Sunday, May 15, 2011

Acadiana Travelogue

The term “acadiana” has been appearing in the news of late, because that’s the region of Louisiana that will bear the brunt of the Mississippi flooding now that they’ve opened the Morganza Spillway. It wasn’t coined to the until the 1960s, but the French-speaking Acadians to which it refers began to arrive in the region in the eighteenth century, having been expelled from Nova Scotia by the British for “security” regions, though they had maintained a posture of vehement and long-standing neutrality in the colonial wars of the era.

Today few people in southern Louisiana speak French of any type, I suspect…but their grandfathers did. Yet the culture of the region is distinctive and colorful, with crayfish, Roman Catholicism, jambalaya, bayous, alligators, and the Cajun two-step adding to the fun. There’s a lot of oil industry activity as you approach the gulf, of course, in towns like Houma and Morgan City, and the Gulf Intracostal Waterway cuts through the region like an enormous gash.

On the map the entire area looks to be a maze of rivers, swamps, bayous, and canals, but anyone who pays a visit will see that most of “acadiana” consists of flat fields planted with sugar cane, wheat, and rice. As you travel south down the minor roads that parallel the major bayous, the fields turn to grasslands and water.

During the three days we were in the area, we caught a bit of the local flavor. I think our most pleasant morning was spent in St. Martinville, where we toured an Acadian plantation and ate some fabulous biegnets at Le Petit Paris Café. A group of women were having breakfast when we arrived. One of them told us that they attend Mass every day at 6:30, arriving 30 minutes early to do a few rosaries. On Saturdays they have breakfast together after Mass at the café across the street from the church.

“St. Martinville is a dying town,” the woman told us. “You can see for yourself.” And she gestured toward the empty storefront of Hebert’s Jewelry store next to the café. “When they built to freeway from Lafayette to Baton Rouge, the businesses began to drift north to Breaux Bridge.” All the same, she was born and raised there, and she lives next door to her brother, who has taken to shooting the armadillos that tear up the yard with their snooting and shoveling antics.

Breaux Bridge is famous for its Café des Amis, which serves some very fine food and holds a Zydego brunch every Saturday morning. We’d eaten lunch there the previous day, and also caught some of the Saturday morning Zydego action before walking a half-mile on up the highway past the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket to the Breaux Bridge Crayfish festival.

Mulates is a more traditional Cajun roadhouse out on the highway, with lower ceilings, more frequent live music, murals of the bayous on the walls, and a bigger dance floor. (You can watch a video of the Saturday morning action at Cafe Les Amis at the end of this post.

A few miles south into the backcountry (presuming you know the way) is Lake Martin, the shores of which are ringed with half-submerged cypress trees.

It’s easy to spot alligators near shore, and at one point the scrubs contain a rookery where we watched little blue herons feed their babies as roseate spoonbills flew back and forth from their nests in the pines further out in the swamp.

As you proceed south and east toward Houma, the vast workings of the oil industry begin to manifest themselves. Cranes, vast fields covered with pipes and machinery. Helicopters here and there. And as you continue further south toward Cocodrie, farms give ways to grassy expanses, and villages are replaced by fishing “camps” sitting on fifteen–foot stilts.

It’s beautiful down there. But it’s the end of the road. And much of it will be under water soon.

Back in Breaux Bridges, we took some dancing lessons at the Crayfish festival. Then we ate three pounds of crayfish. In fact, we bought three pounds, but once you’ve torn the heads off, and peeled way the legs, there isn’t much left: I’ll bet we didn’t eat more than a third of a pound apiece.

We would have danced—there were several bands playing—but I couldn’t figure out what to do with our lemonade glass that guaranteed unlimited $1 refills. (It was 92 degrees.)

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