|Squirrel at Alexandria Zoo – This one’s safe.|
With our national chain restaurants and fast food franchises, it’s often hard to be surprised by menu offerings. But in Louisiana, regional food experiences are available for the asking. Recently, I joined four other travel writers to explore Alexandria/Pineville, Louisiana and its environs. They were from California and Arizona and more familiar with sushi than cajun, thought squirrels were for parks and alligators for swamps, and had never tried cracklins. All that changed on our trip.
We arrived in Alexandria, Louisiana on the first day of squirrel hunting season for which some school districts have been known to acknowledge by letting out classes. At the luncheon tea room, The Cottage, a large table of women dressed in camouflage laughed about the men in their construction company office taking the day off to hunt, allowing the ladies to dress much more casually. Last night’s football game was called the Squirrel Bowl as it is the only game played on a Thursday rather than under Friday night lights so that players can hunt the next day.
|Penny Dartigo showing off freshly made cracklins|
No squirrel was on the menu and none will be. It is considered a game animal and restaurants are not allowed to prepare it. The question then was how to cook that squirrel you bagged. Several residents couldn’t really answer including our native guide. But at the Pie Festival in near-by LeCompte, Penny Dartigo, a food truck owner from Grant Parish with pig tails and a nickname of Lady Bug, said simply – smother it in gravy. To do that, sear the squirrel, add onions and water, and make a roux, she explained. “I made roux before I made rice. The secret is to keep stirring. Don’t stop until it’s almost burnt.” She learned this growing up with her “grands” as a little girl standing on an apple box in front of the stove. Lady Bug was right about the gravy as the cover story for October’s Louisiana Kitchen & Culture magazine made reference to the “chicken of the tree” and printed a Cajun Squirrel Gravy recipe.
|Terry Fogelman stirring cracklins|
Lady Bug’s boyfriend was cooking cracklins behind the food truck and drawing an eager crowd. Some even waited outside the chain link fence for the chance to buy it freshly cooked. Called by turns a jambalaya pot or cracklin pot, the cooking vessel is large, black, filled half-way with oil, and heated by propane. Terry Fogelman patiently stirred the bubbling pieces of pork fat with skin attached advising us to listen carefully for the crackle – like Rice Krispies – indicating it was done. The dish is served as a snack in a small paper bag and was more appealing fresh than those commercial products sold in plastic bags in grocery stores.
|Stuffed Alligator Above salad bar at Tunk’s Cypress Inn|
Alligators hang out more in southern Louisiana but their meat is popular throughout the state. It’s in such demand that the price has escalated. At Tunk’s Cypress Inn, a wonderful restaurant outside of Alexandria on Kinkaid Lake, blackened alligator is served as an hors d’oeuvre. Owner, Jimbo Thiels, took time out from cooking and listening to the LSU football game to lament the rise in cost from $3/lb before to $9.50 a pound today. He buys from an alligator farm where the animal was first raised for its skin but now is grown for the meat.
|Deck around Turk’s Cypress Inn on Kinkaid Lake|
With his Louisiana drawl, Mr. Thiels talked easily of the various bow and gun hunting seasons including those for wild alligator, ducks, and, of course, squirrels. He said his son could take us gigging for frogs, best found in rice fields when draining, and he would be happy to introduce coon hunting. Knowing that most of our crowd was from California, he admitted they never served anything organic except by accident. Mr. Thiels then gave his mental recipe for cooking squirrel with the same roux requirement as Lady Bug’s but he adds onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce. When asked how it tasted, he kidded with a straight face, “like cat”. It was no surprise his 35 year old restaurant is a favorite for family gatherings, Mardi Gras parties and receptions.
|Alligator at Alexandria Zoo|
I realized how pervasive alligator offerings had become when eating at the Lucky Palace in Bossier City, a Chinese Restaurant with a first class wine collection. On a drive from California, owner Mr. Lim liked the size of Shreveport/Bossier City and opened his innovative restaurant in a modest motel. If there’s such a thing as Cajun fusion, this restaurant is a leader, offering Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp, crawfish rolls, and soft shell crab with duck eggs yolk. But it was the Alligator with Garlic Sauce that made me smile. Clearly, alligator meat has arrived.
While my previous experiences with Louisiana offerings were probably more extensive than my traveling companions, I enjoyed watching their willingness to try it all. And the pride and ease with which the cooks used native animals, ingredients and family recipes simply confirmed Louisiana’s reputation for unique cuisine throughout the state. Now, if they could just figure out alligator sushi for my California friends.
Alexandria, Louisiana Offerings for the Tourist
Tunk’s Cypress Inn