few beats to get your rhythm back.

I learned that early during my New Year’s Eve week in and around Lafayette, Louisiana. “Laissez les bon temps rouler" (Let the good times role), as they say in Cajun country, and my friend Carol Stern and I did just that.

We went down on a Cajun/Zydeco dancing junket organized by Dick Brainard of Portland, OR. He had arranged at least one dance per night, and there were some daytime options as well. We danced with people from Virginia, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington state, all there because of Brainard’s email blasts.   A few locals showed up, too, along with a guy from France. The Frenchman’s English was so limited I couldn’t determine whether he lived in Lafayette or was just visiting.

Carol on our swamp tour
We arrived by car Tuesday night, December 27, and had dinner at Randol’s, a Lafayette restaurant with a dance floor. The Cajun Ramblers were playing, and we met and danced with Dale and Rudy of Minnesota, among others. It was a good way to start the week, because it helped us exercise our boogie toes before hitting the Zydeco circuit. Cajun music has a Country flavor, so it’s slower and easier to dance to than the high-energy, eight-count Zydeco. “I haven’t danced in a couple of years,” I told Dale, as we two-stepped around the room on the wooden floor. I was embarrassed, but quickly recovered.

Wednesday Carol and I spent two hours on Lake Martin in a crawfish skiff with Cajun Country Swamp Tours ( in Breaux Bridge. Our guide, Bob Gary, made the swamp come alive with commentary on the feathered, finned and corrugated creatures that live there. We spotted alligators hugging logs as they soaked up the warmth of the day, and learned that they don’t eat from fall to spring. Catfish, gar, white perch and large-mouth bass swam beneath us.
Hugging or humping? 

Turtles climbed up on logs and stretched their necks, while a great blue heron with a five-and-a-half-foot wing span glided overhead. Snowy egrets waded along the shallow edges, patiently waiting for dinner to swim by. Egrets eat alligators up to a foot long, swallowing them tail first so the ‘gators won’t eat their way out of the birds’ bellies.

A bald eagle perched in a tree with lunch in his talons, while his first cousin, an osprey, sailed  through the air above him. Pesky cormorants were so numerous we thought we were in a re-make of Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Birds.” We watched an anhinga (snake bird) flying so low it skimmed the water’s surface. It sometimes has trouble taking off because its belly gets so full, according to Gary. 

Before we left, I could tell the difference between the cypress and tupelo trees — most of the time. The cypress wears a wide, gathered skirt with folds, while the tupelo has a smooth bottom. A cypress tree’s roots plunge as deep as its height above water, and Cypress knees are part of their root systems. With their only enemy being a fungus that eats them from the inside out, they can live hundreds of years.

Bread pudding -- yum!
After the tour, we asked Gary for local restaurant recommendations, and selected Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish Cajun Cafe. I had chicken-and-sausage gumbo. It became a favorite while I was in Louisiana. So did the cafe — we ate there again that night, enjoying a fried seafood platter. That’s when I decided I didn’t like étouffée, but loved alligator. As for desert, the Cafe's bread pudding was divine.

What we really appreciated about the restaurant was that they sold some local liqueurs by the bottle. At least, they told us they were local. Turns out Evangeline’s Praline, an original pecan liqueur by Sazerac, (, is distilled and bottled in Maine. “Evangeline’s Pralines is part of our New Orleans heritage brands and was developed by our sensory team at Buffalo Trace to match the unique and rich flavors of New Orleans pralines,”  Amy Preske, public relations and events manager for Sazerac/BuffaloTrace/Barton1792 Distillery/A. Smith Bowman, explained to me in an email. Carol doesn’t care for pralines, but loved the liqueur. Each of us bought a bottle of this sweet, smooth libation. In addition, I bought Satsuma orange liqueur by Bayou Satsuma, which is distilled and bottled by Louisiana Spirits LLC of Lacassine, LA (

That night, we danced to the music of the Pine Leaf Boys at La Poussiere, a Breaux Bridge dance hall. Wilson Savoy, son of famous Cajun musician Marc Savoy, fronts the band with his button accordion. It seemed unusual to hear electric guitar and drums in a Cajun band, but the instruments helped the Boys infuse their Cajun sound with Rock ’n Roll energy.

You can get an idea of what Cajun/Zydeco dancing is like by clicking on the arrow above.  Lafayette dancer/videographer John Moran posted the video. Most people you’ll see are doing Zydeco dancing to Cajun music, except on the waltzes and two-steps. Those are pure Cajun. You won’t see me in this video, but I’ll have some links in subsequent posts that will show glimpses of my style.

Stay tuned (no pun intended) for Parts II and III.