The Cajun Issue

James Lee Burke

Author James Lee Burke

It’s just now lunchtime at Victor’s Cafeteria. A sunny glow filters down through skylights into the inviting dining room where hungry customers, filled with anticipation from the aromas of smothered pork chops and fried shrimp, queue up along one paneled wall under a sign that reads, “Dave Robicheaux Eats Here.” It is unclear whether Dave — or his jolly and mercurial sidekick Clete Purcel — is in the building, but it matters not. In my imagination both are present and very much alive for the legion of fans, who come from all over the world to this family restaurant on New Iberia’s Main Street — just for a chance to walk in the footsteps of the colorful characters created by the town’s favorite son, James Lee Burke.

Known as “The Robicheaux Series” in the world of popular fiction, Burke’s crime novels first appeared in 1987 with The Neon Rain, which debuted the troubled, quixotic figure of former New Orleans police detective Dave Robicheaux, as he brings the region’s bad guys to justice while facing the daily struggle of his own alcoholism and traumatic past. At the end of the second book in the series, Heaven’s Prisoners (1988), Burke relocates his fictional hero to his hometown of New Iberia, where Dave begins work for the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department. In 1990 the third Robicheaux novel, Black Cherry Blues, won an Edgar Award, mystery writing’s highest honor and an undeniable sign that Burke had “made it.”

New Iberia has benefited from James Lee Burke’s writing. Of course, tourists have always been drawn to antebellum mansions like The Shadows along scenic Bayou Teche. And foodies in search of boudin or shrimp Creole, armed with Macon Fry and Julie Posner’s fabulous 1992 Cajun Country Guide, have come for the town’s culinary treasures. But the Robicheaux series, which has been “translated into almost every language in the world,” has exposed the town to a far bigger audience, culminating in 2016 in what is now called the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, a celebration of the region’s culture that unfolds the first week in April each year.

Visitors to New Iberia seldom leave disappointed, entranced either by the picture postcard beauty of the town that Burke describes in such loving detail or by the food that they eat during their stay. Victor’s is the most obvious first stop for the Robicheaux faithful. It’s difficult to go wrong with its à la carte offerings of Creole and Cajun comfort food served in an airy space built a century ago, when it housed a jewelry store. Diners with bigger appetites might, like Clete Purcel in 2003’s Last Car to Elysian Fields, pile their plate high “with dirty rice and gravy, kidney beans, and two deep-fried pork chops.” Likewise, hungry fans make the pilgrimage to the nearby Bon Creole, an unassuming, blocky building whose humble decor lends an authentic vibe to some of the best renditions of regional specialties.

And after enjoying these food landmarks, Burke’s fans owe it to themselves to dig deeper into the role food plays in his novels, in expressing the very culture and history that they came to New Iberia to find in the first place. His critics and fellow writers agree that what makes Burke’s body of work stand above and beyond most other crime fiction is his lyrical depiction of South Louisiana, one that is by turns love letter and sorrowful lament. It’s no accident that food is a subtle yet important ingredient in Burke’s expression of the folk customs that make the region distinctive. For visitors, understanding the relationship culture has with food and setting offers an opportunity for a more fundamental appreciation of what it means to love, celebrate and even mourn Louisiana in the way that Dave Robicheaux does.

The bait shop and boat rental business that Dave runs with Batist, an ageless Afro-Creole man who had once known Dave’s father, becomes a frequent setting to express a relationship with the outdoors — and food. Dave describes, in 1992’s A Stained White Radiance, starting the fire for the grilled chicken and sausages he sells to fishermen, and how he “then fixed coffee and hot milk and bowls of Grape-Nuts for the three of us, and we ate breakfast on one of the telephone-spool tables under an umbrella out on the dock.” Dave might eat a mass-produced convenience food for breakfast but, as he does so often in the series, he eschews the Keurig or even the microwave in favor of the local ritual of heating a pan of milk on the stove for café au lait.

And a simple “fried-egg-and-ham sandwich on French bread” carried out of Victor’s in a styrofoam container to be eaten at a “giant crab-boil pavilion” in a small city park on the opposite side of Bayou Teche transports the reader into the lush beauty of a Louisiana winter where “the camellias along the bayou were in bloom and looked like red paper flowers inside the grayness of the day.”

Both bad guys and good guys are constantly grilling food in the Robicheaux series, sending “smoke from meat fires” into the atmosphere. The sporting pastimes of fishing, crabbing and boiling shrimp act as a sort of regional universal language of eating for Burke. A thermos of coffee resting on the seat on an early morning drive in the “dampness of predawn” resonates with anyone who has headed out to a fish camp or duck blind, just as unwrapping po’boy sandwiches for lunch also rings true — at least in South Louisiana, it does. These are the routine acts of moving, doing and eating that simultaneously unfold during daily life in Acadiana.

As any fan knows, history is central to Dave Robicheaux’s understanding of the world, defining the present and playing a critical plot element in just about all of the novels. It is unsurprising that food helps Burke to transport his readers to a time in Louisiana that some say is either vanishing or has vanished completely already.

Cush-cush (or coush coush) is a breakfast dish once common in old-time Cajun homes. A few keystrokes online will reveal numerous recipes for it, but they all start with a mixture of cornmeal, milk, salt and, oftentimes, baking powder. It’s then fried and stirred in a cast-iron skillet with oil until it resembles a crumbly cereal. John Folse — among many others — suggests topping it with milk or cane syrup (traditional touches). Folk tradition suggests the name comes from the North African semolina-based couscous, an idea reinforced by similarities of look and texture. “It’s hard to imagine that a dish so simply prepared could taste so good,” notes Folse.

In Crusader’s Cross in 2018, an older Dave wistfully reflects on how he and his half-brother Jimmie waited before breakfast for his mother, who “would return from the barn smelling of manure and horse sweat, a pail of frothy milk in one hand and an armful of brown eggs” and who would wash her hands and arms in the sink before filling “our bowls with cush-cush.” We see the healthy and even curative aura of such humble fare in Black Cherry Blues when a character takes in a motherless child: “She raised Tee Beau as her own, fed him cush-cush with a spoon to make him strong…” Later in the same novel, Dave and his young adopted daughter Alafair are in Montana, where he prepares her cush-cush for breakfast. The scene conveys what Louisianians living elsewhere keenly understand — that no matter how far we stray, food is a ritual that helps us cling to a piece of home.

No Robicheaux pilgrimage is complete without visiting the site of Provost’s Pool Room, today the home of an upscale restaurant called Clementine on Main. In Last Car to Elysian Fields Dave’s character reminisces about going there as a boy with his father on Saturday afternoons, in an “era when the plank floors were strewn with football betting cards and green sawdust and the owner served free robin gumbo out of big pots that he set on an oilcloth-covered pool table.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, robins, like most other songbirds, became protected species by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Yet custom is often more powerful than the law, a thread woven into James Lee Burke’s depictions of the past. It’s no accident that the gambling and the robin gumbo, both equally illegal, appear in the same sentence!

Nostalgic reflections on cush-cush and robin gumbo aid Burke in his creation of what cultural critic Richard Slotkin has termed “mythic space,” or a place in our historical imagination that is larger than life and full of the emotions and meaning that define who we are as a people. The term suits perfectly the Acthafalaya Basin that Burke constructs within the mind of Dave Robicheaux: a mythical Acadiana before mainstream American culture took over, a place defined by food, its semi-aquatic landscape, and the proud people who inhabited it.

“I wanted to drive deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp,” laments Dave in 2002’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, “past the confines of reason, into the past, into a world of lost dialects, gator hunters, busthead whiskey, moss harvesters, Jax beer, trotline runners, moonshiners, muskrat trappers, cockfights, bloodred boudin, a jigger of Jim Beam lowered into a frosted schooner of draft, outlaw shrimpers, dirty rice black from the pot, hogmeat cooked in rum, Pearl and Regal and Grand Prize and Lone Star iced down in washtubs, crawfish boiled with cob corn and artichokes, all of it on the tree-flooded, alluvial rim of the world, where the tides and the course of the sun were the only measures of time.” In this single rambling sentence, Burke paints a picture of a Cajun subculture mostly vanished today. Yet we might try to re-create this mythic space on our own front porch by placing beer on ice, boiling crawfish in the yard, and cooking a pot of dirty rice, all in an effort to reconnect with who we once were or, perhaps, wish that we had the chance to be.

James Lee Burke turned 82 recently, and Dave Robicheaux is growing older too, it seems. In January 2019, the prolific Mr. Burke published The New Iberia Blues, the 22nd novel in the Dave Robicheaux series that has run, astonishingly, for over 30 years.