Tuesday, August 21

We Saved You a Plate

A church picnic in Yanceyville, NC, 1940. Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), courtesy of the Library of Congress.
"We Saved You a Plate" is a weekly series showcasing an article from Gravy or Cornbread Nation, or a past symposium presentation. We serve it up, you gulp it down. 

This week's piece comes from Gravy # 40, spring 2011. 

The High Art of the Plate Lunch
Easy conversation and difficult menu choices at T-Coon's
by Francis Lam

The racoons torment us at night. They arrived a few weeks ago, tired of the winter, founding their camp in our ceiling. Under them, we sleep, snug and in love, until the scratching starts. Then Christine jumps, screeching, panting from fear. I moan. I try to calm her; she flails. I pound the walls. We wail.

And yet, despite our shivery-eyed terror of small woodland creatures, our hearts still melt at the sight of one particular cigar-smoking, apron wearing, pot-stirring raccoon. Just a mention of T-Coon, a whiskered, ring-eyed restaurant mascot will make Christine suck in an excited breath and sing, "I love T-Coon's!" We smile and dance, full of remembrance of meatball fricassees past.

My friend Pableaux Johnson brought me to T-Coon's in Lafayette as the first stop on a forty-eight-hour tour of his Acadiana homeland. For a trip that would involve the eating of sackfuls of cracklins and unpretty lengths of boudin off of truck tailgates, it was important to start with a proper meal, and so we came for meats smothered in two languages.

Photo by Denny Culbert

"This is the high art of the plate lunch," Pableaux declared, the pronouncement hovering over his plate of smothered beef. The crawfish étoufée tasted of cream and pepper and the sweet, clean earth of mudbugs. And I swore I saw a halo ringing a big ol' meatball with chocolate-brown gravy that seeped into a mound of Louisiana rice, chewy and angelically white. As the flavors soaked our brains, Pableaux said that these were the tastes he grew up on, "like what I ate in school, back when little old lunch ladies still cooked for the kids." He picked up a roll, imbued with a fresh squishiness and a spirit of memory.

I looked at the line to the cafeteria-style steam table, crooking around to the iced-tea station. In it were young people and old, people away from work for an hour, trays in hand, making easy conversation and difficult menu choices. A chest-high pile of fried catfish and shrimp? Red beans? Dressing—or rice and gravy?

Man, that rice and gravy.

David "T-Coon" Billeaud. Photo by Denny Culbert.

T-Coon's is a deeply Cajun restaurant, but by that I mean that it is a place of this community, not a cayenne-dusted cliché. It's a distinction that owner David Billeaud, T-Coon himself, takes seriously: In a "thanks-for-coming: note on his menu, he makes it a point to tell yu that he doesn't call his food "Cajun."

"What they call 'Cajun' is not even close," he explained to me. "I like to call my food 'zydeco cooking.' Because what the hell is zydeco? At least they have nothing to stereotype it to." But he continued, careful to stake his claim: "Now, if you gotta know if I'm Cajun or not, you got a mental issue. I'm from five generations in Broussard. I cook in black iron pots."

"This is old-time grandma cooking," Billeaud continued, and, unprompted, he started telling me about his slow-simmered catfish courtbuillon, At its very mention, without even a pause for breath, he spelled out the name of the dish, so I wouldn't write it "cubuyon" or something equally foolish. (The catfish, by the way, may or may not come from his own lines, depending on who you are and why you want to know.) Then he spoke of his fricassee, which he pronounced as if it should be written out in three words.

T-Coon grew up in his family's meat market. "I never worked in a restaurant til I opened mine eighteen years ago. But I knew how to cook. I've been stuffing pork roasts since I'm knee-high." One of seven children, he learned how to make a roux from his father, who put him on a stool at the stove just to give him something to do, in the way most parents drop their kids in front of the TV. "We live to eat. That's just how we are," he said.

I took notice of the word "we." He was starting to let on what it means to be Cajun. "For us, everything's done around food," he said. "If someone comes, you make sure they eat your best stuff. That's how we're raised, that's just how we do."

If someone comes, you make sure they eat your best stuff. I liked that, wrote it down. As we were wrapping up our conversation—Billeaud's catfish lines needed tending to—I told him that his potato salad, which tastes like deviled eggs in starchy disguise, might be my girlfriend's favorite food. He let his catfish weight and told me how to make it, right then. He was making sure we'll be eating his best stuff.

Francis Lam is the features editor at GiltTaste.com and currently a judge on Bravo's Top Chef Masters: Season 4.