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A Cajun Homecoming: Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler…en Portland

Along with fiddleheads, which we shouted out recently, another Spring delicacy showed up locally in the past few weeks. But it’s not local, although it illustrates an interesting connection to Maine foodways, so bear with me.

Harbor Fish has reciprocity agreements with a slew of fish markets nationwide and around the world, I’m not sure the actual mechanics, maybe it’s a proprietary secret. If there is a groundswell of demand, I will look into it. You will notice the fish market regularly features fresh fish from Hawaii, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, Blue Crabs from Chesapeake Bay, etc. I describe that lobsters (and Maine bluefin tuna, oysters, scallops, elvers (baby eels), and urchin) travel all over the world via air freight, and other fish markets abroad send their stuff back on the return flights. I’m pretty sure it’s an oversimplification, but essentially true.

We get Redfish from the Gulf, Spanish and King Mackerel, shrimp, and Sheepshead, all of which I have seen on ice in the market’s “edible natural history diorama,” as I like to call it. Having moved to Portland from Texas, I have been a longtime lover of southern culinary expression, especially the booming 1980s staple, Cajun food. My training in French cooking essentially came via Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Cookbook, published in 1984.

 

a man holding a book

My copy is well-thumbed, with food and grease-stains. Growing up on (and in) the water in NYC and Long Island, and working in waterside restaurants through high school and college, it was how we did things during that crucial period of my personal development when I began cooking for myself.

a pan filled with meat and vegetables cooking on a stove

Back to this spring. I bought a couple pounds of crayfish (called “crawdads,” “crawfish,” or “mudbugs” all over the South.) They are a spring staple and a treat, served informally and family style on brown paper, poured onto the table to pick through over conversation by hand. You only eat the tails, they are something like 1/8th-scale lobsters, like a model airplane, and are a staple in gumbos, jambalayas, etoufées, and creole dishes. Got your mouth watering, right? I steamed them in Cajun spice (cayenne pepper, garlic, and thyme), and shelled them, adding the tails and shell broth to a rice and vegetable casserole resembling jambalaya, just without ham and with sautéed local flounder instead. The vegetables were green peppers, onions, celery, and tomato, the last three being the ubiquitous “holy trinity” of Cajun food. (Jambon is how one says “ham” en francais, á la ya means “with rice.” “Ya” being “rice” in a West African language brought to Louisiana by enslaved captive cooks, who are responsible for much of Southern cuisine. Yes, we North Americans are more culturally African American than we all realize or liked to admit until recently.)

a plate of food with rice meat and vegetables

So nothing could be more different than Maine cooking with its mild spices (butter and milk) and local seafood, right? Some of you know where this is going…

Well, the Cajuns were originally from Acadia! “Cajun” is how you pronounce “Acadien” with a proper Western Louisiana drawl! Acadie was New France north of the Kennebec River up to Western Newfoundland in the early colonial days. War with the English resulted in the loss of coastal New France, and the population was shipped off forcibly in 1755, and many resettled in the nearest coastal French colony where they could make a living as fishing folk, in the area around Lafayette and Houma, Louisiana. Good old Portland native son, the poet Henry Longfellow conveyed the Acadian exodus most prominently in his 19th century-length epic poem, “Evangeline,” which I will quote only briefly, as it is book-length by today’s standards,

Welcome once more to a home, that is better perchance than the old one! Here no hungry winter congeals our blood like the rivers; Here no stony ground provokes the wrath of the farmer. Smoothly the ploughshare runs through the soil, as a keel through the water…

No King George of England shall drive you away from your homesteads, Burning your dwellings and barns, and stealing your farms and your cattle.

Believe it or not, Quebecois Maine culinary traditions are an influential component of Cajun cuisine, along with indigenous, Caribbean, West African, French, and Latin American foodways. Portland’s world-class restaurant scene didn’t just pop up overnight to make a big splash on the national culinary scene in 2010 or so. Our inheritances are substantial and venerable, and they exist all around us in plain sight if one knows where to look. What I love about the many vernacular restaurants in town is that one can really read local culture and history direct from one’s plate. And the food is high-quality, given the proximity of the food supply, our genuine net-to-table supply chain, even in our more humble, venerable mom-and-pop institutions, serving solid, New England staples.

Being from NYC via Texas, it took me a while to sample the Seafood Chili at Gilbert’s Chowder House. They didn’t hire a historical consultant like me to consult on their menu, they just did what they have always done, listened to their patrons’ feedback, put food together the way it tasted right, the way they had always done it, and passed it down in families, maybe granny consulted a cookbook somewhere along the way. I recently asked Jamie Gilbert, proprietor at Gilbert’s, about his family history; they are from Eastport, Maine. Despite my suspicions, “Gilbert” is pronounced with a hard “G” and “T,” not in the softer French manner, but who knows, given how things change over centuries. The chowders are salt of the earth, growing right out of life on the wharves and the beaches of the distant past, invented by necessity while drying and salting cod and raking clams. But chili? Hang on, suspend your disbelief. Traditionally, Gilbert’s Seafood Chili has been spicy, uncharacteristic of Maine tastes, and supposedly, historically determined by Jamie’s uncle, Eddie Gilbert’s mood, who personally used to make the chowder daily at 4 AM. (I am never in a good mood if I’m awake at 4 AM.)

The chili, like the dairy-based seafood chowder, is made with plentiful local lobster, fish, clams, and Maine shrimp. Lo and behold, this “chili” is made with tomatoes, onions, and CELERY, the same holy trinity of Cajun food — but up here verging on Acadia. So I tasted it and immediately detected that primordial connection between Maine and Louisiana. The chili at Gilbert’s is real and deeply embedded in Maine’s foodways and cultural identity. It represents very real historical continuity and authenticity, right there in plain sight. I tell people they camouflage Seafood Creole as chili by adding beans, topping it with shredded cheddar, and serving it with tortilla chips. But the homage to New France and les Acadiens is unmistakable. Give it a try and let us know what you think!

a hot dog and fries on a table

Other local spots for Cajun and Louisiana cuisine: Hot Suppa, (which has the best key lime pie special I have ever eaten anywhere, featuring a unique coconut crust), the magnificent Po’ Boys and Pickles sandwich shop on Forest Ave., the venerable Bayou Kitchen, holding down the Acadien fort these many years, and the Bayou Kitchen annex in the new Cherished Pub up Washington Ave., where I have been playing with my traditional jazz band, the Hadacol Bouncers, of late. There are reams more to write about Maine’s Francophone heritage and deep connections to Quebec, but I will give it a rest for now and pick up the thread at some point, and it’s not just poutine!

We receive no compensation here or on any of our walks for highlighting the places we love and are inspired by, these are my obervations and thoughts alone!

-Ray Sapirstein, Portland walking guide, food thinker, and historian.

a man standing in front of a store

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