Down Lifes Highway
Legend A.J. Judice Defined Cajun Joy and Culture
A.J. Judice was the ultimate showman. He had a great love of life, people and nature. However, under his public coating he wasn’t at all what people perceived.
He was a very private person, extremely shy, almost introverted. Like many great stars, when on stage he flashed his brilliance, the act was on and people loved him. He was recognized wherever he appeared, often to the sound of applause just for walking in. Nowhere in this world is there a copy of him. From looks to flare, he was one of a kind. His first signature black beret came from France, a gift from a customer. “It was so comfortable,” he said, “that I never took it off.” It was part of his M.O., his image, and his trademark.
In the early years he capitalized on the words, “Crazy Frenchman.” He often pulled crazy stunts, “crazy as a fox.” He knew what he was doing and was a constant promoter. One time he had a banana sale at the store so he brought in some monkeys. They got loose and nearly wrecked the store and even ran the employees off. That’s how he got the tag “Crazy,” but he also got a lot of publicity and sold a truckload of bananas. The Frenchman part came from signing his name with Votre’ Ami, ‘your friend.’ He invented the phrase, “Our seafood slept in the Gulf last night.” About the famous Judice boudain, he would say, “It’s made up from a secret recipe my mother created and brought to Texas.”
A.J. was born on Austin Avenue in Port Arthur. His father, A.J. ‘Tabin’ Judice, Sr., was an iceman. They moved to 601 13th Street and his dad opened his first store in a single car garage that had a room above it where the family lived. A.J.’s sister, Tilly, who was killed, along with her husband Bud, in an auto accident some years ago, was born there. In 1939, they opened the store on Seventh Street. A.J. went to school at St. James but had a real fear of the nuns and stayed upset so at age 11, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Loureville where he stayed for two years. He returned to Port Arthur and graduated from Thomas Jefferson in 1945, the year the Yellow Jackets played in the state championship game.
He spent two years in the Merchant Marines, traveling all over the world. In 1948, A.J. married the most beautiful girl in Port Arthur, Lois, the daughter of Ed and Agnes Bourgeois. The former senior prom queen took to marriage. They produced two children in one year, one in January, the other in December. They had five children in all, Debbie, Larry, Al, Kevin and Karen.
A.J. started in the grocery business at age nine bagging potatoes, “Ten pounds for five cents,” he said. He helped pick them in the field at Sabine Pass. In 1959, he started importing crawfish to Texas and also selling Creole Bell and Community Coffee in Texas for the first time. “Cajuns are a strong breed that absorbs everyone around them,” A.J. said, “We borrowed a little from all of them with our cooking.” “The Spanish gave us seasoning, the French gave us wine and finesse, the Negroes gave us the iron pot, the Indians the secret of corn and the Acadians, they fixed and ate it.”
Crawfish racing was started by Woodrow Marshall of Breaux Bridge, but A.J. and some friends built tracks and made crawfish racing famous. Around Southeast Texas, Gov. Preston Smith appointed him, Buddy Porter and Jim Braud as Crawfish Racing Commissioners. His famous crawfish ‘Taunte La’ La’ won the world championship racing contest held in Breaux Bridge. He was featured in a cover story on CBS television. A.J. trained two crawfish to jump out of airplanes by sitting them in the back cockpit of a crop duster. “I put a dab of boudain on the outside of the plane and over they went,” he said.
In the early 1980’s, when USA Today had just started publishing nationwide, they sent a writer and photographer to the Crawfish Bucket, a restaurant I owned in Nederland. A.J., my son Mark and I, our crawfish and crawfish track were featured in a story. That day I got a call from a friend in Boston and we also heard from people around the country.
I first met A. J. in the early 1950’s. His in-laws befriended me, took me in and fed me when I didn’t have a place to stay. A.J. was the envy of most young guys; he always drove a sharp, one of a kind car and had the prettiest wife in town.
For many years he and Lois had a camp on Cow Bayou. In 1976, they built their home and became permanent residents of Bridge City. He loved the bayou and paddled over to his Mom’s house across the way for morning coffee each day. ‘Maw-Maw’ Judice was a great Cajun cook and had a wonderful personality. A.J. was never the same after she died. He used to say, “I would paddle past Mamma’s place just to smell the good aroma.” His ducks always swam along side his small pirogue.
Sons Al and Larry have kept up the long ago started Judice tradition of serving customers good Cajun food. Al (A.J. III) is top man at the number one store on Seventh Street, along with his son, A.J. IV. Larry operates “Larry’s French Market and Cajun Restaurant” in Groves.
A.J. was my friend. I enjoyed our trips and time together. He was a legend and a real institution, uniquely different with his distinctive Cajun accent. He was always the star. A sure way to get on television was to stand next to him at any event.
He and Lois would have been married 60 years on April 25. They raised a great family and he loved them dearly. He was proud of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A. J. lived a good, fun life but it was not without its demons. In the last few years, bad health had taken it’s toll. Lois cared for him as long as she could. They were truly partners.
We all have wonderful memories of the guy with the most recognized face in the area, a star at any setting. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; he drew more attention than some of the stars that appeared here with Bob Hope for Hughen School fundraisers. A.J., W.T. Oliver and I had a pact to keep the Cajun culture at the forefront. Now they are both gone. I was honored and blessed to have traveled Down Life’s Highway with them. Albin J. Judice, Jr. passed away April 6. He has now joined his family, the original Judices of Port Arthur. Heaven is bound to go Cajun.