New Orleans, La. –
The Mississippi River's great inundation of the Atchafalaya Basin brought this part of Louisiana to the attention of a lot of people watching events unfold around the country, and even for plenty of people here in Louisiana it revealed the basin in a new light.
For many of those intimate with south Louisiana eating, however, no introduction is necessary. The Atchafalaya Basin, and the communities in it, are writ large across the food map that comes to mind for these avid eaters whenever they consider Louisiana.
Let's take Krotz Springs. This is a tiny town astride Hwy. 190 in the northern stretches of Acadiana. It's usually a pretty quiet place, best known by lead-footed drivers as one of the region's most notorious speed trap spots. But it's also along the Atchafalaya River and right in the outflow path of Morganza Spillway, that enormous valve the government opened this spring to relieve levees from Baton Rouge on down. There's an oil refinery in Krotz Springs that's gotten some attention during this time of high water, but some of us have a gas station on our minds when the town's name comes up. That would be Billy's Mini Mart, which looks like just another fuel stop along a country highway until you pull open the door to discover a magnificent display of Cajun meats, a road-ready charcuterie of pork products. Those in the know set this place aside during road trips for a boudin stop, and some even plan their travel route around it. Of particular note are Billy's fried boudin balls, with their burly crusts and spicy pork and rice filling.
Heading downstream now, the village of Henderson is well protected from the Atchafalaya Basin by a high, thick levee. But some of this town's essential attractions lie on the other side of that levee, on the so-called wet side. These are the marinas and swamp tour docks that serve as access points for the incredible wilderness of the basin, the largest swamp in North America. Many of these businesses also double as restaurants and bars as they've sprouted entrepreneurial additions and appendages over the years and here real deal Cajun culture is put through its paces each weekend. Despite their seemingly precarious positions on the wrong side of levee protection, these places have fared well, with flood levels staying lower than first feared, so Magee's Landing is still cooking its etouffees and gumbos.
And then there's Belle River, the waterway and the town named for it, located deep, deep within the basin confines. Both are synonymous with great crawfish. For people who have preferences not only for how their crawfish are prepared but for where their crawfish were harvested, Belle River is hallowed ground - or, rather, sacred waters. There's hope that the enormous influx of fresh water from the river diversion will actually help extend the season for crawfish all over the basin, so if you're still getting great crawfish in July this year, you might have the river's flood stage to thank.
Can the Louisiana food fixation really matter when communities are contending with so much disruption these days? Well, I think so. The specific food of our region is an elemental part of Louisiana culture, as vital and interconnected to life here as weather and geography. Despite recent difficulties, life goes on in the Atchafalaya Basin and, as always in Louisiana, food is part of the story.
Billy's Mini Mart
24467 Hwy. 190, Krotz Springs, La., 337-566-2318
1337 Henderson Levee Rd., Henderson, La., 337-228-2384