Southern Louisiana – Feb. 2008

Southern Louisiana
Americans all over the country have been very hospitable and welcoming. And Louisianans rank right up there at the top. We spent most of our five weeks in Louisiana lodged in locals’ homes. And if it wasn’t a home, it might be the police station, the town hall, a church, or even a hotel (two times!).

From a cultural point of view, Louisiana differs from the rest of the country. History has concocted a fascinating gumbo of cultures, with people coming from France, Spain, Africa, Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany, Sicily, Ireland, the West Indies, Vietnam, and Mexico, among other places. Each wave of immigrants brought with them their own heritage, their own culture, and their own contribution to the regional or local cuisine.

Geographically, Louisiana is like a spongy swamp – muddy, wet, and flat, flat, flat. We flew over the southern Louisiana prairies, except when the strong headwinds battled us. The climate was similar to that of Southeast Asia – hot and humid, a paradise for mosquitoes (which were monstrously huge even in the wintertime). The swampy lowlands cut by roads were filled with palm tress and fronds, cypresses, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, white cranes and deafeningly loud frogs. Left untamed in many places, the “jungle” was taking over. Abandoned houses and tractors (and there were plenty of them) were overtaken and reclaimed by nature.

We saw a lot of sugarcane fields and rice paddies. Before the rice-planting season, the drains to the fields are closed, and when the rain submerged the land, the crawfish (or ‘mudbugs,’ as they’re called in northern Louisiana) come to the surface. The southern Louisianans delight in eating crawfish (“crawfish boils,” or “crawfish parties” are common), and so did we. We bought huge bags of them at the “crawfish rooms” at the groceries and Stephane would make a delicious crawfish pasta from their shells and tender meat.

We saw old cotton warehouses and railroad depots, which reminded one that steamboats and trains once traversed this region and stimulated early commerce.

As in other southern states, Louisiana has many plantation homes. Because plantation life had been a big part of the South’s history, we wanted to tour one. We did so in the pretty town of St. Francisville, which had many historic churches and houses. We toured the state-funded Rosedown Plantation, whose literature had promised a tour giving an “illustration of plantation life.”

Plantation life (from the plantation owner’s point of view) was idealized to the max. Great attention was given to the history, construction, and restoration of the buildings and grounds, as well as to the fine furnishings, exotic plant species, and genteel lifestyle of the owners. We appreciated the fine furnishings and decorations, but I was shocked that, during an hour-long tour, not a single minute was given to the lifestyle or work of the slaves, outside of saying how many slaves the owners had. In fact, our guide referred to the slaves as “servants”! When I asked if she meant “slaves,” she replied “yes,” but afterwards continued to refer to them as servants, as if trying to either rewrite, ignore, or gloss over history! I would have thought that an “illustration of plantation life” should have included all those who lived on the plantation, including the slaves.

A lot of the plantation homes were either run by the state or open for tours, if still privately owned. Once the slave-driven labor was gone, the grandiose homes were too expensive to maintain. The lifestyle and culture of the plantation era had been possible only with slave labor, and that was now gone. Some white folk still look back with an almost wistfulness to the plantation era as if to some glorified, romanticized time. But it is doubtful whether their black neighbors view it with the same eye.

Morris told us of an expression that fits Louisiana to a tee: “In the South, you can’t throw a cat without hitting a church!” That certainly is true in southern Louisiana, and in some towns, it sometimes seems as if there are more churches than houses!

The southern-style homes that one pictures when thinking of the South were found in the countryside: those houses with columned front porches and rocking chairs and a swing. There were also the long and narrow shotgun houses and those with rusting tin roofs and taped-up windows. There were a lot of these. Louisiana is the country’s second-poorest state.

The small Cajun towns of Acadia, Evangeline, and St. Landry parishes (counties) boast many capitals, such as the “Frog Capital of the World,” “Rice Capital of America,” “Zydeco Capital of the World,” “Smoked Meat Capital of the World,” etc. The Cajuns use any reason to celebrate a festival: “the Louisiana Swine Festival,” “Boggy Bayou Festival,” “the Louisiana Cotton Festival,” “the World Champion Crawfish Etouffee Festival,” “the Frog Festival,” and “the Atchafalaya Catfish Festival,” among many others.

Our backcountry roads let us see Cajun country as it really was, and we were able to experience firsthand the unbeatable Cajun hospitality, the provincialism yet also friendliness, the infectious beat of the Cajun and zydeco music played by live bands in bars and dancehalls, and American’s best food, found in local dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, boudin and smoked sausages. We found all these things first with Tee-bird and his family during Mardi Gras time in southwest Louisiana (see “Mardi Gras in Cajun Country”), but we continued to experience these things as we crossed the state (see “Cajun Culture” to read more about the Cajun way of life).

It was because of John that we were able to get off the roads and into the swamp, which many say is the best way to see Louisiana. Just before the Mississippi River Crossing, the flat swamplands gave way to the submerged plains of the Mississippi Flatlands, and this is where we met John. Stephane was repairing his bike pedal alongside the road when a young man with sandy hair stopped to ask if we needed help. Although we said “no,” John said, “Well, I live in the green house on the corner, and if you need anything or want to stop by to rest, come on by.”

I needed to rest my legs, and so we did, and found ourselves treated to his wife’s delicious homemade bread and corn and shrimp chowder. I got a lesson in archery from his neighbor (who was shocked that I didn’t hunt my own food!) and then John took us out on the bayou in a kayak with his two-year old son and big black Lab, Jackson. Navigating the bayous by kayak was a great way to see Louisiana, and we saw cranes, deer, submerged cypresses, fish, and even an alligator.

We spent an enjoyable evening with John and his wife, Sue, a sweet woman with dark, curly hair. We exchanged stories and had fun looking through their humongous recipe book of how to trap, kill, and cook Louisiana fish, wildlife, and roadkill (people here actually do trap, hunt, and slaughter a lot of their own food). She cooked us several southern and Louisiana specialties, including shrimp etouffee and grits and sausage for breakfast the next morning.

Talking about hunting and trapping, one afternoon, we were waved over for drinks by a few men sitting in the rocking chairs on the patio of a bar, and as we pulled up and dismounted, we heard them talking about their “daddys” and grilling armadillo and other small game that they had either hunted or picked up already dead off the side of the road!

The mighty Mississippi serpentines through the state, and once we crossed the river (by ferry), we were in Anglo Louisiana. Stephane had had images in his head of Tom Sawyer running beside the Mississippi river boats, and was a bit disappointed to see how narrow it was at this point.

We met a lot of great people in Louisiana, but one who helped us out a lot was Kevin, the youth pastor at a Baptist church in St. Francisville. After finding us accommodation in St. Francisville, he afterwards drove us to Baton Rouge, because the bridge that we were supposed to take had collapsed. He called his friend at the Baptist Student Union at LSU, where we slept for one night. I spent all the next day at the student health clinic, and by the time I was out, it was too late to start biking. Since a large group of people were flying in that night and no available space was left, Steve, the BSU pastor, reserved and paid for a room for us at a local hotel! I was shocked. We refused, as it just seemed so over the top, but he absolutely insisted, saying that the church’s coffers were full and had a lot of extra money to spare! I felt really guilty about accepting this generosity. It just seemed too much to accept money from a church, but he absolutely wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer.

We biked Highway 61 from Baton Rouge into New Orleans, and it was one of the busiest roads we had biked in this country (up until now, we had stuck mainly to very small roads). The ride, which took several days, was torturous. We were biking under the hot sun, and I was suffering from a migraine and the flu, neither of which had abated over the past week. Flames were shooting out of my head in all directions. As we bounced up and down on the washboard shoulder of the highway, we counted the minutes til we reached New Orleans, the city I had been waiting for over ten years to visit. It wasn’t far off now….