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True Grits
December 2013

"Y'all have come all the way from England to eat the food here in Breaux Bridge?" "Well, in a way, yes," I replied. As we stared up at the shack's tiny hatch the woman, only her head and shoulders visible, shook her head with disbelief but said confidently, "Well, you won't be disappointed. I guarantee it."

Breaux Bridge is a poor town, neglected and rubbish-strewn. A loan shark and a Dollar General thrift store flanked our lunch destination; a hundred yards down the road our car was parked opposite a flea market and an unloved "La nd r  te". But we were here to try what the place is famed for: seafood.

It was the first day of our gastronomic tour of the Deep South and, significantly, our first lunch stop. We drove into the Louisianan town, "the crawfish capital of the world", at about 1pm but the place was shrouded in an early dusk: it was October, hurricane season, and angry-looking black clouds threatened to disturb our al fresco meal. 

The Creole Lunchbox has two makeshift outdoor tables, and we took one of them, eyeing the ever-darkening sky from beneath a distressingly flimsy parasol. Occasional whoops of laughter emanated from the shack as a line of cars waited patiently for packed lunches to appear from the hatch of the cubbyhole. From the same hatch came a shout for us to collect our food: sadly, no crawfish (crayfish), but crab-smothered shrimp (prawns) and a seafood platter, comprising deep-fried catfish, deep-fried shrimp, jambalaya and hushpuppies. 

Everything came in Styrofoam takeaway boxes and we were given that plastic cutlery that is just slightly too small, but the quality of the food belied its mundane accoutrements. Fresh, plump shrimp covered in a rich sauce thickened with a crab-based stock was a revelation. The expert use of spicing in the dish, here cayenne pepper and paprika, enhanced the natural flavour of the shellfish while keeping my palate interested — the perfect use of chilli as seasoning. Our seafood platter was equally delicious. I couldn't say I was particularly looking forward to the catfish; I've cooked it before and it has always retained that suggestion of silty riverbed that is, frankly, pretty unappetising. This, however, was light and covered in a spiced batter that once again lifted the (altogether pleasant) flavour of the fish. Similarly, the jambalaya — a Louisianan rice dish dotted with seafood and/or meat — and the hushpuppies were highly spiced treats. Hushpuppies are very much like onion bhajis without the onion. That is, they are deep-fried balls of spiced cornmeal batter. They are so-called, as one legend has it, because during the American Civil War, advancing Confederate troops would quieten their dogs by tossing them these delicious snacks.

We took the scenic route from Breaux Bridge to New Orleans, abandoning the I-10 highway and swinging south to take in low-country Louisiana. We passed through St Martinville and New Iberia: single-storey, wooden towns with pretty antebellum high streets and marquee signs praising the Almighty — or the local high-school American football team. We were now in the Mississippi River Delta proper and it was truly wet. Creeks and bayous skirted the road; the Spanish moss that clings to live oaks glistened while luminescent snow-white egrets punctuated the half-gloom.

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