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Friday, October 28, 2011

On eminently edible Abbeville

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 4:09 PM

Crossing the Vermilion River into Abbeville

Those who have been following our content here this fall may have noticed I’ve been pushing Louisiana festivals as good food-focused road trips. This is no coincidence. Given the way the food and overall culture of south Louisiana get so entwined, making the time to get out of town and check out a big feast somewhere down the road is a great way to explore the unique heritage of our region.

I’ve racked up a lot of miles in search of iconic Louisiana food, and while I don’t regret a bite of it, in the future when I need a concentrated dose of our distinctive local flavor I might just drive straight to Abbeville, a place I’ve come to love as one of the great eating towns of Acadiana.

You’ll find Abbeville at the end of a two-hour road trip west from New Orleans, about 20 miles south of Lafayette along the Vermilion River, surrounded by cane fields, cattle ranches and fishing villages. With a population of about 12,000 people, it’s a small town with an historic core and an outsized culinary personality, one that will be in full bloom next weekend, Nov. 5 and 6, with oysters, omelets and more.

Giant containers at the Steens Syrup Mill
  • Ian McNulty
  • Giant syrup stacks at the Steen's Syrup Mill

Signs of food heritage are everywhere in this town. Take a spin around Abbeville’s downtown streets and you’ll spot the Riviana rice mill. That’s where the Water Maid and Mahatma rice brands were first developed in the 1920s. In autumn you can’t miss the caramelized aroma emanating from Steen’s Syrup Mill, the wellspring for that thick-as-honey, saddle-dark cane syrup that so many Southern dessert recipes call for by name. The century-old Steen’s still cooks down local cane at this small mill wedged between the Vermilion and the towering spire of St. Mary Magdelen Church right in the heart of town.

A dozen raw and cold from Dupuys Oyster Shop
  • Ian McNulty
  • A dozen raw and cold from Dupuy's Oyster Shop

But for many, Abbeville is first synonymous with oysters. After all, they’ve been harvested from nearby Vermilion Bay for generations. Dupuy's Oyster Shop doesn't look like much of a landmark from the street, but under the vinyl siding you’ll find a cozy, well-run seafood restaurant that dates back to 1869. Across the river there’s Shucks, a bigger, modern place with the novelty of a drive-through window for oysters on the go.

Part of the pile of shells outside Dupuys Oyster Shop
  • Ian McNulty
  • Part of the pile of shells outside Dupuy's Oyster Shop

Louisiana oysters are starting to hit their stride at this time of year, and — believe it or not — in Abbeville crawfish won’t be far behind. With so many crawfish farms spread across the nearby Acadian countryside, towns like Abbeville typically get their crawfish much earlier than we’re accustomed to in New Orleans, often as early as November, when local joints like the ramshackle Richard’s Seafood Patio (1516 South Henry St., Abbeville, 337-893-1693) and the newer restaurant Cajun Claws start drawing crowds.

With all this edible heritage, it seems appropriate that the town’s biggest public party is fixated on food, and next weekend, Nov. 5 and 6, marks Abbeville’s Giant Omelette Celebration, a festival that culminates on Sunday with a parade led by local notables clad in chef’s whites. They march through downtown bearing wicker baskets full of some 5,000 eggs and endless lengths of French bread. They proceed to cook a colossal omelet on a 12-foot-wide skillet set up in the middle of the street, pushing the eggs around with wooden spatulas as long as oars. Portions are later divvied up and served to the crowd.

Or course that omelette is the star, but the other festival food, available for sale throughout the weekend, is nothing to scoff at. Many of the vendors are local caterers, restaurants and grocery stores, so there are gumbo varieties galore, boudin in its various permutations, seafood pies and pastas, jambalaya and etouffee and such festival favorites as the “fried eggplant volcano.”

People dance in the streets and they cheer the ceremonial procession of chefs and food, as well as the high-stepping ladies of the Tabasco Girls Dance Team, who always makes an appearance at this party.

Rice and cane syrup, oysters, crawfish and an omelet big enough to dam the Vermilion River itself — if you’re looking for a foodie road trip around south Louisiana, it’s hard to beat this charming little place, a town I’ve come to think of as eminently, edible Abbeville.

Giant Omelette Celebration
Nov. 5-6
Abbeville, La.

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