Let me just say: being a Southerner in California — and no, I don’t mean I’m from El Centro — makes me sometimes feel like I’m from another country entirely. And being Cajun in Southern Cali? I might as well be from another planet. The whole concept of eating crawfish, listening to “weird” accordion music, and putting red pepper on every dish makes me an anomaly among my friends.
I’ve grown accustomed to scoffing at anyone’s attempt to make decent Cajun food. If I want good gumbo, I go to Louisiana. But occasionally I am pleasantly surprised to find an authentic pocket of Cajunness right here in San Diego.
Gator By the Bay Has My Vote
Each Mother’s Day weekend, there’s a Cajun food and music festival in San Diego called Gator by the Bay. I’d never been because when I was married, we would always visit my ex’s family in Mississippi that weekend, and there I could get authentic Cajun food (not at overinflated prices). But this year, being a newly-single Girl Raised in the South, I was pleased when I had the opportunity to go to the festival as a travel writer.
With Rose in tow (she’s always game for whatever I throw her way), I headed to Gator by the Bay. The festival is held on Spanish Landing, a strip of a park along the bay right across from the airport. We parked in the airport’s long-term parking, but with a sad lack of signage, we weren’t sure if there were a better place to park (we were promised a shuttle, but it never appeared).
As soon as we entered the gate, we were greeted by banjo and harmonica. A bluegrass band was tucked away under a canopy of trees, with several benches set up in front of the stage. We listened appreciatively, then moved on.
I was eager to find the crawfish, my holy grail, but before I could make my way toward the food booths, a handsome young man stopped us to demonstrate his heated neck pillow. Normally I avoid vendors at these types of events, but his good looks combined with a headache I was nursing (a few too many beverages in La Jolla the night before) had me open to his pitch. Once he placed the large heated wrap on my neck, I was a goner.
One very expensive heating pad each later, we continued toward the food. No music could deter us. We needed crawfish, and we needed them now!
First You Pinch the Tail
Surrounded by booths selling boudin (delicious spicy sausagelike item stuffed with ground meat and rice), alligator on a stick, and gumbo, we found the crawfish booth. I cringed when I saw the prices ($15 for about 1.5 pounds; $25 for about 3) and tried not to think of how little this would cost in Louisiana. Still, you pay what you gotta pay.
Rose had never eaten crawfish, so I taught her just like I’d taught Max when he was about five:
“First, you pinch the tail and twist it from the body. Remove the first section of the tail, then hold the tail while you pull the meat out. If you want to suck the head for the fat, you can. I don’t.”
She needed only a few demonstrations before she was cracking into those crawfish like a pro. I was pleasantly surprised to find them authentically seasoned and not dummied down for less spice-driven tastebuds.
I spoke to the gents who innately knew when a batch of crawfish was done and pulled them out of the scalding water to cool. They were from Opelousas, just a stone’s throw from where my mother grew up and my grandmother still lives. It felt like coming home, even though I’d never lived in Louisiana. Finding someone who speaks your culture language when you’re far from home is a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Rounding It Out With The Two-Step
I was pretty much satisfied with the festival after the crawfish, and ready to curl up in bed, enjoying the tingling sensation of pepper embedded in my fingers, but we continued on through the festival. Glad we did. On the other end of the park was some killer Zydeco music. If you’ve never heard Zydeco, you might not be sure what to think, what with one guy playing accordion like his life depends on it and another rubbing a spoon up and down a washboard on his chest.
Clearly the audience knew what to do: dance. A hundred people — surely who all couldn’t be Cajun — two-stepped and spun one another like it was Mardi Gras. I gave into the infectious beat and did a little dance myself.
I may be thousands of miles away from my Cajun culture, but getting a slice of it for the day was so fulfilling.
I received comped tickets for Gator by the Bay, but my opinions are my own.