The Lunch Ladies of Lafayette: 3 women dishing up a true taste of Cajun Country

Madonna Broussard, Lori Johnson Walls, and Lilly Mae Norbert dish up edible culture, one heaping lunch plate at a time
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Photo by Heather McClelland

Their primary job is to serve the most central of daily meals: lunch.

They are early risers, okra choppers, roux stirrers, crowd herders. They are keepers of their family’s long-held recipes. They bear up under pressure. They are survivors.

These women do what they do to make a living. But in the process, they’ve made something greater: a food culture that has caught the nation’s attention. “The plate lunch is high art,” The Splendid Table’s Francis Lam wrote for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which conducted a large-scale oral history project on the culinary phenomenon.

Born in Acadiana (Louisiana’s historically French region) in the sixties, a plate lunch is a working person’s meal. Portions are large so as to keep hunger at bay until nightfall. It typically consists of a meat and several sides, including at least one smothered item. It always includes rice and gravy.

Lafayette is known as the capital of Acadiana, as well as a “plate lunch paradise.” The city is home to some forty-six restaurants serving plate lunches—almost one per square mile.

That’s more than any other city, according to Rien Fertel, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance’s “Lunch Houses of Acadiana” project. Rice is readily available and cheap in Lafayette, Fertel notes, so cooks can make giant portions of rice-based dishes (such as crawfish etouffee) and easily sell them for a profit. “Many of the city’s plate-lunch houses are run by Black women,” he says. “For many years, these restaurants were one of the few sustainable economic opportunities available to them. And they remain the best Creole food you can have in Lafayette.”

Here, we share the voices of three women dishing up edible culture, one heaping lunch plate at a time.

Madonna Broussard of Laura’s II

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Legacy Keeper
Madonna Broussard

On a brisk Sunday in February 2018, a post-church crowd gathered outside Laura’s II in downtown Lafayette. Congregants from the predominantly Black Progressive Baptist Church arrived at the restaurant first, followed by those from the nondenominational, mostly white, Family Life Christian Church. Inside, owner Madonna Broussard quickly whisked her roux. Its color wasn’t yet amber enough to make a gravy that would stick to her rice. And until it stuck to her rice, she wouldn’t open her restaurant to serve it.

The phone rang. Broussard’s thirty-one-year-old daughter, Lacey, answered. “Mom!” she called. “Someone who works with Anthony Bourdain is on the phone!”

And with that call, Madonna began a lunch service she’ll never forget, one in which travel documentarian Bourdain showed up with ten minutes’ notice to film what would become one of the final episodes of his CNN show, Parts Unknown. “We’d never had a celebrity customer before,” Madonna says. “We had no time to prepare.”

Bourdain didn’t mind. In fact, as he stood with Madonna outside the restaurant and surveyed the diverse crowd, he whistled. “Has your restaurant always been like this?” he asked. Yes, she replied. Even when her grandmother, Laura Broussard, opened the original Laura’s out of her wood-frame house in 1968, it served Blacks and whites, doctors and students alike. Bourdain took a drag from his cigarette. “Don’t ever let that change,” he told her.

She hasn’t. She feels the weight of owning Lafayette’s longest-running plate-lunch restaurant, and she’s determined to honor her grandmother’s two mottoes: Treat every customer with respect, and pile their plates high. “To her, giving you an abundance of food, that was love,” Madonna says.

When Madonna was a child, she helped Laura serve those plates while chickens clucked around the backyard and zydeco music crooned from the jukebox. She remembers the smells of smoke billowing from the smokehouse out back and bread baking at the Evangeline Maid factory three blocks away.

After Laura retired, Madonna’s mother, Dorothy Mae, took over. Though Madonna was just a teenager then, she recognized that the restaurant’s future would one day be in her hands. But all that changed when she became pregnant with Lacey as a high-school senior; nothing seemed certain anymore. She took a job sewing undergarments at a nearby factory to support herself and Lacey. The hours were long, but the pay was good. The faster she moved her needle, the more she made.

Madonna Broussard and her daughter, Lacey

Photo by Heather McClelland

Ten years later, Dorothy Mae’s health declined and she could no longer run the restaurant. Madonna faced a choice: Take over or let Laura’s close. “I knew what to do,” Madonna says. “I had to keep the family ship afloat.”

She renamed the restaurant Laura’s II and moved it to its current location. She then began what she calls a “trial-and-error” process of making gravy Laura’s way. “I had to build up my confidence—and learn how to make it without getting a third-degree burn!” She put her own touches on the menu, adding macaroni and cheese and serving the popular baked turkey wings daily. To her relief, regular customers remained regulars and a younger generation began trickling in, thanks in part to Lacey’s savvy social media posts. “I guess that’s what millennials respond to,” Madonna says, adding that Lacey might open her own Laura’s location one day: “That’s her dream.”

Since Bourdain’s passing, Laura’s II has become a pilgrimage site for his fans, who ask to sit in the booth he once occupied and eat the turkey wings he said he was “all over like a heat-seeking missile.” Madonna is happy to oblige. She’ll always remember that February day fondly, and the promise she made to the roving celebrity chef. “No matter what’s going on in the outside world, in here, I make sure we don’t change.”

Laura’s II

Best known for:
Stuffed baked turkey wings
Gravy (get Madonna Broussard’s recipe, passed down from her grandmother, here)

Don’t miss:
Smothered seafood okra. Even if you’re not an okra person, you have to try this cheesy casserole made from fresh, local okra Laura cans herself each spring.

Madonna’s favorite place to…
Enjoy a Lafayette festival

“There’s always a festival in Lafayette. I’ve been a part of the Plate Lunchapalooza, and I love the Downtown Sno-Ball Festival and the Acadiana Po-Boy Festival. I really enjoy Downtown Alive, which is held Friday evenings in the spring and fall and is geared toward arts and music. You can eat good Cajun food, listen to live bands for free, and buy crafts. When I get off work, I come out with my lawn chair to Parc International and listen to really good zydeco bands. Downtown Alive is a really nice, down-home event.”

 

Lori Johnson Walls of Johnson’s Boucaniere

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Sausage Maker’s Daughter
Lori Johnson Walls

Lori Johnson Walls knows how the sausage is made. As a child, she saw her uncle Joe carry whole hog carcasses into her family’s market in Eunice, Louisiana (an hour northwest of Lafayette), and carefully take them apart. She watched the pork go into the grinder shaped like a loaf and come out looking like spaghetti. She breathed in the scent as those “noodles” were cooked with her mother’s rice and seasoned with bell peppers, onions, and celery. She listened to the pops and snaps as Joe stuffed the boudin (rice sausage) into casings. When her uncle wasn’t looking, she and her cousin dared each other to touch the pig’s vacant eye sockets.

Lori usually took the dare first. She wasn’t squeamish; still isn’t. Every morning at dawn, she rolls out of bed and walks across her property in downtown Lafayette to the boucaniere (Louisiana French for smokehouse) and restaurant she and her husband, Greg, have owned since 2008. Two hours later, her ninety-two-year-old father, Wallace, descends the stairs from his apartment above the smokehouse. Then Greg (who awakens at 3 a.m. to start the smokers before returning to bed) arrives mid-morning, his sleeves rolled up. Together, they make and sell sausage so good, Johnson’s Boucaniere regularly takes first-place honors in the town’s fiercely competitive Boudin Cookoff. It’s also the centerpiece of popular lunch items like sausage and smothered potatoes.

“It’s what I’m most proud of—carrying on my family’s sausage and boudin traditions and getting it right,” Lori says. “I don’t want to tarnish their reputations.”

Wallace Johnson and Lori Johnson Walls

Photo by Heather McClelland

Indeed, from 1937 until its close in 2005, Johnson’s Grocery in Eunice was best known as the birthplace of Acadiana boudin. Her grandfather built the wood-frame store, and his five children—including her father—eventually ran it. When Lori was five, Wallace taught her how to peel the extra skin off onions so they would display better. That became her after-school job until she was old enough to bag groceries. At thirteen, she experienced a rite of passage: Wallace brought her to the empty store on a Sunday and taught her how to work the register. “I thought I was so big,” Lori says.

Every day of her childhood, Lori smelled like smoke. The store emitted a steady cloud of it, and the scent never really washed out of her clothes and hair. The plumes were always thickest on Saturdays, when her dad staked a sign in front of the store that read “Hot Boudin To-Day.” Lines for links of the famous Johnson sausages wrapped around the building (her family referred to it as the “Rue de Boudin”). By 10 a.m., all 2,000 pounds they had prepared were gone. Her dad brought the sign back inside. It would be a week before more boudin was ready.

Some of the children who waited in the Rue de Boudin during those early days now make the drive from Eunice to Lafayette, where they gasp at the sight of Wallace taking hand-written lunch orders from behind the counter. “They’ll say in French, ‘Oh, Mr. Johnson, they told me you were here!’” Lori says. “And he’ll smile and slide them a lunch plate with a boudin link.”

They always remark that it tastes the same as it did when they were children, Lori says.

Outside her store, a sign staked in a patch of grass reads “Hot Boudin To-Day.” Lori knows how the sausage is made, and to honor her family, she’s going to keep making it.

Johnson’s Boucaniere

Best known for:
Boudin
Chicken and sausage gumbo
Sausage and smothered potatoes (get Lori Johnson Walls’s recipe, passed down from her mother, here)

Don’t miss:
Breakfast. Order the homemade sausage biscuit and a strong cup of joe from Lafayette-based Reve Coffee Roasters.

Lori’s favorite place to…
See live music

“I love Hideaway on Lee in downtown Lafayette. The overall atmosphere is very laid-back and welcoming, very comfortable. I might be biased, but I think the best band to see there is the Southerniers. My husband, Greg, is the drummer. I also like seeing a show at Vermilionville, a local living-history museum. On Sunday afternoons, they usually have zydeco or Cajun musicians play at the performance center. It’s fun for me because it’s not so late at night! I like to go at two in the afternoon and have a good time.”

 

Lilly Mae Norbert of Norbert Restaurant

Photo by Heather McClelland

The Tireless Cook
Lilly Mae Norbert

Lilly Mae Norbert knows nothing of a so-called work-life balance. If she was asked to place any given hour of her day on that proverbial scale, she wouldn’t know on which side it belonged.

She is seventy-five years old and lives with her seventy-eight-year-old husband, John, in a modest home in the Lafayette suburb of Broussard. Five steps from their front door stands the 1,000-square-foot restaurant they’ve owned since 1971.

She rises every morning at six, fixes them an oatmeal breakfast, and puts on her red apron. At seven, she and John walk across the yard and unlock the door to their restaurant. They don’t discuss the day’s plan. It is always the same. John begins by breaking apart whole chickens, pigs, rabbits. He’s been a butcher since the fifties, and his mammoth hands could palm a weighted basketball without a single vein taking notice. Lilly Mae pulls her pots off the shelf to simmer the sauces her daddy raised her on: barbecue for the chicken, roux for the beef stew, gravy for the smothered pork.

Her daddy. He was a kind, strong man who brought her up on Bealls Plantation, a sugarcane farm in Broussard where his own daddy worked. Lilly Mae was the eighth of ten children, living in a place where planting and playing happened in the same dusty fields. “We didn’t have no cars, so going to the sugar mill was our enjoyment,” she says.

When she was seventeen, Lilly Mae’s father died. She went to live with an older sister, who happened to be friends with a man named John. “I was a pretty healthy boy—not good looking, but healthy,” John recalls. He says he was immediately taken with Lilly Mae’s quiet strength, and he wondered if she’d ever be interested in a butcher with no formal education. She was too young for him at the time, “but I always had her in my mind,” he says. A few years later, he convinced her to give him a chance. This year, they’ll celebrate fifty-three years of marriage.

Lilly Mae and John Norbert

Photo by Heather McClelland

Theirs has always been a union of partnership. John’s dream was to open a little store where he could sell cracklins (fried pork fat and skin) and boudin. Lilly Mae thought a little larger. After working for a savory pie business in downtown Broussard for four years, she purchased it and turned it into Norbert Restaurant. John could sell his specialty meats, she could sell her daddy’s dishes, and together they’d sell plate lunches—something no other Broussard restaurant offered at the time. “That idea was really big,” Lilly Mae says.

By the eighties, they had moved from their downtown restaurant into their current location just southeast of town, on the side of Highway 90. They were averaging 500 lunches a day and hired four employees to keep up with the demand. They raised two daughters in the restaurant, hanging their photos on the walls and clearing tables for them to do homework after school.

The oldest of those daughters is now a dietitian in Houston. The youngest is a manager at nearby historic attraction Vermilionville. Without their mouths to feed and college tuitions to cover, Lilly Mae and John have slowed down a bit. (“We feel like we don’t have to hustle so much,” Lilly Mae says.) They are once again the restaurant’s only employees. They sell 100 lunches a day, and they’re fine with that. They close their restaurant at three in the afternoon, walk five steps back to their home, take their vitamins, and relax in their easy chairs.

Lilly Mae says she might retire, but she doesn’t know when. She might move, but she doesn’t know where. Her youngest daughter is thinking about taking the restaurant’s reins, and if she does, she’ll need her mother’s training. Is that work, Lilly Mae wonders—cooking in a kitchen with your daughter, surrounded by pictures of her childhood? Is it living to leave the life you’ve known for fifty years behind? Lilly Mae isn’t sure, but today it doesn’t matter. Today she knows the plan, and it’s time to start simmering the sauces.

Norbert Restaurant, 337-837-6704

Best known for:
Smothered rabbit
Crawfish etouffee (get Lilly Mae Norbert’s recipe, passed down from her father, here)

Don’t miss:
The desserts. Lilly Mae Norbert makes everything from banana pudding to pecan pie to bread pudding from scratch.

Lilly Mae’s favorite place to…
Enjoy the outdoors
St. Julien is a beautiful park. We go in the summertime, especially in the evenings, for picnics. People are always out walking their dogs, riding their bikes, playing softball, skating. We used to bring our daughters to the big playground when they were children. It’s a special place to us.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.

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