LAFAYETTE, La. -- The time was just approaching 5 a.m., the sun had some two hours before it would rise, but Keith Guidry and his pals pulled into the Cajun Field parking lot anyway, knowing they had to get their pig started.
Surely they'd be alone.
"But we weren't," Guidry said in his thick Cajun accent. "Somebody else had a pig, too. So it was two of us, in the pitch black, cooking our pigs."
Their 150-pound pigs. Their 12-hours-to-cook pigs. Their remove-the-skin, dip-it-in-ice and later-re-attach-it pigs. And this was 16 hours before a 9 p.m. kickoff. The sun would rise and set before Louisiana-Lafayette would take the field against North Texas later Friday night.
But it didn't matter. That's because in these parts, food rules. It's a place where "hello" is replaced by "you hungry?" A place where crawfish boils are as common as chips and salsa. There's a reason the school's nickname, the stadium's name, is the same as a spicy style of cooking. Win or lose on the field, the Cajuns are undefeated off it.
"I love my wife. And I love football," Guidry said. "But there's nothing like the love for great food. And each of these games I get to show it off."
Guidry and 23 other pals have tailgated every game outside the main entrance to Cajun Field for eight years now. The tailgaters wear lanyards around their necks that each carry a number, 1-24. The numbers represent each individual's ranking. Burn the pig, spill a beer, waste an oyster and you go down. Deliver great food on a regular basis and you go up. Guidry is No. 1, close friend and fellow tailgater Brian Richard is No. 2.
"Your number is up every week," Richard said. "You mess something up and we'll just walk right up to you, take the number away and let you know, 'you're done.' It's not pretty, but you join by our rules, you play by our rules."
Richard then turns to one of his tailgating teammates. "What number are you?" he asks.
"Eight," the guy responds.
"Great," Richard says back. "I need another beer. Michelob Ultra."
The group calls itself "Jamais' d la vie," or "never in my life." The name came about when a group of old ladies visited one of the early tailgates, tried some of the group's food and commented, "Jamais' d la vie."
"Never in their life had they seen guys this young cook this good," Richard said. "It stuck."
The menu is enough to make Emeril proud. Beside the 150-pound pig, which takes 12 hours to smoke, there was grilled redfish with jumbo shrimp, chicken and sausage jambalaya, shrimp fajitas, venison sausage, two different types of oysters and the group's specialty, crawfish and corn machoux. The machoux, which itself takes five hours to cook, is a combination of crawfish and sautéed corn, onions, bell peppers served in a secret cream-based sauce. It goes over big with the 400 assorted friends, family and business associates who attend each tailgate.
"I'm telling you, this guy earlier today," Guidry said. "It was like he had an orgasm. I didn't even know the guy. But he kept moaning, 'Ohhhhhh. Ohhhhhhh. This machoux.' Apparently he enjoyed it."
But it's the pig that's most impressive. After four guys carry the pig out of the back of a trailer, Guidry starts the fire with a set of paraffin blocks, then uses oil and hickory lump charcoal. "All natural, baby," he says. After slicing the pig in half, he removes the skin and puts it into a tub of ice. After using "Butt Rub" seasoning and smoking the pig for 10 hours, all the while doing the rest of the pre-tailgate setup, he removes the skin from the ice tub and places it back over the pig, for more smoking.
"Pigskin, I mean, that's what they make footballs out of, isn't it?" Guidry said. "So you've got to work like hell to get all those flavors in there. It's a chore."
It works. At halftime, with the Cajuns trailing 20-10, there was one "Jamais' d la vie" visitor yelling to another, "Hey Chuck, who are we playing again?"
"I dunno," the guy said. "Just get me some more of that pork."
Before the night would come to an end, North Texas would beat Louisiana Lafayette 27-17, the Mean Green's 23rd straight Sun Belt victory. The win brought up a dilemma -- and a tough one at that -- food or football?
"Food," Richard said. "Food, food, food. This isn't West Texas. This isn't the Permian Basin. This is Louisiana. This is Emeril. Paul Prudhomme. Justin Wilson. We do food here. And we do it right. It's a testosterone thing."
Under his bib, Guidry wears a shirt from a cooking contest he judged. A tool belt around his waist carries not only his chewing tobacco, but all of his cooking utensils. His six barbecue smokers -- with "UL" emblazoned on the fronts -- are custom-built, costing as much as $20,000 per unit. And each tailgate costs the group roughly $2,000.
But it doesn't matter. This is about food.
"It starts right here, deep down inside," Guidry said, pointing to his chest. "Then it travels across your body, down your right arm and into the knife. And if you have the love, if you have that passion, it will flow right into your food. You can taste it.
If you don't have the love, if you're faking it, your food will be flat. But we don't usually have that problem."