LAFAYETTE, LA - How many times have you been on the brink of starvation and driven past a dead animal on the road, thinking to yourself, "If only I knew how to make that thing just a little more palatable, then I wouldn't be so hungry"? Probably never for most folks, but be honest with yourself...would opossum or racoon really be that bad if you knew that what you were about to eat was fresh and clean provided that it was unrecognizable on the plate? Okay, maybe not.
Jerry LeBreaux, a fifth generation Cajun cook and businessman, would beg to differ. For twenty-five years, he has prepared Cajun delicacies such as alligator, froglegs, and crawfish at his LaFayette restaurant, and to his knowledge nobody has ever complained about what goes into his specialty dishes. "They just lap it up and don't ask questions."
Granted, those kinds of critters are well-known staple components of the Cajun diet, things people on the bayous consume every day. Opossum, racoon, squirrel, and even skunk and armadillo are as well, but not as many outsiders are familiar enough with them to seriously consider them actual foods. "Oh, yeah, they are just as much a part of my menu as the regular stuff." LeBreaux admits. "But they are, let's say, an acquired taste."
Traditionally, LeBreaux and other similar restaurateurs have purchased the meats that go into their brand of cuisine from outside sources who make it a business of their own to kill the animals and dress them prior to LeBreaux buying the meat. However, LeBreaux has decided to start cutting out the middleman and cutting up the game himself. "It's just getting too expensive to buy prepared meats, so I'm gonna go out and get it my own damn self." he says proudly. "I don't want to have to raise prices, and this is one of the best ways to keep things affordable around here."
Even before his decision to acquire the meat himself, LeBreaux and his employees had been foraging for certain items in a rather unusual way, one which might scare off some customers from eating at his place if they knew the details. LeBreaux explains, "We had been going out at night to hunt small game like the coons and 'possums, since they are nocturnal. We've had only limited luck with that approach, so we came up with an alternative that seems to have exceeded our expectations."
Along about six in the morning every day, LeBreaux and his crew go out on the road...literally...and track down animals that "met an untimely demise" on the short end of a bumper. Each employee takes a ten-mile stretch of road on every major and minor highway outside of town and searches for anything that looks like it might be a recent kill. How do they tell? "If rigamortis hasn't set in yet, it's a keeper!" Billy Maveaux, the assistant manager, says with a toothless smile. "But even if they are a little stiff, they can still be useful."
On a given day, LeBreaux and his team find about twenty decent carcasses to work with, and they range in species from opossums to rabbits, from racoons to skunks, although the last on that list is a rather delicate catch. "It's got to be one that hasn't popped its stinker when it got hit." Maveaux explains, "Otherwise, we have to pass on it because the meat tastes a little gamey when its stinker goes off."
Gamey or rotten? One might be inclined to ask that, since this is roadkill they're dealing with, and it begs an important question about its freshness in general. LeBreaux insists they only use meats that were harvested at the peak of freshness, meaning the animals were hit just before they got there or at least a couple hours beforehand. "The key is to get out there when it's still cool out, just before the sun comes up enough to heat the road. Then we can be assured it's truly fresh." LeBreaux points out.
"One thing we avoid is an animal that has been either partially or completely flattened, because this indicates it's probably been there awhile. Although if it were found fresh, a newly flattened animal's meat would be tenderized quite sufficiently." Maveaux says, as he demonstrates with one that is way past its expiration date, now only a few centimeters thick and dried up. "If it looks like this, it's no good to us."
Some animals that are found too late and have started decomposing still have some value to the restaurant. "We often find a dead animal whose meat has spoiled but whose pelt or coat is still attractive, and we'll pick it up anyway to use for souvenirs, such as coon-skin caps and lucky rabbit's feet...not lucky for the rabbit, though!" Larry Boudreaux, the general manager, rationalizes.
"Hell, everything can have a use, no matter the condition. We even use the pelts of certain colored rabbits to make affordable hairpieces, which we call poor man's toupees. They really don't look that natural, but they do cover nicely. Two of my cousins and a great aunt wear one." Apparently, they're pretty big sellers at the gift shop next to the restaurant as well, as they claim to have sold over a hundred of these rugs to the follicly challenged last year alone.
Now that LeBreaux and his helpers have made the decision to supply their own meats for the indefinite future, what will they do if their roadkill supply dwindles or if they have a really bad day and don't find any fresh carcasses? "We'll try our hand at hunting them each morning." Maveaux suggests. "There are tons of critters out there just waiting to go into one of our big cookers. We shouldn't have to worry about it." But will the guests?
Jerry LeBreaux has always run a clean, healthy establishment. Health inspectors have never closed down LeBreaux's resturant for even the smallest infraction, but are they aware of where he gets his supplies? "They do know, and they always insist that we provide proper storage of our meats, at an acceptable temperature away from contaminants, so that's what we do. We fly by the rules, for our patrons' health and safety, and we won't deviate from that one bit."
How about those customers...do they know what they're putting in their mouths? "Some do, most don't, but that's the fun of my business." LeBreaux laughs. "They don't have to know what goes in our dishes to know that what they're eating is good authentic Cajun food. I match my creative talents in the kitchen with people's taste for exotic, unusual gourmet food. It's a winning combination."
"Whether or not people like to admit it, they have a natural need for what we call roadkill in today's world. Long before there were automobiles to run over wild animals, people used to hunt for food and bring it home to their caves." LeBreaux reflects. "Sometimes the pickings were pretty slim, so if they found something already killed just lying there on the ground, what did they do? They picked it up, dusted it off, and put it in their pouch to add to the meal that night."
"I'm basically just bridging the gap we all face between hunger and satisfaction, and I'm doing it the way our caveman ancestors did in the old days. The only difference now is I'm preparing it in a manner that appeals to the contemporary appetite, without the false stigma carelessly slapped on this delicious alternative food source that nobody wants to touch anymore because we're too progressive in our modern tastes."
Oh, did we fail to mention the name of Mr. LeBreaux's restaurant? It's called "The Roadkill Cafe". Indeed! "Customers have been thinking it's a joke all the while, like we couldn't possibly serve that stuff, but the whole time we've been doing exactly that." LeBreaux laughs. "I guess now I'll know who my most loyal customers really are."
One thing is certain...LeBreaux's place will either be out of business soon, or the assumption will be confirmed that people in Louisiana really don't care where their food comes from as long as it tastes good.