April 2009
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Family Brings Cajun Flavor to Black Belt

John Broussard has become known throughout Alabama’s Black Belt for his restaurant in the tiny town of Faunsdale.

 

John Broussard spent his first 11 years deep in Cajun country, but he’s never really left it behind in the half-century since his family moved to Alabama’s Black Belt where crawfish were as alien to local folks as New York cheesecakes.

Members of the Broussard family, who trace their ancestry to descendants of exiles from a French colony in Canada, quickly adapted to their new environment, but stayed close to their roots.

They raised dairy cattle in Louisiana and still do in Alabama, along with catfish, soybeans and other row crops. Whenever the urge struck, however, they’d make native dishes to savor the food and their heritage.

 

Crawfish lovers dig in at a boil that brought lip-smacking smiles. Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry

Friends were aware of their Cajun backgrounds, but few ever heard of crawfish, let alone tasted any of the bottom-feeding crustaceans.

That began to change when Broussard decided to build a crawfish pond to augment his thriving catfish business. It was as much for his family’s enjoyment as anyone else’s, but he quickly discovered that wouldn’t last long.

His friends couldn’t get enough of the Cajun delicacy and thousands mark their calendars for when to head for this pit stop in the road about halfway between Demopolis and Selma just off U.S. Highway 80.

The Alabama Crawfish Festival will be held for the 18th consecutive year — on April 17-18 —- just behind Broussard’s popular restaurant in the sleepy little town where the population explodes two days a year.

According to the 2000 Census, Faunsdale has 96 residents. According to Broussard and others in the know, Faunsdale averages 20,000 or more visitors during the two days of the festival.

Boiled crawfish aren’t the only things attracting the big crowds. Country, rock, blues and other forms of music provide a huge outdoor jukebox throughout a weekend where the good times roll from 10 a.m. to midnight and, at times, beyond.

Crawfish like these will be served at the annual Alabama Crawfish Festival in Faunsdale on April 17-18. Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry

 
   

Admission is only $5, but Broussard said his traditional $5 a plate for crawfish, an ear of corn and a boiled potato may have to be adjusted. He’s thinking of increasing the plate by another $1.

"Expenses keep going up," he said, during an interview with the Cooperative Farming News inside Ca-John’s Faunsdale Bar and Grill which serves as headquarters for the festival. "It’s only been $5 a plate since we started and that was a long time ago."

One of the most popular activities of the festival is the crawfish-eating contest. Former Tuscaloosa Mayor Al DuPont, a proud Cajun himself, serves as emcee as contestants try and eat as many crawfish as possible within a prescribed period of time.

DuPont became involved in the festival after he learned Broussard had invited friends to try some at a crawfish boil and hadn’t asked him. That would have been difficult for Broussard to do because he didn’t know the mayor.

 

This cuddly crawfish draws atten-tion at Ca-John’s Faunsale Bar and Grill.

"I finally met him two weeks before the first festival and DuPont said, ‘You’re the SOB who had the crawfish boil and didn’t invite me,’" Broussard said, which drew the response of: "Well, that’s what I’m doin’ now. You’re invited."

"He’s only missed one festival and that’s because he had another commitment while he was still mayor up there," Broussard. "We look forward to having him here every year."

The annual crawfish event has put Faunsdale on the map because there isn’t much else going on there and Broussard is the main reason.

"Everybody knows about Faunsdale because of the festival," said former Councilman George McKee, a Marengo County farmer who eats at the bar and grill as often as he can.  "I never ate a crawfish until John got here and it’s gotten to be a great thing for us. My favorite is the Crawfish Etouffee."

The restaurant, with its wooden floors, ceiling and walls and wood-burning heater in the middle of the serving area, was built around the turn of the 20th century and looks it.

Marine veterans who hold their annual birthday ball each Nov. 10 said the bar and grill must look like Tun Tavern in Philadelphia—the place where the Corps was organized in 1775.

   

The annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball for Black Belt Leathernecks is held every Nov. 10 at Ca-John’s Faunsdale Bar and Grill.

 

Broussard liked the ambiance the first time he saw the restaurant, which had been a mercantile store most of its history, and he eventually bought it and began operating it with his wife, Barbara.

Alternating between the restaurant and his farm in Hale County, Broussard finds himself working as hard today as he did as a kid when his family lived in the little Louisiana town of Geismar about 15 miles south of Baton Rouge.

They lived so close to the Mississippi River, he said, that "if it wasn’t for the levee, we’d have been in the river."

In 1955, Broussard, his brother, Charles, and their dad, Ed began driving to Knoxville, Tennessee, to buy some registered Holstein calves to add to their herd back home.

Along the way, they wound up in Uniontown and then drove into Hale County to Newbern and liked what they saw so much that, three years later, the whole family packed up and headed to Alabama.

 

This old wood stove helps keep patrons warm at Ca-John’s Faunsdale Bar and Grill.

It happened when chemical plants began to pop up along the Mississippi and land suddenly became a lot more valuable than it once was.

They bought about 1,700 acres in Hale County where they settled down and became permanent members of the Black Belt region.

John Broussard attended Greensboro High School, played football and pitched in to help at the farm. At the age of 61, he’s never thought of anything else but being a farmer—when he’s not at the restaurant.

"It’s good for ya," said Broussard, who’s as solid as a rock and bronzed from his days in the sun minding the catfish ponds and row crop production. "It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life."

He’s also familiar with the vagaries of farming, hoping prices remain high and expenses low. Soybeans have provided him with plenty of challenges, especially when the bottom dropped out of that market in the early 80s and slowly worked their way back up.

"Like everything else in farming, things come and go through the years," said Broussard, a proud grandfather of three who ditched his end of the catfish operation several years ago because of the intensity of the business. "Soybeans got pretty tight once, but the prices are going up again."

Broussard does his shopping at Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Faunsdale—a business located just across the street from his restaurant. He relies on the Co-op for his feed and seed throughout the year.

Those who attend the Crawfish Festival and see all the people milling around must think Broussard makes a fortune. He’ll be the first to say that’s hardly the case.

He said expenses cut into whatever revenue is raised, but he still enjoys overseeing a festival where he does much of the work, including boiling the crawfish.

There’s no way he can raise enough crawfish to feed everybody for the two-day event, so he has up to 20,000 pounds imported from Louisiana where he was raised. Little, if any, is left by the time the last morsel is digested.

He, relatives or workers leave late in the evening on the Thursday of the big event, arrive in Louisiana, load up and arrive back in Faunsdale by sun-up the next day. That means the crawfish are about as fresh as fresh can be.

Crawfish don’t like hot weather because warm water usually has them climbing the walls of the ponds where they’re raised. That’s why the growing season ends before the really hot weather sets in.

Broussard named his restaurant after a mixture of his name and his upbringing. It was also a way to protect his business from possible enterprising interlopers.

Ca-John’s Faunsdale Bar and Grill is a combination of Cajun and John, lest anybody ever question the name. That’s hard to do because, although he lives in another city in another county, everybody knows his name—just like in "Cheers."

Broussard plans to keep farming and running the restaurant as long as he’s healthy and he looks fit enough to keep at it for at least another two decades.

By the time he was 5-years-old, he’d be splashing into the muddy swamps of South Louisiana to catch a mess of crawfish, then bring them home so his mother could use them in her special recipes.

He said the late Justin Wilson, who became a national celebrity for his television cooking shows, lived nearby and was a family friend.

Cajun food and music are in his blood and he’s happy to pass along the wonders of a way of life few can enjoy outside southern parishes in Louisiana.

The festival is ranked as one of the top events in Alabama during the month of April and John Broussard is the reason why it’s become such a big success.

"I never knew it would get as big as it has, but I’m not complaining," he said. "It’s a lot of work, but I’m up to it."

And, if any newcomer asks him how to eat a crawfish, he’ll be happy to tell them: "You just pinch the tail and suck the head."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.