The restaurant may have “Cajun” in its name and the dish may have “Cajun seasoning” on it, but would a Cajun recognize it? In the novel I’m currently reading, Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance, Paul Thibodeaux has moved from Tiger Island, Louisiana, to Los Angeles….
Paul had found a job with a machine shop and boiler-repair business in Van Nuys, and after cramming for a week in the company library, he had tested out into a position that paid double what he had made at LeBlanc’s…. He decided to get used to Los Angeles, and his first attempt to do so was to locate a place he could eat on a daily basis, as he had in the Little Palace back home. The first time he walked into a restaurant, he asked for a poor boy, and the waitress looked at him as though he had lost his mind. She handed him a menu, which showed no red beans, gumbo, or étouffée. He looked up at the tanned waitress, feeling stupid and alien. He ordered a cup of coffee, then stared through the weak brew to the bottom of the cup, feeling naked without his food.
The next day he was driving on the beach highway south of the city when he saw a gold-lettered sign for a Cajun restaurant. He warily pulled into the parking lot, his appetite hopeful. Inside, he was seated in a dim, crowded dining room under a drooping net that held a few dried starfish, animals he had seen only in pictures. When the waiter brought the menu, Paul opened it and frowned.
“Do you need help with our selections?” The waiter was a healthy blond kid.
“What is all this stuff? I thought this was a Cajun place.” Paul looked past the boy at a tank of lobsters.
“Yes, sir, we have have authentic dishes from the bayou state. Today’s special is blackened swordfish.”
Paul stared at him blankly. “I never seen a swordfish in my whole life.”
The waiter motioned to the man at the next table and bent close. “It’s what the gentleman next to you is eating.”
“It’s all burned,” he cried.
“Not burned, sir. Blackened. It’s the most traditional way of cooking seafood among the Cajuns.”
“Someone’s been pulling your leg, man.” Paul went back to the menu and read the descriptions of bayou lamb, Cajun barbecued liver, and escargot de Lafayette. He found the word gumbo on the back page and ordered a large bowl. A half hour later his waiter brought a small cauldron of bitter juice so hot with Tabasco that after the third spoonful, Paul broke into a sweat.
His waiter glided past and asked, “How’s the gumbo?”
“Man,” Paul said, “you people must have spilled Tabasco in this stuff. My tongue’s been killed dead.”
The waiter laughed. “It takes time to develop a true Cajun palate.”
Paul pushed away the steaming bowl. “Let me tell you, it sure don’t take much time to ruin one” (80-81).