In the lunch houses of Acadiana, okra is revered, rice with gravy is a given, and almost every dish gets smothered. Here menus change daily, but are the same every week. Here a full day’s caloric allowance can be had for often less than 10 bucks.
With few exceptions, steam tables and buffet lines are the focal point in Acadiana’s lunch houses. The food is almost uniformly smothered and darkened with gravy, for cooks in this part of the state adhere to two fundamental rules: start with the freshest ingredients possible, and brown the heck out of them to achieve the most naturally flavorful gravy possible.
Several of the cooks we interviewed believe so deeply in the superiority of fresh okra that they put up enough vegetables during harvest season to last throughout the year. Merline Herbert at the Creole Lunch House serves her smothered okra with chicken and sausage. Her rice and sugar come from producers up the road. She buys her sausage, tasso, and catfish from local artisans and growers. Ruby’s Café in Eunice, in the heart of Acadiana’s prairie, is comparable. Owners Curt Fontenot and Dwayne Vidrine source their seafood from fishermen, not middlemen.
David Billeaud of T-Coon’s and Dot Vidrine of Ruby’s grew up in families that operated meat markets. Most recall a time when the bulk of every family’s meat supply came from boucheries, the local name for communal hog or cow killings. The boucherie was an all-day event. Families and neighbors worked together to produce andouille, smoked sausage, boudin, tasso, ponce, neckbone stew, salt meat, and cracklings.
The places documented in this project are part diner, part meat-and-three. You might call this soul food, or you might call it country cooking. Here in Acadiana, this style of cooking and eating is called, simply, lunch.