Mudbugs at the Bayou — Strange Name, Great Food

Sound Consumer | January 2001

By Andrew Jayasundera

Mudbugs at the Bayou
2917 Fuhrman East · Seattle, WA 98102
Hours: 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday for takeout food
For private dining, sit down or catering, call for appointment: 206-329-0988

"You often see plates like that in New Orleans antique shops," commented my old friend Marie, who grew up around that city during the Depression era. She was gazing at a wall display of plates, each with an illustration of a fish framed by a wide rim of cobalt and gold.

As darkness took over the autumn evening, table lamps softly lit the one-room dining area. A well-used couch lay at one end of the room, and an antique country French armoire commandeered the other. We alternated bites of marinated portobello mushroom and crostini spread with a spicy sundried tomato mixture.

The lace curtain covering the doorway to the kitchen parted and the owner's mother, Monica Spooner, came toward us holding out a spoonful of freshly pressed grape juice to sample. "I think I'm going to use it in the salad dressing," she said. The young owner, Marisa Spooner-LeDuff, had once told me that when you dine at Mudbugs, you temporarily become a part of the family. It's not unusual to be brought a spoonful of the entrée to ask whether you would like it spicier.

Food is made to order at this eatery that's open by appointment only for sit-down dining, due to a zoning and licensing snafu; however, take-out is available Wednesday through Saturday evenings. The establishment's unusual name, Mudbugs, is slang for the small Louisiana swamp crayfish (also called crawfish in the South), which burrows into the mud when the water runs low or the weather turns cold. "At the Bayou" in the name refers to nearby Portage Bay.

"I think they make the best Southern food in town," I told Marie, leaning across the table so the mother-daughter team cooking in the kitchen wouldn't overhear.

Our fresh catfish appetizer arrived then, cornmeal-batter fried in traditional style. Crispy and greaseless, it was to be dipped into hot sauce held in a half oyster shell. The tender fish was followed by a lettuce salad accompanied by cornbread baked in the shape of miniature muffins.

"It's so nice to eat off real china," said Marie fingering the delicate, floral patterned dinnerware. "And look, they've chilled the salad bowls!"

She approved equally of the salad ("dressed with a light hand") and noted the touch of cilantro, which sounded an intriguingly elusive note. "You have to get the right mixture of cornmeal to flour," she said, biting into the cornbread, "and they've got it right. The only thing I would say is that it is very slightly too sweet."

Sadly for me, no gumbo had been prepared that day. So for our entrées, Marie decided upon crawfish étouffee over rice, and I opted for shrimp in red sauce over grits, the humble southern comfort food made from corn. We ordered our dinners "lagniappe," a little more expensively with sides of sautéed cabbage, and sweet potato that was delicious in its plainness. "Lagniappe used to mean something that's for free," noted Marie a little disapprovingly. "For example, if you bought a dozen oysters, the merchant would throw in another one or two for goodwill."

Marie tasted her étouffee and exclaimed to Marisa, "Oh, these flavors take me back to my childhood!" I recalled that Mudbugs' southern dishes have always been richly satisfying, with great depth of flavor and never hot.

Marisa explained that she cooks the roux that forms the base of these dishes sometimes for two hours and then flavors it with onion, garlic, bell peppers, and celery. A French technique for thickening soups and stews, roux is made by slow cooking flour in fat, commonly butter. In Creole and Cajun cookery, however, animal and vegetable fats are standard, as well as longer cooking times to create darker and more deeply flavored roux.

Over her Cajun entrée, Marie related to me the story of the Cajun people. They were originally French settlers in Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in Canada, she said. They were driven out when the land was ceded to the British in the early 18th century. The Acadians found their way to southern Louisiana, where they settled in the swamp country on the waterways called bayous. Here, the name Acadian changed to Cajun.

Their food depended upon local game, such as rabbit and alligator, freshwater fish that the Cajun trappers and fishers caught, as well as wild plants and herbs. Although both Cajun and Creole cooking share French roots, Cajun cooking is considered more rural in character, simpler and spicier than the Creole food of the cities that is Marisa's heritage.

Many of the well-known Creole dishes can actually be traced to classic dishes from the Continent. These were re-interpreted in Louisiana by African cooks and housekeepers using available ingredients. Gumbo, for example, derives from bouillabaisse, the famous seafood stew of southern France. The word gumbo comes from an African word for okra, which is one of the ingredients used to thicken gumbo, the other being ground sassafras leaves (called filé).

Similarly, crawfish bisque derives from French lobster bisque, Creole mustard from Dijon mustard, and jambalaya from Spanish paella. Although Louisiana was a French colony from 1718 to 1803 (it was named after Louis XIV of France), the state came under Spanish rule from 1762-1800.

Both Creole and Cajun cooking were enriched by the vegetables brought on slave ships from Africa — okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and collard greens — as well as by New World crops such as chiles and tomatoes popularized by the Spanish. Contact with later settlers such as Germans with their sausage-making skills, and other immigrants such as Italians, added further dimensions to the region's cooking. Ultimately, it became the most distinctive and sensual regional cuisine in the United States.

Pecan pie, the classic southern dessert made from nuts native to the region, must be an American original. Both Marie and I gladly assented to some pie baked by Marisa's 85-year-old godmother. It wasn't the best pecan pie I've had in Seattle, but Marie was quite pleased by it. "It's not too sweet, they've been generous with the pecans, and the crust has some whole wheat in it," she said with obvious enjoyment.

"Do you know that we've been here for three hours?" I asked in astonishment upon looking at the time. "Just like the way we used to dine back in Louisiana," replied Marie serenely.

Andrew Jayasundera is a publications specialist and freelance food writer.

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