Next time I go to Baton Rouge, I hope I’m not in a big hurry. A few months ago I had a couple of days notice before I travelled – time enough to get a hotel reservation and pack my bucket lists. That one worked out just fine: thin-fried catfish, turtle soup, and some fresh boudin made for a memorable journey. On my return trip several weeks ago, I got word at two in the afternoon that I had an appointment at 9:15 the next morning. This was a little more challenging, but not to worry – I found something to eat.
On this second trip, though the departure was late, I had already checked in with Aunt and Uncle in Baton Rouge to make tentative housing arrangements. My arrival would be well past the normal dinner hour, but they very generously waited on me to eat – and I was very happy that they did. We dined on cashew-encrusted crappie that Uncle had caught himself. The original recipe called for macadamias, but after experimenting with various nuts they had settled on cashews. I ate more than my fair share, and would have surely kept going had the hour not been so late. I suppose a new tradition of eating fish the night before I have meetings in Baton Rouge has been set.
Around mid-morning, as I was completing my last business-related task, I ran across a little donut shop called Mary Lee Donuts. My kinfolk had provided breakfast for me, so it wasn’t like I was hungry, but I agree with comedian Jim Gaffigan: what does that have to do with anything when it comes to donuts? I could just tell myself they were for the road. Yeah, that works. I walked in and was faced with an unexpected choice. There were two apple fritters: one was baked and one was fried. Two thoughts came to mind. One: clearly these people didn’t know who they were dealing with. Though the baked pastry looked interesting (and huge), I’m choosing fried every time. And secondly, is it really a fritter if it isn’t “frite”? But I kept these thoughts to myself, smiled, and enjoyed my sweet, dense, fried fritter all the way home.
At that point, it was only about 10:30 and I was done with all I came to do (officially) in the capital city. But there was still some unofficial eating to be completed, and I wasn’t going to let a silly thing like the time of day hold me back. The night before, I had quizzed my kinfolk about where I could eat lunch. After my last trip, I had heard that Piccadilly cafeteria was known for having the best crawfish etouffee in town. They, too, were familiar with that story, but their son-in-law (which I suppose makes him my cousin-in-law) happens to be a chef, and on a previous visit had sought out a place called Bellue’s that was supposed to have great Cajun food. For this trip I chose cousin over cafeteria. I called to make sure they were open that early, and set my Gleaux-bal Positioning System towards the refinery.
I walked into Bellue’s Fine Cajun Cuisine to face an icebox full of sausage and other specialty foods ready to take home. (Thankfully, I have learned to keep a cooler in the car at all times for just such emergencies.) That would come later, but I made a mental note of a few things and turned to my left to study the menu. I make no claims to be an expert on Cajun food, so I asked the nice lady (who turned out to be a Mississippi native) what she recommended. One of the most popular dishes, and that day’s special, was the Crawfish Etouffee Supreme, described as rich, creamy gravy served on a bed of cornbread dressing topped with either fried shrimp or fried fish. The one other customer in the building assured me it was the right thing to do, adding also that I could count on getting at least two meals out of it. I was sold. And he was right on both counts. I found the combination of etouffee and cornbread dressing to be rather unique, the crunch of the fried shrimp adding even more flavor and texture to this Cajun comfort food. With the two sides (white beans with Tasso ham and smothered corn) plus a complimentary hush puppy while I waited, I didn’t even attempt to eat it all.
Since I was the only one around at the moment, I asked the nice lady from Mississippi about the restaurant’s history. Here’s the short version as I remember it: Mr. Bellue was a police officer who later opened a welding shop near the oil refinery, then began cooking for the refinery workers. Over time the food became so popular that Bellue’s turned into a full restaurant, catering service, and mail-order business. As I was winding down, Mr. Bellue showed up and brought out a piece of deep-fried boudin for me to try – a much better bite than any old boudin ball I’ve ever had. When I told him about my interest in all things edible, he invited me back to see his operation. While he made no claims to be a trained chef, he did admit to being a perfectionist. His recipes were precise. Much of his equipment was either invented by him or adjusted to fit his needs (i.e., made better) in his welding shop next door. His systems were set up for consistency and efficiency. I seriously think I could have walked in and been ready to work for him with a day or two of training. He told me that he did what he did out of love, and it showed in his food and his kitchen. I loved it, too.
Baton Rouge, I’ll be back.