A Pig, a Monkey and a Cajun Girl Walk into a Bar: And lose a lot of money at cards—at the only place to go in Fordoche.
We drove up and down Highway 77 through the town of Fordoche, Louisiana, looking for the Red Monkey—but it did not reveal its presence. There was to be a cochon de lait pig roast there that day and we figured there should at least be a parking lot full of trucks if nothing else. But nothing.
The only sign of public life was the Fordoche Grocery, or maybe Luke’s Grocery—there were two different signs hanging out front, and we weren’t sure if it was even open until the sliding door made a startling cracking sound and grated to the side.
“Is that today?” the cashier responded when asked about the pig roast, and we took it as a sign. A few in our party started consulting emails in the fading 3G signal, while I walked around the side—to see a small sign on the adjoining restaurant noting that it had been postponed to the following Sunday.
Determined to make the most of it, and to find a comparable lunch we headed into the boudin and cracklin-rich speed trap known as Krotz Springs, just a few miles west on Highway 190. It was the first time I’d ever pulled into the parking lot of Billy B’s (Or is it Miss Johnnie’s? Again, two signs hanging) that wasn’t prompted by a cop with a radar gun. We were starving and they had pork steaks on special.
It was dead silent when we walked in; our ruckus brought a few stares and the waitress. We asked what was good; she gave the stock answer. “Our fried seafood, our hamburgers. The pork steak is good.”
I felt I’d come this far for adventure and asked about something called the “Cajun Girl” under the poboys.
It shocked the room to life.
One of the prep chefs on break at a nearby table blurted, “Oh, now that is good! Shrimp and crab in a cheese sauce poured into hollowed out French bread.” She added, “We get our bread from Poupart’s,” sensing perhaps that we were connoisseurs.
The Cajun Girl has the distinction of being the messiest thing I have eaten under the auspices of writing for this magazine. It was a pistolette blown up to Hindenburg proportions, exploding the rich, delicious filling down my arm, onto my shirt, and into my heart—both figuratively and literally. It seemed a worthy end to this shaky sojourn.
Flash forward one week.
My daughter and I set out again to get the promised cochon de lait, and fortunately, this time the grocery’s parking lot was full. Behind the store and the restaurant lies the Red Monkey, a dark watering hole carved out of the former storeowner’s apartment. According to a number of locals, Luke Sonnier owned the place, sold it, bought it again and then sold it. His apartment had been converted into Fordoche’s only bar. “If you go in the bathroom, there is still a bathtub in there,” advised Jeremy LaCombe.
LaCombe is behind the cochon de lait, one of the annual fundraisers for Nell’s Angels, a local fund set up in honor of LaCombe’s mother to help cancer victims in the area. Since its founding in 2001, Nell’s Angels has raised over $200,000 for cancer patients living in Pointe Coupée Parish. They do everything from help pay for medicine to assist with travel for chemotherapy treatments in Houston and New Orleans.
Out back there was a magnificent trailer/smoker contraption loaded with five whole hogs, seven hundred pounds of meat. My daughter and I watched, dazzled, as the deep red bodies were dropped unceremoniously into an ice chest, snapping the roasted flesh in pieces on impact. The ice chest was dragged over to a table in the pavilion where a group of men were furiously working the pigs with carving knives. We were leaning in close for pictures, when one of the men handed us each a fistful of meat pulled from the hog. “You can tell us if it’s any good.”
It was better than good. Smoked to incomprehensible juiciness, cochon de lait meat retains a touch of wildness. It exposes the chasm that exists between meat from the store and meat from the animal. My daughter and I took plates of more pork and sausage jambalaya to the porch of a nearby boarded up house and agreed that we wish we could always eat like this. In the spirit of adventure, she finished hers and announced, “I’m going off to explore,” leaving me to do the same.
I met up with LaCombe hosing out a trash can as a band was setting up, and he said we should go in the back to talk. Cutting through the darkened bar, we came to a warehouse with half a dozen large round tables and walls covered with about two hundred framed portraits of the good people of Fordoche. It was explained that this was the card room where they played bourré every Friday night, and those on the wall were the weekly winners. The wall shared with the store was emblazoned the “Fordoche Bourré Hall of Fame.”
Throughout the next week, I sought out instruction for playing bourré, the favored card game of the gambling Cajun, but I just couldn’t follow it. I don’t really have a card-playing mind, but I thought I had a grasp by the time Friday rolled around and re-entered the Red Monkey’s card room prepared to lose the $30 entry fee with as much grace as possible.
I watched a pre-tournament game and was hopelessly lost. One of the women advised that I not play because it will upset the rhythm of the game and I demurred. “I’ve been playing bourré for twenty years,” she offered with some pity, “and I’m still figuring it out.”
Cindy Major runs the tournament, and I offered to pay her entry fee if she let me watch over her shoulder, which turned out to be the best of both worlds. I could keep a third of my attention on the mechanics of the game, a third on my delicious fried catfish plate from the restaurant, and a third on the conversation around the table.
J. V. Richard was currently on a good run. The eighty-year-old was pulling tricks while telling the gathered about a twenty-foot alligator that had wandered up into his yard. “The tail was ten feet long and the body is twice that. The game warden said it was the largest alligator he’d ever seen out here, alive or dead.”
My presence was not helping Major out at all; she kept bourré-ing out, which means she had no card worth playing when the dealer revealed the trump card. Richard’s lucky run was brief, and he soon had exhausted his chips so I joined him at a vacant table.
Richard explained he’d been playing bourré a couple nights a week all his life—a life spent painting lines on the highway for the state and teaching small engine repair at a nearby trade school. His wife of sixty-two years had recently passed away.
He gestured over his shoulder to the gaps in the neat rows of tournament winner photographs lining the walls. “See those blank spots in the pictures? I took them down to put in my trophy case at home. Other places they would give out trophies for bourée. I must have thirty of them up at the house.“
The same faces appeared over and over on the wall of pictures. It bespoke a continuum of community. The players go on like the game does—Richard said sometimes they’ll play until three in the morning.
The house takes no part of the pot, which keeps it from legally being gambling, and the top five winners at the end of the night get a percentage of the entry fee. Every hour, Major rings a cowbell signifying a new pot and the stakes go up. During the break, she showed me the laminated sheet designating the amounts the winners get depending on how many people show up. “Tonight was slow. We have about twenty people. Some nights we have thirty or so and it really gets up there.”
I wasn’t prepared to stay in for the long haul, to discover who would for a week reign, so I cut through the darkened Red Monkey. One couple was dancing on the concrete floor to a country song on the jukebox, others were propped up against the bar, unclear as to which was giving the other support. I moved through unseen to my car parked next to the abandoned house, vowing that I was going to hone my bourré skills before I wash through Fordoche again.
Details. Details. Details.
The Red Monkey (Behind Fordoche Grocery) 5661 Fordoche Road (LA Highway 77) Fordoche, La
The bourré tournament is every Friday starting at 8 pm and goes until it’s over. $30 entry.
If you’d like to donate to Nell’s Angels, visit nells-angels.org.