Every morning, as I spooned remoulade into portion cups and settled bottles of cocktail sauce and ketchup on tables, I was greeted by the unmistakable aroma of a lit cigar. Dudley Lang would always smoke one as crew members and I opened Dudley’s Cajun Cafe, the restaurant he’d owned and operated for three decades.

For longer than I’ve been alive, Dudley and his wife Sheryl have slung crawfish hand pies and other Cajun delicacies from a shabby building on the side of U.S. 80 in Longview. In a part of the state where locals embrace Cajun food as much as Tex-Mex, Dudley’s combined the two, most famously in a crawfish enchilada plate that arrived at the table bubbling aromatically in a ceramic boat, with a side of gumbo, a French roll, and the choice of either red beans and rice or jambalaya. During my six months as a server at Dudley’s last year, I wolfed down the crawfish étouffée almost daily. Every time shrimp and grits were on the menu I kept close tabs on the number of customer orders to be sure there would be enough left for me.

Since the start of the pandemic, Dudley’s has closed twice and reopened three times. It closed the dining room in March 2020, reopened it in May, then closed completely in November, when the Langs pulled up stakes and returned to Dudley’s hometown of Many, Louisiana, about two hours southeast of Longview. The cafe’s former dining room remains closed, but last month a curbside-only operation called Dudley’s Grab & Geaux rose in its place. The Langs innovated to survive, and with the pandemic’s recent resurgence in Texas, restaurant owners must continue to do so. All of us have had to reinvent ourselves, including me.

When I arrived home in Longview last summer, it felt like I had taken a step back in time. I had not been back since I moved to Denton for college and chased journalism jobs, eventually landing a role as a reporter in Las Vegas. After my pandemic-induced layoff in May, I came home to Texas and spent a stretch of time soul-searching while waiting tables at Dudley’s. Locals I thought I’d never see again sat in my sections: an old principal, former classmates, teachers and parents who formed the audiences for our childhood sports contests and plays. As I balanced gumbo bowls and French rolls on steamy plates, I thought about the forces that shaped me. In the face of the small-town gaze, I was able to strip out the parts of myself that were not working in adulthood—a few wrong orders turned back to the kitchen can do that. I learned how to be nimble and how to listen closely.

Serving hungry customers is a daily test. Even if your attitude is sunny, everybody’s food comes out on time, and their sweet-tea glasses are never empty, you can still get stiffed by those who decline to leave a tip. It can be degrading at times, but there are also moments of grace that are unique to this line of work. One day during a busy lunch, I dropped a bowl of coleslaw and it splashed onto the suit pants of a businessman. I was embarrassed; I wanted to retreat to the walk-in cooler and never leave. But he was kind to me and told me not to worry. He told me something I often tell myself now: “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you today, it’ll be a good day.”

During my five months working there, Dudley’s was open for lunch and dinner, with a two-hour break during the mid-afternoon lull. One day on my break, I read a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found eating out was among the riskiest activities during a pandemic. According to the report, COVID-positive adults were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant as those with negative tests. That statistic hovered over me during every shift. My colleagues and I were risking our lives for tip money that continued to dwindle.

Dudley and Sheryl did the best they could in a confusing time. They reminded us to wear masks. We seated customers only at every other table. We tried to limit tables to twelve diners. But many customers declined to wear masks or practice social distancing—not just at Dudley’s but at nearly every public place I went to in Longview.

Dudley's Grab & Geaux owners Dudley and Sheryl Lang stand for a photo outside their catering trailer in Longview on August 6, 2021. They cook and serve cajun food from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday with the small staff they rebuilt after closing in November because of the pandemic.

Dudley and Sheryl Lang outside their catering trailer in Longview.

Courtesy of Dudley’s Grab & Geaux

Jambalaya cooks in a cast iron pot before lunch in September 2020 at Dudley's Cajun Café in Longview. Owner Dudley Lang learned to cook jambalaya on wash days growing up in Many, Louisiana, before opening the café in East Texas years later.

Jambalaya cooks in a cast-iron pot before lunch.

Dalton LaFerney

While many East Texans disobeyed CDC advice and government orders, plenty more stayed home. At Dudley’s, the core customers were fifty or older—empty-nesters, as Dudley calls them—an age group at high risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. We watched as formerly bustling Friday nights became indistinguishable from the average Tuesday. “It was hard not being able to see your customers because they were afraid to come out,” Sheryl says.

Dudley’s gave me a space to think, but my time there did not last long. One November night after a dinner shift, the Langs sorrowfully announced they were shutting the doors and laying off their twenty-odd workers, including me. Nearly every news outlet in the Tyler-Longview area reported the announcement. Customers mourned the closure by the hundreds in Facebook comments. Months later, Dudley Lang was still receiving text messages from former regulars saying how much they missed his food.

In Many, the Langs had time to think. The town is just twenty miles east of the Toledo Bend Reservoir that splits Texas and Louisiana. Anglers converge there from all over the state to fish for trophy bass. Having catered events throughout his career, Dudley fired up his old cooking trailer, and he and Sheryl began to sell food at fishing tournaments. Dudley soon realized he could be doing the same thing back in Longview. Sheryl, whose hometown of Hughes Springs is just forty miles north of Longview, was ready to come back home too.

“All of a sudden it’s all gone and you feel like you’re sitting in an empty house,” Dudley said. “And then you start questioning yourself. What can I do to change this?”

The couple’s retreat to Louisiana lasted about six months. Dudley says he was puffing on a cigar when he decided it was time to return to East Texas. “You dumbass,” he said to himself. “You’ve got twenty-eight years worth of customers in Longview.”

His path back started to appear when the Langs sold their old building to a restaurateur who is transforming it into a Mexican food spot. But the new owner agreed to share the parking lot, and a commissary building on the property. The Langs outfitted that building’s kitchen with new steam tables, deep fryers, and stove tops.

Last month, the Langs announced they would reopen as Dudley’s Grab & Geaux, for takeaway food only. Hundreds of fans reacted to the post, tagging family and friends. Local TV newscasts and newspapers picked up the story. As the delta variant of COVID surges, the Langs are betting on curbside sales to keep the cafe open. The new joint won’t offer delivery, but customers can call ahead and order their favorite dishes from the old menu, park in a designated spot outside the kitchen, and wait for a crew member to deliver piping-hot food to their vehicle.

The Langs will continue to use their trailer to cater events such as the East Texas Yamboree in October in nearby Gilmer. There are still challenges, such as supply chain issues. The prices for foods like catfish and crab have risen, so Dudley removed crab cakes from the menu. But to the joy of his regulars, almost every item on the old menu is available once again. “I think what we’re doing,” he said, “may enable us to survive.”

In March, I moved to Dallas and began writing for magazines, which had previously existed outside of my comfort zone, since I’m a newspaper reporter. Before 2020, I thought I knew how to observe a scene the way a journalist should, but it was not until I worked in the restaurant that I learned to better absorb the sights, smells, sounds, and textures that make up our lives. I am a better listener because of my time at Dudley’s, and I am in a better position to show readers the telling details that make for a good story. As Dudley says, “Sometimes you gotta get away from the problem to realize an answer to the problem.”