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Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 04:43 pm

These Cajuns add seasoning to life in central Illinois

Avery and Amy Soileau giving a demonstration at County Market.

By the time you read this, I’ll be back down by the bayou. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll be eating oysters harvested that morning, or shrimp and crabs from the Gulf of Mexico, only a few miles south. Then again I might be eating tangy gumbo z’herbes, made of greens and onions and thickened with potato and beans; it originated as a meatless soup served during Lent. Or I might be having something made with tasso (smoked and hot-spiced ham) or andouille (a garlicky spicy sausage not unlike a chunky Polish) or boudin (an uncured, unsmoked sausage containing rice and pork that’s eaten by squeezing the filling from the casing into your mouth). All three are time-honored products in Cajun butcher shops. Elsewhere in America, local butcher shops, especially ones that make their own sausages and cured meats, are increasingly rare. In southwestern Louisiana, almost every wide place in the road has a butcher shop with its own specialties.

If I’m not eating Cajun food – and sometimes even when I am – I’m probably listening to Cajun music, whether traditional or one of its offshoots such as Zydeco. In all its variations it is, as novelist Tami Hoag writes “Joyous and wild, a tangle of fiddle, guitar, and accordion; it invite[s] even the rhythmically challenged to move with the beat.”

It’s that food, that music, and the people who make them that keep drawing my husband, Peter, and me back to Acadiana. New Orleans is bright lights, glitter, and crowds of visitors – at least in the tourist areas back in business after Hurricane Katrina. There are upscale restaurants, jazz clubs and a host of often tawdry nightspots. It has its own unique appeal. But the heart and soul of Cajun culture is in southwestern Louisiana: Acadiana, also known as the French Triangle.

A bit of that Cajun culture recently moved up north along I-55, eventually transplanted itself in central Illinois, and took root in Middletown. I knew that Avery Soileau (pronounced Swah-low) was the real deal even before I met him. A handful of names predominate in Cajun country: names such as Thibodeaux (Tee-buh-do, Hebert (A-bear)… and Soileau. But even if I hadn’t previously known his name, the instant I heard Soileau speak, I’d have known his origin. There’s no mistaking that musical Cajun patois. Approximately 60 percent of Cajun vocabulary is found in French dictionaries. The rest are words that necessarily evolved in a different environment and culture. It’s French with a southern drawl, complete with frequent reflexive pronouns. Even in English, the lyrical Cajun cadences are heard: “He makes good gumbo, him.” Or “Evangeline, she don’ cook like her sister.”

Soileau didn’t just bring his Cajun country charm and speech to central Illinois; he’s brought his own unique versions of Cajun seasonings which he and his wife, Amy, have begun producing and marketing. Amy, originally from Pennsylvania, has enthusiastically adopted her husband’s native cuisine. “The Dirty Rice plated with a fried pork chop and corn-on-the-cob looked so good when I fixed it, I just had to take a picture of it! I guess I’m weird that way,” she told me. No, Amy, you’re not weird – you’ve just become a true Cajun.

Avery’s hometown is Crowley, Louisiana’s official rice capital. There’s an annual Rice Festival, a Rice Hotel, a Rice Casino, and even a Rice Museum. Lots of rice also means lots of crawfish. That’s because every fall after harvesting, the rice fields are flooded and stocked with crawfish. As a young man, Avery worked in both the rice fields and crawfish “ponds.” Four years ago, a back injury forced him to begin looking for other ways to make a living. That’s when he decided to begin selling his own spice blends. “Everybody cooks back home,” Soileau says. “It’s in my blood. I’ve been cooking since I was a kid – I even had my own cookbook.”

There are many Cajun spice blends, some available locally. The Soileaus say what sets theirs apart is the quality of the raw spices they use: “We tasted spices from lots of companies until we found the best.” Their blends also contain no sugar or MSG, and have only half as much salt as most others. It’s also finely ground, eliminating any gritty texture. Currently the Soileaus offer a Chili Seasoning Mix and “Bayou Blend,” an all-purpose seasoning with dozens of uses, from simple dips and spreads, as a popcorn or chip topping, to an ingredient in recipes such as the Dirty Rice below.

Soileau’s Seasonings are sold in many local stores, including Food Fantasies, Robert’s, Cook’s Spice Rack, the Corkscrew, County Markets and The Country Market. The Soileaus give frequent demonstrations; call 217-984-9116 to find out where and when. That way you’ll not only be able to taste their recipe, you can close your eyes, listen to Avery talk, and imagine you’re down on the bayou, too.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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