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Big food fun from the Bayou

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"Cajun" is a contraction of "Arcadian," which refers to French-Canadian settlers exiled from Canada in the 18th century. They scattered, with the largest concentration settling in Louisiana. They took classical French cooking ideas and married them to local foodstuffs to create Creole and Cajun cooking (the distinction between is shifty and somewhat classist).

The food of Cajun country is quite diverse now, influenced by all kinds of Louisiana settlers. But the term makes you think of rich, spicy stews, rice and bean dishes, crawfish, shrimp, and veggies like okra and yams.

"Cajun" food is everywhere these days, though most of the Cajun fare you'll see represents an effort to cash in on its trendiness and isn't made by folks from southern Louisiana. It might be good, but it's "Cajun" mostly in name. But for Eddie and Gale Harris of E&G Cajun Bakery and Deli, the word connotes pride and identity. Eddie Harris was born and raised in St. James, Louisiana, the child of a baker. His wife, Gale, hails from Napoleonville, Louisiana. When they cook Cajun, they cook what their mothers and grandmothers taught them.

At a glance, E&G looks like another soul food joint: chicken and pork dinners, a few sandwiches, and a host of sides to tag on. But the chicken and pork are cooked with Cajun seasonings. The fried pork chop dinner comes with 2 sides ($9 for two chops, $7.50 for one). The drying of the meat creates an almost cured effect, concentrating the flavors and giving it a most appealing texture.

Hank Williams wasn't from Louisiana, but he distilled Cajun cooking for millions with, "Jumbalaya, a-crawfish pie, and a-filé gumbo." E&G's menu describes Jumbalaya as a "savory, sensuous dish," and that it is ($6). Andouille sausage and shrimp mingle with aromatic spices in rice to provide a hearty meal.

Filé powder is ground sassafras leaves, which tastes a bit like root beer and is the distinctive flavor in gumbo, a hot stew with various meats served over rice ($4). While gumbo starts with a roux, it shouldn't be served thick as it often is; here it isn't. Eddie Harris goes easy on the heat and skips the okra he would use at home in deference to Yankee tastes, but it's still delish.

There's no crawfish pie, but on lucky Fridays you'll find either crawfish étouffée or crawfish fettuccini. I didn't get lucky, but City Newspaper art critic Alex Miokovic raves about the étouffée. The fettuccini is cooked as a casserole, something like mac and cheese. Both dishes are $6.

The sides are more soul-food standard. Green beans come slow-cooked with copious amounts of bacon. Yams are sweet and spicy, cooked to a deep, dark color. Most sides are $1.50 (you get two with dinner specials). If available, get either red beans and rice or dirty rice, $3 each.

Eddie Harris came to Rochester for a job after a stint in the military on Staten Island. When he lost his Dupont job after 21 years, he started teaching Edison Tech students how to cook (and sold food to students and teachers). After 10 years, he decided to open his restaurant. He still works with students, including his intern, 17-year-old Elliott Davis, who seems happy to be learning the trade.

Gale Harris has taught in the CitySchool District for 31 years. Eddie says she lives up to her name and that they are equal partners in the kitchen. The family theme continues with Eddie's mother, recently relocated to Rochester, doing some baking. E&G's stellar sweets include huge individual pies (sweet potato, peach, coconut, and more) for $1.50, "cinnabons" for a buck, and killer tea cakes for 50 cents. The tea cake is somewhere between a cookie and short cake, kind of like an aromatic scone, a must for dunking.

There are more treasures in this tiny goldmine. Eddie will fry turkey wings given an hour's notice. He'll even deep-fry a whole turkey (call a week ahead). As at many small, ethnic eateries, there is enormous pride and value at E&G. "Smaller places like us," Eddie says, "we really put our heart into it, because it's us." It's largely a takeout place, but there are a few stools and tables, and talking with Eddie is part of the fun. Grab your cherami-o and pole your pirogue on down.

E&G Cajun Bakery & Deli, 544 West Main Street, 235-6260. Hours: Monday to Friday, 2:30 to 9:00 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.


Food tip

Chris Steubing, who owns the Gatherings at the Senator's Mansion in Churchville, purchased the Daisy Flour Mill last year and did extensive renovations. Gatherings at the Daisy Flour Mill (381-0180) is generally open only for private events, but on Friday nights from January 27 to April 28, it will be open to the public for dinner. The Churchville location is primarily a catering facility, but also offers Sunday brunch once a month, including a Valentine's brunch on February 12 (293-2840).

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas of www.savorlife.com.

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