Friday, January 8, 2010

Mourning the Death of the Cajun Cafe'

Some dreams never disappear completely.
Mourning the Death of the Cajun Café

I came across the derelict when I was driving my van crammed with furniture and boxes on my move back home to Montana . The building had obviously been long abandoned. A corner of the roof threatened to collapse. Windows were broken and a door hung loose. A warped and peeling sign across the front announced that this heap of debris had once been the Cajun Café. A homemade “For Sale” sign stood in the yard. Long way from Louisiana , I thought.

I was on that scenic section of US Highway 2, half-way between Bonners Ferry and Troy . Neither place was a major population center. The only residents up here in the north woods appeared to be moose and lodge-pole pine. Who would have opened a Cajun café, definitely a niche restaurant, out in the middle of nowhere?

But the Café was once somebody’s dream. With that thought my imagination took over. I hate to see a dream die. I have a friend long retired from the restaurant business. We often talked about what made an eatery work, in that idle way of people who enjoy good food.

So that evening I phoned him. “Got a business opportunity for you, a little fixer-upper.” I described the place, left out several pertinent details, emphasized ‘potential’, talked fast past ‘location’ and tried to sell a bill of goods around ‘tourist’ and ‘seasonal’.

A few months later my friend drove this route with me. When I spotted the old Cajun Cafe I eased off the road into the driveway. “There she is. A business opportunity waiting to happen.” He laughed. “A fixer-upper, huh?” “Build it, they will come,” I replied. “Are you kidding? Who is here to come?”

That tumble-down structure along the highway entertained us for nearly four years. We imagined a Saturday night at the Cajun Café. The Gumbo Special. Live music. Elbow-to-elbow customers who rode snowmobiles from their cabins off the grid across the trackless wilderness. Plenty of good food and with beer to swill it down. Belches and scratches, music blaring, fights on the dance floor. Good honest fun.

After that, whenever I made the trip, I would report on the condition of the Cajun Café and assure my friend that nobody had slipped in and bought it out from under him, that it was still available.

Until last winter. A fire had severely razed the site. I felt too sad to report this tragic turn of events. But recently my friend drove out to see me and took the northern route. My phone rang, “It’s gone,” he said. “A fire. Still I wonder who the guy was who built a Cajun restaurant way out here.”

I’ll be driving that same route soon. I’ll leave flowers at the site, flowers to commemorate a dream gone, someone’s hopes and aspirations up in flames. But dang, I can still picture the fire roaring in the cast iron wood-stove in the corner, shrimp and catfish sizzling on the grill, my friend pulling nozzles and filling beer mugs, his wife carrying heaping plates of jambalaya to the customers sitting at trestle tables in their mukluks and Carhartts, snowmobiles clustered outside the door, zydeco on the jukebox; in short, a community center where neighbors meet, wild game is bartered for firewood, deals are made, disputes are settled and young folks fall in love. Let the good times roll.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
November 12, 2009


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