Child of the Bayou

“The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” –William Faulkner

Humid Hearing. The Cage. Burned Butter. In a Nutshell. Greeting an Aphid. Tree-Rings. Terrior. The Chief’s Decision. Baron Samedi. Super Gumbowl. Louisiana Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.

Humid Hearing

The first change I noticed was in the air; it settled like a thick blanket. The trees along the highway were taller too, some sporting fringes of green where birds challenged a winter surrendering to the grip of the gulf.

The Chief rattled along like a rusty locomotive. Inside the cabin, the prattling combined with the engine’s roar and powerful rush of wind created a massive sound that’ll probably ruin my hearing by the end of the year. I’d decided not to exceed my stereo’s volume at 27, a setting which hurt my ears a month ago but now seemed faded. I could barely hear the music, evidence of loss already. I imagined the tiny fragile hairs in my inner ear bending over, shriveling up and eventually ejecting in protest; they do not grow back.

The Cage

I was encased in a custom-made roll cage, welded and retro-fitted into the van’s frame as insurance. With a year’s worth of galloping over the blacktop ahead of me, a mishap was statistically probable. So I felt it prudent to consider the options. During impact, the van’s thin metal shell offered little protection; even a low-speed collision would remove my legs and propel the steering column straight through my face. If circumstances allowed, my waning reflexes might be able to swerve us out of the way, but the van’s notorious high-center of gravity would toss us into a roll, crushing the top of the van and me with it. I was driving one of the most dangerous cars ever made. My choices in an accident were narrowed not to survival, but to how I wished to greet the Hereafter.  So in California I ran-up my credit cards and installed the cage. A friend observed that at least the van was safer than a motorcycle, and I admit to feeling relative relief as couples rode by on their tour bikes giving me a thumbs-up; I smiled guiltily back.

The van’s windows didn’t close all the way, which in cold weather caused my left shoulder to freeze from the frigid blast. In response I stylishly draped one of my Indian blankets across my flank for warmth. But here in Louisiana the added ventilation was pleasant, aerating the van with the perfume of the deep South, a mélange of decaying leaves, moisture, and nature’s sweetish sweat which accumulated in my lungs and on my skin.

Burned Butter

I was entering a region shaped by marshes and myths and music, by pirates like Jean Lafitte, by Vampires like Lestat, by musicians like Louis Armstrong and…Britney Spears.  Along the way were bayous and bushes, crops and orchards, characteristics of Louisiana that formed leaves on the branches of Route 49. The highway grew down the center of the state like its trunk, separating into several roots at Lafayette, each in turn extending to Lake Charles, Houma, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, perhaps in search of water.

Along the road were orchards I recognized from my drive through Texas, many of them were pecan. Some of these plantations were worked by families who’d tended the trees for generations, watching them grow and flourish and die and grow again. The laborers collected the nuts shaken to the ground, divided and dried them, before reconstituting them into the delicious dishes which are a culinary hallmark of the region. I spoke with a farm woman while she calmly picked through the pecans, examining them in the shed’s fluorescent light. Several family members listened as she confided to me the secret of making great Pecan Pie, “If you burn the butter,” she smiled, “you done ruined the pie.” We paused, all perhaps realizing this might be a metaphor for life.

Yet Louisiana’s butter has burned several times, and the pie has not been ruined. That may be because of its healthy allotment of nuts. Maybe we can rewind and follow a nut back through that pie, past the weathered hands that embedded it and the adroit fingers that chose it, to rejoin its brothers on the drying rack, and then follow the nut further as it is jumbled back into its shell and into the collection bag. There it lies briefly on the grass where, defying time and gravity, it falls upwards to be reattached to the tree that imbued it with sustenance and identity, truly demonstrating that the past is never really dead.

In a Nutshell

Within the past is of course a history, a history contained in the thriving nut within that pecan shell, as identity and past are really found in everything, infused in where we choose to look. And so discovered, this single nut reveals Louisiana itself, named as such to indemnify the French King Louis XIV against mortality, when he chose two brothers from Montreal to found a colony down on the Mississippi. On Mardi Gras day the intrepid brothers made camp and their first permanent settlement at Natchitoches, on a thin river, a palisaded fort precariously tolerated by the Natives.  But King Louis dreamed bigger, as Sun Kings do, of a Paris in the Americas, and a port near the mouth of the Great River, eventually building what became New Orleans around a church and public square blending Caribbean and European styles.

Settlers arrived from France and Canada, a few from Germany, buttressed by multitudes of African slaves imported to a city fast becoming a nexus for such trade. Some slaves earned their freedom, most did not, but earnest intermingling led to a vibrant creole community. When the Spanish took over, after the French lost to the British, they imprinted their Latin character on what is now called the French Quarter. And when the French got it back, they sold it to the Americans after a brilliantly successful slave uprising on the island of San Domingue. This revolution convinced a cash-strapped Napoleon to dump a huge chunk of North America on an agrarian-minded Jefferson (who made the deal without the approval of Congress), thus more than doubling the size of the United States.

A decade later, the Americans had to defend it against the British, digging trenches across their advance at New Orleans and manning it with a ragged band of misfits assembled under Andrew Jackson. In a prelude to Gallipoli, the motley crew managed to mow the British lines down, routing the greatest military power on Earth, and interestingly, the exact battalions that had just defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Unbeknownst to them, a peace treaty had already been signed, the war was already over, and America promptly made the land around New Orleans a state.

Not unexpectedly, the Mississippi River continued as a vital trade route and New Orleans a focal point for the influx and distribution of sugarcane, indigo, tobacco, rice and cotton. Here the plantation culture dominated, until as Confederates, Louisiana’s butter was burned again, and the region languished after the Civil War.  But in the 20th Century, Louis’ New World Paris became the birthplace of jazz, a haven for writers like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, and an annual riotous party for plastic necklaces, lifted shirts, and parade floats. As another millennium dawned, New Orleans, already wedged dangerously between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchtrain, had sprawled into areas inconceivable by the initial settlers. This provided Nature with an opportunity to get even, drowning the city in the fury of Katrina, smashing the levees and flushing much of the refuse into the already clogged but disappearing bayous.

Luckily the pecan orchards I drove through in the north survived the deluge, and so did the pies and the pecan that magically returned to its tree, the pecan I chose for us to follow, thus giving us Louisiana’s history in a nut-shell.

Greeting an Aphid

I entered at Shreveport and descended like a star-spangled aphid down the trunk of 49 to Natchitoches,  the site first chosen by the French brothers for their fort, now a town of beautiful old houses that lures film productions with its old world charm. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Steel Magnolias was filmed here, nor to see the house perched on the main road overlooking a coffee-colored river. A man fished quietly on its banks, and I strolled beneath the faint shadows of venerable buildings, returning the greetings of residents who passed by.

People in Louisiana wave at you; they wave and smile and look you in the eye. I noticed this driving in, wondering who they were waving at until I realized it was me, hoping my quizzical pause wouldn’t be considered rude. I had to get used to waving, nodding, smiling back. And not only were there greetings, I sneezed over my fries in an empty restaurant and was startled when someone across the room yelled a blessing at me. Coming from Los Angeles, I was not habituated to the State’s conscientious, easy politeness.

Tree-rings

I visited pawn shops, plantations, and organic farms, learning something about bottled aliens, mosquitoes, and mobile chicken coops. While bending over long rows of green crops, a young farmer reminded me of an obvious but often ignored lesson. That we must align ourselves with Nature, and allow it to do the work it so eloquently does…naturally, instead of arrogantly working against it. We walked through the long grasses, mud sucking at our shoes, and the sky melted into an astonishing sunset, gently descending through lavenders and pinks and blues to dark, inspiring the crickets to sing the evening song, sung every night there year after year after year. For a moment time folded in on itself and I stepped across the age rings of wood into another era, and felt the tender veracity of another place, another world attached by its common material to this one, sharing the plantation lights that captivated us like will-o-wisps through the leaves.

Terrior

I drove further south. Along the way, sure enough, it was the people who interested me most; they were the pecans on the tree. One of them was the manager of a local McDonald’s wearing an American Flag necktie; we instantly found a friendly camaraderie in our patriotic attire. He left Louisiana for several years, but returned because he said there was no place like it. He missed the people, the music, the aromas; the subtleties of the weather, the soul, whatever it was that made Louisiana specific, he couldn’t put his finger on it. To sum it up, he returned because there was no “here” there. To me this can be explained by the combination of climate and soil and circumstance that make up the French word terrior, special elements in combination that form something unique. My desire was to follow these roots down in an effort to understand Louisiana’s terrior, its very soil.

The Chief’s Decision

One of the barriers to this was the Chief. We’d settled into a Walmart parking lot comfortably enough the night before. Outside my van, as the big rigs surrounded me, the soft susurrus of rain lulled me to sleep. Dawn roused the trucks which roused me by shattering the morning into rolls of fuel-fed thunder. When I peeked through the windshield, sunlight angled through the trees, drawing stripes in the damp air. I warmed up the Chief to go.

Just when I feel the most confident, and my itinerary seems settled and peaceful in my mind, the Chief shows me who’s really in control. This time his engine caught spectacularly on fire. My intention to leave Lafayette and head down to tour the Tabasco Factory before swinging over to New Orleans was effectively suffocated by the white foam of my fire-extinguisher. I inhaled the frothy white residue as I limped to a local garage where they determined I needed another carburetor, yet again. So I rolled the dice and decided to make a break for New Orleans anyway, where I picked up my beautiful copilot and friend at the airport, Jenny, who would be joining me for several weeks. The next day, a local shop replaced the carburetor for free, and after crossing on the ferry, we were ready to tackle New Orleans.

Baron Samedi

Beneath the shadows of tall office buildings the sidewalk carved its way onto Bourbon Street where the buildings suddenly plummeted in stature. Plaster, chipped paint, and wrought iron balconies welcomed the sky which arched over them, heavy with evening. I wanted to pay homage to the street’s historical bacchanal, so we spent some time imbibing not only the liquids but the sounds and smells. But it’s the corridors just off Bourbon where the thrill really happens, where it’s almost possible to step across those tree-rings again and arrive in another world.

Plastic cups in hand, we prowled effervescent blackness dripping with the moisture of distant bayous. The damp cultures of past and present stretched through centuries compounded and collided, shadows that haunted and oozed until the night seemed to blur together into a sticky cloud. The classic creole architecture seemed to light with the fiery hues of ancient street lamps, and the sounds of music drifted into the sounds of the swamp, fireflies, and brawling pirates. I imagined Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of death and sex, the Haitian Dionysus, stumbling along with us, and as the evening drew on I could feel his thin arms weighing my shoulders down into a stoop. The shadows were real and we became a part of them.

And then with little transition it was another night, this time filled with revelers of the only Mardi Gras parade that still navigates the French Quarter. The Krewes danced on pavement sandwiched between squirming crowds that peered over and between each other for a glimpse of the ribald floats and crazy costumes. I felt a full wet kiss of air seething in my chest. We furrowed our own path until, bar after bar, and party after party, my wild blond wig and ski-goggles drooping, we finally made it back to the hotel, where it was evident the Baron and his shadow host of Gede had followed us too. When I awoke in the morning, I not only felt I’d found Louisiana’s terrior, but that I was planted in it, buried alive, and my head pounded as I dug myself out, to stand trembling on the ground above the roots to greet another humid day, my feet cushioned by maroon hotel carpets. I turned to see my partner still sprawled in bed, and I knew, based on the previous night’s adventure, we’d done the Baron’s city justice.

Super Gumbowl              

Our last night in Louisiana was Superbowl Sunday, spent over plates of potato-skins and BBQ at a chain restaurant in Slidell. When we walked back through the unusually chill night, and I lay on my back in our motel room, it was as if the soil was being shoveled over me again, warm, redolent soil that filled the space around me until I slept. Sometime after, the earth seemed to soften until my dreams floated near the surface and I was suspended.

Those last two nights in the State,  the time I spent buried in the terrior, and the floating sensation the night after, made me realize with some personal accuracy, that Louisiana’s roots reached not so much into a soil, but into something more liquid, like the bayous, or an exotic Gumbo, a deliciously spicy, thick, swampy stew. Gumbo is Louisiana’s signature dish, and for good reason. This was the soupy soul the McDonald’s manager couldn’t articulate, but was able to intuit. And although there were performers in Jackson square I never saw, Café du Monde beignets I sadly never tasted, St. Charles streetcars I never rode, cemeteries I couldn’t get into, I could now feel it too. A feeling that indeed couldn’t be articulated, it was just there, the “here” in there, imbued in a past that was not past, served up in a Gumbo that for me was full of pecans.

Louisiana Reading

Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin; Can River by Lalita Tademy; Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice; The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory by Robert V. Remini, Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White Jr.; Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men Behind the Louisiana Purchase by Charles A. Cerami; The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Recipe

Boudreaux’s Zydeco Stomp Gumbo with Pecans

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup skinless, boneless chicken breast halves – chopped
  • 1/2 pound pork sausage links, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 quarts chicken broth
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer
  • 6 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 cup of diced pecans
  • 4 roma (plum) tomatoes, diced
  • 1 sweet onion, sliced
  • 1 (10 ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chile peppers, with liquid
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh red chile peppers
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Cajun seasoning
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

Directions

  1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat, and cook chicken until no longer pink and juices run clear. Stir in sausage, and cook until evenly browned. Drain chicken and sausage, and set aside.
  2. In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, blend olive oil and flour to create a roux. Stir constantly until browned and bubbly. Mix in garlic, and cook about 1 minute.
  3. Gradually stir chicken broth and beer into the roux mixture. Bring to a boil, and mix in celery, tomatoes, pecans, sweet onion, diced tomatoes with green chile peppers, red chile peppers, parsley, and Cajun seasoning. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 40 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Mix chicken, sausage, and shrimp into the broth mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes.

From Allrecipes.com with Trek’s addition

Gratitude

Jenny Ramo, Eugene Terk, Keith, Clark Thompson, Janet Schwartz, Betty Jones, organic farm guy, Corwith Davis, Erin Killpatrick, Jill Grieshaber, Eric at Alan’s Garage for fixing the Chief

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