Whether it’s along small country roads or amongst the bustle of town, you can’t go anywhere in St. Landry Parish without seeing food. Travel along scenic byways and find soybean fields, rice bins, and a cascade of bright red crawfish traps bobbing on glistening ponds. Head into town and there’s no escaping the mass of specialty meat markets, boudin and cracklin stops, and eateries.
So what made this particular region of Southwest Louisiana a foodie’s paradise, populated with enough smoke houses and specialty meat markets to make anyone with a wooden spoon and a black pot salivate? Geographical region, a melting pot of cultural influences, and the parishes’ cattle industry are all to blame for the area’s delicious way of life.
The small community of Washington is conveniently located along Bayou Courtableau, making it once the most important steamboat port between New Orleans and St. Louis before the use of railroads. The town quickly became known for its transportation and dealings, and cattle runs were often made across prairie lands all the way to Washington. Nearby is the town of Opelousas, which was home to Native Americans bearing the same name. The Opelousas tribe was believed to be very friendly and unafraid of the European settlers, even forming trading expeditions with them. Due to growing commerce with the natives and its rich soil, Opelousas became a center for trade and was well suited for agriculture and raising livestock. Geographer, William Darby, describes an aerial view of Opelousas in 1817 as, “A vast expanse of natural meadows…with thousands of cattle and horses of all sizes scattered…in wild confusion.” Soon the area attracted the exiled Acadians and immigrants from Spain, Italy, Greece, Scotland, and Germany among others.
Even today remnants of the history and cultures exist in the way we cook. Germans brought with them the process of smoking meats, which without, gumbo just wouldn’t be the same. Old methods of cooking such as cochon de laits (pig roasts) are still popular. Nothing went to waste, which is why delicacies like beef tongue are still found in local groceries and served in home-cooked plate lunches. Jars of lard decorate the shelves of mom and pop stores, and tasso is just as much a staple as bacon. Ready to give your taste buds an adventure? Sample these age old recipes and traditions through festivals and events like the annual Here’s The Beef Cook-Off in March or the annual Port Barre Cracklin Festival in November. Even Food Network’s Anthony Bourdain couldn’t resist the temptation of an authentic boucherie (community hog butchering), held every year during the Courir de Mardi Gras. There’s a bit of little something cured and smoked for everyone. So come prepared with a hefty appetite and a very large ice chest.