Gator by the Bay: A Dash of Cajun in Southern California

This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

Let me preface this story by saying: I am Cajun. And given that there is not a great deal of Cajun culture in San Diego and its environs, I’m always pretty suspicious whenever anyone claims to sell Cajun food or play Cajun music. I taste the gumbo with one eyebrow cocked, sure that it won’t live up to its authentic roots.

So when I finally, after seven years, had the opportunity to go to Gator by the Bay, a Cajun festival held each Mother’s Day weekend, my attitude was, “We’ll see how Cajun this is. Hmph.”

Apparently there are quite a few Cajuns and afficionados hiding in my fair city.

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler

Once my friend, Rose, and I got our wristbands on, the sound of blues wafted up from the water’s edge. The singer poured his heart out, either about his dead dog or his woman who left him. But I was in search of something a little more, as my Cajun mother would say, “chanky chank.” (There are many Cajun colloquialisms I have been blessed with that I don’t realize are out of the ordinary until I say them and my friends look at me puzzled).

mardi gras beads

What I was after was zydeco, the traditional music played with accordions and guitars, found only in a tiny region of Louisiana (where my grandmother happens to live). The funny thing about zydeco: my mother grew up in Church Point, a splat on the map with about 4,000 people living in it. Given the ebbs and flows that Cajun French culture had in the past 70 years, zydeco was relegated to “country folk,” or as some from “town” might derogatorily call them: coon ass. So she grew up not listening to zydeco. To her detriment.

Zydeco has made a comeback, and now every family event I attend has locals rushing to the dance floor to two-step to songs sung in the flat French dialect that a few still speak in south central Louisiana.

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I myself flip to the local zydeco station as soon as I touch down on Louisiana soil, so I was craving that unique beat.

I was not disappointed.

Geno Delafose

We strolled through the vendors’ tables and ended at the east stage, where Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie were infecting the audience with the need to dance. I always love watching the rubboard player, and after being mesmerized by how into the music he was getting, I turned around to see hundreds of people doing a line dance. Fun.

And Now On to Important Things: Food!

I was sold on the music, but the true test was going to be the food. Could it stand up to my expectations?

We made a beeline for the giant tent with Crawfish advertised on top. Rose, who had never been to Louisiana, was game to try mudbugs, and I was happy to teach her. It’s a rite of passage to teach children or friends how to grip the tail, twist the body off, then pinch the tail to get the meat out. My son quickly learned that if he didn’t speed up his efforts, he would starve, since I was too busy filling my face with the delicate spicy meat to worry about his needs.

crawfish boil

We sat down at the newspaper-covered table (Authentic. Check.) and dug in. Wow. These folks knew what they were doing. As I watched a handful of men dump huge sacks of crawfish into the vat of scalding water, I noticed they were wearing shirts advertising Crawfish Corner in Opelousas and Scott, Louisiana. These guys were the real deal, not some locals who read a “how to cook crawfish guide!”

I ambled over to talk to them, and found out that they come to the festival every year to fulfill San Diego’s crawfish needs, stopping at a few other events along the way.

We added a boudin sandwich to our happy bellies too. I’d never had boudin (rice, meat, and seasonings stuffed into a sausage casing) on a bun, but it was spicy enough for me to forgive the aberration. After that we rounded out the gorge fest with, what else? Beignets. They were crispy and covered in the perfect amount of powdered sugar.

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crawfish at Gator by the Bay

All in all, a wonderful Cajun day was had by all.

If You Go

Gator by the Bay is held at Spanish Landing Park on the harbor, across from the airport, each Mother’s Day Weekend. Currently ticket prices purchased in advance of the event range from $40 for a one-day pass to $140 for a four-day pass. The ticket includes admission only, not food, drink, or anything else.

Article and photography by travel writer Susan Guillory. I received a comped one day pass to Gator by the Bay, however all opinions are my own.