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Echos From Opelousas

Cheryl Gerber Photography

Opelousas has given the world Paul Prudhomme and zydeco. Both are Cajun-influenced, with lots of spice.

Prudhomme was clearly one of the past century’s most important chefs. When done right his Blackened Redfish was an exquisite dish – so much so that the Gulf of Mexico was once in danger of being depleted of the species and a moratorium on fishing them had to be established. To create a dish that is so popular that it empties the Gulf is quite a tribute to the chef – and perhaps to the fish.

A point that has been overlooked in the coverage is that Prudhomme, who died in October, didn’t just make Cajun cooking famous, he redefined it into something Cajun in spirit but of a new age. I call it “Nouveau Cajun.”

Cajuns of old did not blacken their fish and, for most, redfish, which comes from the Gulf, was not a common meal. More common was the seafood of the bayous and rivers. They would eat catfish, gaspergou, shrimp and, increasingly, crawfish. They were also meat-eaters, especially pork, and masters of the boucheries from which a multitude of pork products were made. If they splashed hot sauce on their food, it was not because cayenne pepper grew wild in their yards but because they bought a bottle at the store just like the rest of us.

Prudhomme, a native of Opelousas, took the sprit of his region, but developed the flavors particularly through working at such a pronounced chef’s mill as Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.

From there he made his own creation. Cajun Country gave him the image; New Orleans gave him a setting at which he could attract global attention.
His French Quarter restaurant, K-Paul’s, became an epicenter for a hot (literally) version of a native cuisine. The lines to get in were so long that locals, who did not like the restaurant’s practice (until expansion) of group seating, stayed away, yet they appreciated Prudhomme and the impact he was having on South Louisiana.

Prudhomme globalized the image of Cajun food being hot and spicy. Another New Orleans entrepreneur, Al Copeland, had also added fire. He applied it to fried chicken and called it Cajun-style. Copeland even added dirty rice, a classic Cajun side dish.

Truth is, Popeye’s chicken could more accurately be linked to Prudhomme’s Nouveau Cajun, than to what the early Cajuns often preferred: chicken stewed to create a thick gravy to go over rice.

All food, like all music, is ultimately a fusion. Prudhomme had the genius to fuse the right ingredients and create a method of preparation that would become classic. For both food and music there is often magic from turning up the heat.

 

 

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