Deep in Cajun country
Discovering the history, culture and cuisine of Louisiana
Of all the USA’s 50 states, Louisiana is arguably the most quirky and distinctive – almost a country within a country, redolent with its own local culture, cuisine and way of life.
Here they have parishes instead of counties and they even treasure a language of their own – an arcane form of French that almost died out but is now showing strong renaissance and is once more being taught in schools.
Cajun, derived from the word Acadia, was brought south in the mid 18 Century by fleeing refugees when France was losing control of maritime Canada to the British. It set its new southern roots deep.
Of course, any visit to Louisiana should start or finish in the great Gulf metropolis of New Orleans but I spent most of my time looking beyond the Crescent City, discovering back country parts of the state, down among the mystical swamps and bayous of the true Deep South on a fascinating road trip where my past came rushing up to meet me at the hick little town of Shreveport.
That’s a name I remember from the packages that winged their way to me across the Atlantic from Stan’s Record Shack, way back when I was starting to build my eventually mountainous collection of rare blues, soul and R&B records.
The shop has long since gone to the great vinyl junkyard in the sky but Shreveport remains a music town of proud heritage.
Elvis has left the building
The beautifully preserved Municipal Auditorium (www.municipalauditorium.homestead.com), which first opened in 1929, is fittingly located at 705 Elvis Presley Boulevard for it was on the stage here that The King first swivelled his hips and drove all those screaming girls crazy.
It was from this venue that the legendary ‘Louisiana Hayride radio show – precursor to the ‘Grand Ol’ Opry was broadcast, from 1948 to 1960, and today this art deco gem is home to the wonderful Stage of Stars Legends Museum.
Two statues stand out front, one of Elvis, the other of his long-serving guitarist, James Burton – who is still producing great music from his recording studio right across the street (www.james-burton.net).
James was the auditorium’s house guitarist and has enjoyed a stellar career, spanning seven decades.
With support from such big names as Kevin Costner, Dr John, Steve Cropper, Emmy Lou Harris, Alert Lee, Al Di Meola and Billy Swan, the James Burton Foundation has given thousands of guitars to young people who will be tomorrow’s guitarists.
Titans of Western art
There’s a super-size slab of Americana available at the R.W Norton Art Gallery (rwnaf.org), opened in 1966 and today spotlighting works by those titans of Western art, Frederick Remington and Charles M. Russell – as well as American and European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts spanning four centuries.
Culture took on a more down home aspect that evening when I joined the locals having fun at the Monsour’s Pub Jam Friday (www.monsoursrestaurant.com), an invitational three-hour jam session of local musicians, with accordion, fiddle, penny whistle, dobra, harmonica and djeme serving up a joyously heady mix of Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, country, folk and rock.
If your are up for a flutter, Shreveport and next-door Bossier can boast five riverboat casinos on the Red River, as well as a horse track casino.
A shopper’s paradise and a happy hunting ground for food lovers too, the 33 historic landmark blocks of picturesque Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish) are a real tourist magnet. Horse-drawn carriages clatter over brick paved streets while the newly opened Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Natchitoches Museum are proving popular A-list attractions.
The streets of Natchitoches are lined with gracious mansions and this coming October some of the most historic of them will participate in the 59 annual Fall Pilgrimage Tour of Homes (www.aphnatchitoches.net)
On the edge of town, Fort St. Jean Baptiste (www.crt.state.la.us/parks) is a carefully preserved early French colonial trading post that marks Natchitoches the oldest permanently settled community in the whole Louisville Purchase.
A dozen miles out of town, and a fully operational plantation from 1785 to 1960, Oakland Plantation (www.nps.gob/cari) has a grand main house, a plantation store and 27 further outbuildings, making it the most complete French Creole plantation in the South.
Three remarkable women
A gloriously sunny day was perfect for the third annual Cane River Music Festival, with performances from, among others, the delightfully named Goldman Thibodeaux and Hezekiah Early.
Remarkable stories of three truly remarkable women surround Melrose Plantation (www.aphnatchitoches.net), home to the formidable Marie Therese Coincoin, who was born into slavery in 1742 and bore 14 children –10 of them fathered by French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who eventually bought her freedom.
Marie Theresa’s sons amassed important land and slave holdings and the Metoyer family soon became one of the wealthiest families of colour in the entire nation, owning the Melrose Plantation until 1847.
Then came the energetic Cammie Garrett Henry who moved into Melrose in 1898 and turned it into a haven for artists and writers, including Lyle Saxon, who wrote her Cane River focused ‘Children of Strangers’ novel while at Melrose.
The third of Melrose’s great ladies was Clementine Hunter, one of the South’s foremost primitive painters, some of whose works are on view in the estate’s main house and the African house.
Not so sleepy
Like Shreveport, Lake Charles is a place I’ve long wanted to visit – ever since I got myself onto the deejay promo copy mailing list of Goldband Records.
I expected the town to be small, sleepy and as gutbucket funky as the rootsy blues I discovered on the 45s that Eddie Shuler used to send me back in the day for review in ‘Blues & Soul’ and ‘New Musical Express’.
Instead I found a busy industrial town of 72,000 people, with towering modern buildings, a thriving petrochemical industry and one of America’s largest seaports, its original fortune having been built on sulphur extraction.
Louisiana is awash with water: the Gulf Coast beaches, the mighty Mississippi, streams, rivers and lakes – and vast expanses of swampland. It’s a wonderland for birdwatchers and wildlife lovers.
Close to nature
Getting close to nature is facilitated by such attractions as the 180-mile long Creole nature Trail All-American Road (www.creolenaturetrial.org) and the 9,621 acre Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, which plays an important role in the management of flyways for migratory birds.
Visitors can take advantage of a GPS Ranger Tour Guide to get the most knowledge out of their visit. Well worth inclusion in an itinerary is the four-mile long Pintail Wildlife Drive, with its vast array of waterfowl and other birds blackening the skies at times while alligators slither through the murky waters.
“The key will be in black pot at the side door” read the instructions for checking in to my B&B at the friendly little hamlet of Breaux Bridge (www.breauxbridgelive.com), set midway between Lafayette and the state capital of Baton Rouge. Here I spent my time browsing the antique and bric-a-brac shops, rattling across the old iron bridge – and wishing that I had timed my visit to coincide with the annual crawfish festival.
Joie de vivre
Claims to be “Crawfish capital of the world” may be open to dispute, especially from towns in Sweden and Belgium where the crustacean is devoured with equal zeal but whatever its status, Breaux Bridge is a great place to sample the delicacy.
“The perfect balance of great food, history, nature, architecture and joie de vivre” is the local tourist board’s tag-line boast, and I can happily go along with that,
Just two hours from New Orleans and 10 minutes off the interstate, McGhee’s Landing (www.mcgheeslanding.com) is nonetheless at the heart of Cajun country and offers what have been cited as the best swamp boat tours in the state, exploring the wildlife rich Atchafalaya Basin.
Discover the Cajun story
To get a better understanding of the Cajun story, it is well worth paying a visit to the Cultural Heritage Museum and Acadian Memorial, in St. Martinville (www.stmartinville.org). The memorial honours the 3,000 or so Acadian exiles who were deported from Nova Scotia and settled in Louisiana. The heritage centre also houses an interesting African American museum. While in this little town, I visited the square and the beautiful St. Martin de Tours – mother church of the Louisiana Acadians, it was a nice note on which to end my fascinating week in Louisiana, Now, as they say in these parts: ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler!’ (‘let the good times roll!).
How to get there
There are presently no direct flights from the UK and Ireland to New Orleans but there are numerous connecting services via such hubs as Atlanta and Miami
How to get around
Car hire is relatively inexpensive in the US but beware all the extras that can whack the total price up to nearly double. However, for peace of mind, it’s sensible to opt for such add-ons as collision damage waiver insurance. It’s also sensible to pre-buy the first tank of fuel so you can return the car on empty.
Best value is to pre-book your vehicle before leaving the UK. Working with major US rental companies like Alamo, London based award-winning Holiday Autos (0800 093 3111; www.holidayautos.co.uk) consistently offer the best deals, with up to 40 per cent discounts and lowest price guarantees,
Established in 1987, this company has over the past quarter century become recognised as the largest and leading international car hire broker for the leisure traveller and scours the market to be able to offer the best deals,
Where to stay
Shreveport: Courtyard by Marriott (www.arriott.co.uk)
Comfortable chain hotel set by the riverside Louisiana Boardwalk in Bossier City.
Natchitoches: Sweet Cane Inn (www.sweetcaneinn.com)
Relaxed and homely Victorian clapboard mansion – and not too close to the busy main tourist drag. Just six bedrooms. Superb Southern breakfast, “Where your comfort is our pleasure” is a fitting slogan.
Lake Charles: L’Auberge Casino Resort (www.myauberge.com)
Set on a 242-acre estate overlooking Contraband Bayou. Its big, busy, noisy – there are 1,000 guest rooms – but there’s loads to do besides gamble: pools, health spa, 1,500 seat theatre, an 18-hole Tom Fazio designed golf course and more will keep you busy and there’s a good choice of six restaurants, including the alfresco Toulouloo’s bar and grill, serving beer, burgers, hot dogs, crawfish and more. You’ll either adore it or loathe it.
Breaux Bridge: Bayou Teche B&B (www.breauxbridgelive.com/bayoubb)
Breaux Bridge’s oldest building, built in 1812, this totally charming B&B is National Register of Historic Places listed and could not be more different to L’Auberge. It’s small, quirky and jam-packed with bric-a-brac and memorabilia, Wonderful, and I even had a choice of bedrooms.
What and where to eat
Once little known outside its home state, Cajun cuisine is now to be found around the world. Imitation is the sincerest flattery but for the authentic taste you need the right ambience – the balmy spring days, sweltering summer evenings and lazy autumns of backcountry Louisiana,
Rich gumbo stews thickened with okra; rice based jambalaya; creamy crawfish étoufée and all manner of shrimp and crab dishes will delight but there’s one local speciality you will not find elsewhere. As the locals put it: “Napa Valley has wine, New York has pizza, Wisconsin has cheese – and Louisiana has boudin,”
So what is it? South Louisiana’s favourite finger food is nothing like the French boudin noir or boudin blanc but a truly distinctive form of sausage that can be combined with alligator, crab, shrimp or crawfish to make a filling main course.
George’s Grill: James Burton wasn’t the only local musician to spare me some of his valuable time in Shreveport. I joined singer and slide guitarist Buddy Flett, of the Bluebirds, for a greasy spoon special at this long-time musicians’ hangout on East Kings Highway.
Herby K’s Lunch: Home of the famed shrimp buster, this unique ‘hole in the wall’ is an award winner.
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant (www.lasyones.com): Home of the Famous Lasyone’s Meat Pie and the Cane River mud pie, this busy diner also serves red beans and rice, fried catfish and chicken fried steak.
The Landing (www.thelandingrestuarantandbar.com): Juicy steaks, succulent seafood and a host of authentic Louisiana menu items explain the busy tables here.
Pioneer Pub: Burgers, steaks and po’boys. Creole and Cajun authenticity, with live music on Thursdays and some weekends.
Steamboat Bill’s: At the water’s edge out on North Lake Shore Drive, here’s the real deal – chicken and sausage gumbo, butterfly shrimp, soft shell crab, stuffed crab, shrimp étouffée and much more, but I just had to push the menu to one side and go for a bucket of boiled crayfish, with enthusiastic instruction from the locals on how best to peel them.
Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant: On Mills Avenue – the main drag – it is, as people put it, “what it says on the tin” and, as a bonus this lively venue, showcases live Cajun music every night.