By Fyllis Hockman
When most folks think of Cajun Country — if they think of it at all — it's probably Lafayette, Louisiana, that comes to mind. But most people visiting Louisiana make a stop in New Orleans, and Lafourche Parish, just 45 minutes west of the Big Easy, is a more accessible, more authentic Cajun experience than its more well-known and commercial cousin several hours away.
A far cry from Bourbon Street, beignets and barstools, this is real bayou country. In answer to any question involving directions, it's either up the bayou, down the bayou or across the bayou. This is laid-back shrimpin' country where when you say "See you later, alligator," you mean an actual alligator!
Which we learned on our initial ride on an airboat, a combination of a large rusty old rowboat with multiple mismatched seats at varying elevations on an otherwise unidentifiable Rube Goldberg contraption. With Captain Jeremy presiding, we proceeded on a thrill ride in, around, along, through and over the extensive native greenery and wetlands at 40 miles per hour.
First we communed with Big Al — a 13.5-foot gator weighing in at 1,000 pounds. To accentuate his size, Jeremy picked up his tail as well as his very large pointy-nail four-toed foot to further illustrate how close they've become over the years. Big Al barely flinched.
Then his buddy, Sneaky, upstaged him by practically joining us on the boat as Jeremy deposited bits of chicken into his very large and very menacing mouth. A bit farther down the bayou Brutus actually came when called. OK, so he knew there was chicken waiting, but still.
Being Cajun means something different, depending upon whom you ask. First it's the proud heritage imbued by the French Acadians who settled here in the 1750s. For others it's the food — the special gumbo (no okra — that's New Orleans Creole style) and catfish fingers. Often it's the music — old-fashioned accordion, fiddle, guitar and triangles, slightly different from New Orleans Zydeco. Or it's the bayou way of life — fishing, shrimping, oystering — or the longtime reliance on the sugar-cane industry that thrived here for generations. And always it's Southern hospitality taken to extremes — the sense of community, the emphasis on family.
Cajun Country is one of the few local societies from which the young folk are not moving away; they're just moving down the street. And to the visitor it just may be the ubiquitous nature of crayfish, the strange accent and the prevalence of white rubber shrimp boots, known locally as Cajun Reeboks. As one local explains: "Our Cajun runs just a little bit deeper than the rest of the state, and it shows up at every bend in the bayou."
Another throwback into local history comes compliments of Laurel Valley Village, the largest surviving sugar-plantation complex in the United States. The general store alone, built in 1905, merits a trip to Lafourche Parish. A wide variety of old - and odd — objects are for sale, many of them delightfully unidentifiable. The multiple shelves are a jumble of thousands of items from saws and knives to cavalry saddles and sewing machines, water pumps and deer antlers. Hard to know what most of them were — but don't even think about wanting to buy any. These are living remnants of a storied past and the history is to be preserved. The earrings, photos and dried flowers, however, are for sale.
More recent history, still enmeshed in Lafourche's sugar cane and other local products, can be found at Donner-Peltier Distillers. It opened in 2012 after two local doctors were sipping rum while on vacation. Said one: "I have sugar cane in my backyard; why is no one in Lafourche making any rum of its own?" Several years later — after thorough and thoroughly enjoyable research into the rum industry — they opened their own distillery.
Sugar cane from across the street, of course, for their rum, local long-grain rice for the vodka and Satsuma oranges in the gin — the only distillery in the U.S. to do so. Tours and tastings of these very unusual products are available, and like the alligators, the metal stills also have names — Betty produces vodka, Veronica gin and Stella whiskey. Fyllis — that would be me — was glad to meet — not to mention sample — them all.
More Cajun history can be found at the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding, which celebrates the pirogue, a long, thin boat made from cypress trees in which Acadians have traveled the bayou for centuries. Boat-builder Ernest Savoie demonstrated the labor-intensive artistry employed in constructing the boat by hand while happily espousing his longtime French heritage. Again — it's all about family. And building his pirogues is keeping that culture alive.
A de rigueur stop at the Mudbug Brewery encapsulates Cajun Country. Those previously mentioned white shrimpin' boots are so much a part of the culture that the brewery even has an ale named after them — White Boots Ale. My favorite, the coffee-tinged Cafe Au Lait beer, recalls the famous beverage accompanying the even more-famous beignets at the Cafe du Monde. And during Mardi Gras - yes, Lafourche has its own — not surprisingly their King Cake Ale is an especially big seller. How can you not love Cajun Country when a brewery alone epitomizes its culture?
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Louisiana's Cajun Bayou, visit www.lacajunbayou.com or call 877-537-5800.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.