There's a little bit of Cajun spice in Clay County these days.
"Born on the bayou" in the heart of Cajun Country, Gina Crooks grew up in a large cypress swamp area called the Atchafalaya Basin in Patterson, La. Growing up surrounded by family and friends who were "unofficial" seafood fishermen and Cajun chefs, Crooks enjoyed the cooking of others before trying her hand at the tasty cuisine at around age 25.
"If you've ever been to south Louisiana, you know that 'What y'all wanna do today?' is synonymous with. 'What we gonna eat?'" Crooks said. "So, nearly every weekend, somebody was having a crawfish, crab or shrimp boil along with frying up a fresh batch of catfish, and, of course, simmering some gumbo, etouffee or jambalaya."
In 1989, Hoosier Hysteria and her husband, Jon Crooks, brought her to Indiana.
"I figured I'd better learn to cook like my mom, sisters and Louisiana-born brother-in-laws because my husband certainly wasn't going to provide Cajun cuisine for me," Crooks said. "Back then, Jon couldn't even stand the sight of crawfish. But since then, he has certainly grown to love any Cajun dish, like jambalaya and gumbo -- especially when the dish has chicken and sausage in it."
In May 2009, when the couple decided to buy Yesterday's Pub, 101 E. National Ave., Brazil, friends and loyal customers offered some advise.
"They suggested that we bring something unique to the area. Since most of them knew I was from south Louisiana and had been out to our farm in rural Parke County for an old-fashioned shrimp boil and jambalaya, we were advised to make Cajun our signature trademark," Crooks said. "That's how I got started cooking Cajun dinners in Coach's TIMEOUT Sports Bar and Grill on Thursday and Friday nights."
Although the two-day special menu highlights various Cajun favorites, including Crooks' favorite dish crawfish etouffee.
"Etouffee is similar to gumbo in that it is served over rice," she said. "I do have a 'not-so-secret ingredient' in the etouffee, but I'll let my customers try to guess what that is."
Helping in the kitchen are two Clay County chefs, Kay John and Connie Reedy.
"I call them my 'Cajun Connections.' Kay is an expert at the Cajun Shrimp Boil and Connie is better than me at the jambalaya. And, Jeff Wickersham is a mid-westerner who makes a great blackened chicken, steak, or catfish dinner."
A few Cajun sandwich favorites remain on the nightly menu, including the Cajun Chicken Sandwich, the Bayou Burger and the Catfish Po'boy. All are served with our Crooks' secret family recipe for Lagniappe sauce.
"Lagniappe is Cajun for a little something extra," Crooks said about the unusually named sauce.
For those who might be a bit skittish about some of the spices used in Cajun cooking, Crooks said the kitchen staff are happy to leave off the spices upon request.
"We can do that. We want our customers to enjoy the Cajun experience," Crooks said. "I think the main reason I enjoy cooking at the restaurant is because we can offer a different culture of food for decent prices, and that makes people happy. Every week I meet someone who has been to New Orleans, and it is so much fun to hear about their experiences. I have gotten reacquainted with and made so many new friends during this first year in business, I really value this opportunity."
Cajun Cooking Tips
Gina Crooks' Cajun down-home flare in the kitchen makes her one of Clay County's Best and Most Unique Cooks.
For those interested in tasting Crooks' "born on the bayou" recipes, a special two-day menu on Thursdays and Fridays at Coach's TIMEOUT Sports Bar & Grill, 101 E. National Ave., Brazil, highlights several of her Cajun favorites.
To participate or nominate someone to be spotlighted for Clay County's Best and Most Unique Cooks, entries must be submitted by e-mail to email@example.com or via the post office to The Brazil Times, 100 N. Meridian St., Brazil.
Please include your contact information and that of the nominee (name, phone number and e-mail), and a sentence or two about why they are special.