Friday, March 25, 2011

Return to Acadiana

It's a trip that always starts with a poem:


Poems are subject to interpretation, but for me, this one signals that Houston is behind me and I only have to survive Beaumont and I'll be in Louisiana soon. The bridge over the two indistinguishable rivers with their deserted woods and chilly-looking water clicks a switch in my head, and I'm in another country.

I've been coming to the Acadiana Parishes, as the tourist map calls them, for years, pretty much ever since I moved to Texas in 1979. I've driven a rented Buick backwards as the Mamou Mardi Gras Courire "robbed" farmers of chickens, rice, and sausage for the communal gumbo back in the town, I've heard legendary and now-dead artists like Dennis McGee and Bois Sec Ardoin and Beau Joque play to their own people, written tens of thousands of words on the subject of Cajun music and culture, and even bought two chairs from the legendary songwriter and chairmaker D.L. Menard at his house/shop in Erath, Louisiana. I must figure a way to get them to France.

But I haven't been there in a long while. I used to go over, hauling a carload of Brits or Germans, after SXSW, which is to say during Lent, but not so much during Lent that there wasn't a bit of music and food available. Then I started getting rental cars that prohibited me from leaving the state in them. And fewer people wanted to go. A book project I'm working up, however, gave me a great excuse to run over for a day on Tuesday, so I asked that that clause be taken out of the contract. I chose Tuesday so I'd be rested for dinner at Hawk's on Wednesday. But more of that anon.

Boy, have things changed! For one thing, there are scads of places to stay, motels in all price-ranges and more B&Bs than ever before. I stayed in something called the Microtel in Breaux Bridge for the breathtaking fee of $38 a night. It was clean, comfortable, and looked like it had been built last week. Across the street was a rice-field and smack at the turnoff to it was a branch of Cajun Claws, the legendary Abbeville crawfish joint.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning and took a drive up I-45 to Ville Platte. It's a bit out of the way, up on the prairie, but I had an agenda. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket there used to sell Mr. Allen Ortego's Pimenté Sauce, which was like Tabasco, but hotter and more flavorful. It was probably the best hot sauce I ever used, and I finally had to toss my last bottle in Berlin when it became too funky to use. Thing is, Mr. Allen is now 91, and, while he's still alive, he's not making hot sauce any more. Moreover, according to the nice lady at the Chamber of Commerce/Tourist Information Center, he sold the grocery where he used to make it.

On a friend's recommendation, I asked if they could recommend a hot sauce, and one of the guys at the butcher counter came back with a bottle unmarked except for a C on the cap, offering to sell it to me, but I was going to take it back to France, so I didn't want anything without a label. I wish I had a kitchen to cook in, though: the tasso and other smoked meats in their display case were utterly fantastic-looking and made me want to whip up a mess of jambalaya. I settled for a boudin link, which I managed to take a bite out of -- my first in over ten years, okay? -- before photographing it. 

It was just what I wanted at 10:30 in the morning and made me nostalgic for the boudin I used to bring back to Texas and serve alongside bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning.

With no Ortego's, I stopped in for an obligatory visit with Floyd Soileau, who'd run the Swallow Records label and recorded a bunch of local talent during his reign, and whose store is now pretty barren inside. Ace Records in London has a bunch of it on CD, though.

Having done this (and attempted to "parler Francais," with him, since the door has a now-ubiquitous sign on it saying "Nous sommes fier de parler Francais," "We're  proud to speak French," which shows how times have changed), I figured to take the long way back to my hotel, where I'd prepare for my afternoon of interviewing. 

The thing is, lacking mountains and rivers and other scenic delights, this part of the world offers manmade beauty, for the most part. I had no sooner driven off the Interstate onto the road to Ville Platte when the god of photography appeared to me and said "Ed, I know you're not such a great photographer, but here's a gift." The light was right, the yellow flowers mixed with the grass were right, the angle of the huge bowl was right...

I keep staring at this. I can't believe I did it.

The road stretched through the prairie, and I figured that at some point it would intersect Route 13, which has always been my road off of I-10 into Cajun country. Both sides of the road were lined with crawfish ponds, since this is the start of the crawfish season. It may not last long this year: the air temperature, I was told, is 15° F warmer than normal at this time of year, and at a certain temperature, the water can't retain enough oxygen to support the crawfish, so they dig holes and estivate.

Still, there were the red ends of traps bobbing up in the ponds, ibis and rare ducks swimming there (most of whom flew off when I slammed the car door), and, I hoped, tens of thousands of luscious mudbugs beneath waiting for me.

Sure enough, both 13 and a gas station appeared at the right moment, so after refueling, I headed south. I knew Mamou was nigh when I passed the massive rice-dryers, sort of like grain elevators, but specialized for the task of storing and drying rice. I should have taken a picture, but a lot of the roads in this part of the world have very steep ditches in their shoulders, and a lot of Cajuns like to drive fast on your rear end. Mamou was the rice-market town for the area once upon a time, its Hotel Cazan a luxurious retreat for brokers and agents, but that changed long before I hit town. The Cazan was enough of a dump the one time I hit their bar for a beer with some of my Berlin friends that they were scared. But its past explains the song "Big Mamou," in which the guy's been dumped by his girlfriend there: "Why'd you go away and leave me in Big Mamou?" he asks. Probably ran away with a fat guy with a cigar.

Mamou has adjusted nicely to the tourist environment, welcoming tourists who don't know the right way into town with this spanking-new gateway.

On the way back to the Mazda (seen in the left distance) I found Mardi Gras beads in the ground. Beads for Mamou Mardi Gras? I didn't see a bead in sight when I attended that bacchanale, which began with the courire leader chugging a whole bottle of wine. At any rate, although Fred's Lounge still draws tourists to its morning radio shows (rarely any musicians of any worth there, of course, and everyone's drunk), some things don't change:

Seems to me this former snack-bar was empty last time I was in town!

Back onto 13, I noted it was getting late. I wanted to hit Poché's in Cecilia before heading to my interviews, which meant going back to Breaux Bridge to get my recorder and stuff. I did, of course, have to seek out my old haunts in Eunice, which used to be my base of operations. I almost wish I hadn't: Le Jeune's Creole Smokehouse, makers of the best smoked garlic sausage on the planet, appears to have folded. Many's the time I've spent talking with the great Kermit LeJeune, and if you want a hint of what he's like, ask me the Cadillac story next time we meet. Last time I was there, though, his son was in charge, and his wife was poking around in some fundamentalist tract and trying to get his attention. For old-time Cajun Catholics, this is not a good sign, and it looks like she might have gotten her way. Another tragedy was that Johnson's Grocery, purveyors of the finest boudin ever made on the planet, was also gone, but at least someone had prepared me for that shock. Damn, now I really wanted another link! And, headed down 190 towards Opelousas, I noticed a lot of building had happened, and that although the Savoy Music Center still stood (I'd have been shocked if it wasn't there), the Stone Motel, the barely-respectable place I used to stay, wasn't anywhere to be seen. It's okay: there's now a Holiday Inn Express that's got to be better, but I sort of missed it. I didn't hit downtown Eunice because of time constraints, but maybe next time...

Camping centers now took the place of the black honky-tonks where I'd spent many a happy evening eating gumbo and drinking those maddening 10-oz. cans of Bud (you hand reaches out, feels like a toy), and in fact I only saw one place that looked like it might be okay. On the outskirts of Opelousas, I stopped to shoot a brick building that's always been in disrepair, with someone's horse munching happily away on the weeds and a tree growing in the room just behind him.

The guy in the tractor repair shop came out to ask what I was doing, but he was more amused than anything. Lord knows that, except for its gorgeous courthouse square, Opelousas has been falling apart since I've been visiting it. But the Palace is still there, and I bet you a quarter they still serve fried chicken salad. Ah, I see by this that they do! Whew! The world's only legit use of Miracle Whip.

I finished my work at about 6 (and couldn't even find Poché's because I had a personal GPS blankout in Cecilia like I always do), so I was ravenous. I got back to the motel, downloaded my interviews, and called my friend Dickie to go to Hawk's. He's never been there despite being born and raised in the area and resident there after a distinguished career in New York for dozens of years. Of course, there's a good reason: it's impossible to find. Look at this map. There's a very important detail there you might miss, which is that the first turn is a couple of feet after you get off the Interstate. We just drove north on 35 til we got to Branch, where a woman in a service station gave us bogus directions that got us onto a really bad gravel road. At one point I drove into a field. But (and boy, did I never expect to say this) thank heavens for cell phones: I called Hawk's and got great directions (thanks, Jennifer!) and soon we were standing in front of this:

Behind that corrugated iron door lie the best crawfish in the world, purged clean of impurities for you head-suckers out there, boiled in water with a perfectly-balanced boil spice mixture, and delivered on Budweiser trays like God intended:

Dickie mowed through his order like a machine and proclaimed them some of the best he'd ever had -- and he's had a lot. I ordered an appetizer-sized bowl of etouffée to start, because I was so starved, and it was also magnificent (note to self: a tad more garlic next time you make it).

It took us about 2 1/2 hours to get there and about 45 minutes to get back, following some other patrons. Their website is right: it's absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It's worth finding.

This morning, I got up at 7 because I had to check out and drive back to Austin, but not without a detour first: I'd stumbled on the town of Grand Couteau one time and can't remember how I did it. It's a perfectly-preserved Cajun village of the early 19th Century, or at least one street is, and some of the other buildings, too. The only better collection of buildings I can think of is in the superb Vermillionville museum outside Lafayette, which I strongly recommend along with the exhibit near the restored theater in Eunice. Vermillionville, though, has guides who are very knowledgeable. That's why I was able to look at these buildings and understand them better.

This house is from the 1830s.

This store is from the 1840s and was totally restored in 2002 after getting hit by a hurricane. 

But the real masterpiece is this 1825 house. The stairs lead to the garçonnière, the complex of rooms upstairs where the older boys and men lived. This is as much a feature of traditional Cajun architecture as the Spanish moss used to chink holes and the spaces between boards -- and, not coincidentally, provide fireproofing at the same time. 

All of these houses are in the National Register of Historic Places, and rightly so. I took a last look, jumped in the car, and went back to the Interstate. A couple of hours later, I saw it again. 


This time it meant "Hope to see you again soon." Me, too, me, too. 


  1. Great photos, Ed. Good on you!

  2. Awesome, makes me want to be there. Hawk's sounds divine.

  3. I seem to enter a fun scene just at its tipping point, mere moments before it falls into suckdom. First there was the Grateful Dead parking lot...then Mardi Gras...and finally SXSW. The SXSW I attended in 2004 was MUCH different than the one in 2003. In the space of one year I became invisible. By '04, the word had finally gotten out to the new kids of hipster nation and I was just too old. I wasn't cool enough to be embraced by the walking haircuts that clog the town like rats during the run of the thing...hell, even my MONEY was barely appreciated! I can only imagine what SXSW is like 7 years on, but your reportage has quelled my fear that I might be missing out on something. The punk spirit was thoroughly commodified long ago, but to see such a thing playing out right before your eyes...well, it breaks the heart.

  4. Dear Ed,

    I expect you'd really appreciate the just-published & quite wonderful "Acadiana: Louisian's Historic Cajun Country" (by Carl Brasseaux & Philip Gould; LSU Press, 2011).

    I didn't know of the book until, oddly enough, my visiting French in-laws gave it to me a couple of days ago. Just to clarify?...I stayed with them in Tours for a week just last month, and they still came here this month for their annual 3-week stay. Fortunately, we all happen to like each other. Still, I packed them off for five days in NOLA when my partner suddenly had to go to Jay-pan for most of last week. They saw enough of NOLA in three days and spent the rest of their time trawling towards Lafeyette.


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