Impressions of Louisiana

May 14, 2013

Louisiana has a very different feel from Texas, even though they’re adjacent. Sometimes the things I notice the most are those that contrast with the place I’ve just been.

• Louisiana is very flat and swampy. The ground underfoot even feels softer than Texas. As a result, there are a lot of raised roadways and bridges.

Patrick pulling a thick rope to pull a ferry across the water

Ferry crossing, the old-fashioned way

• The music is zydeco and jazz, with a lot less country. There are hardly any hats, boots, or buckles.
• Bar-b-que is replaced by Cajun food like boiled crawfish and shrimp, étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, rice and beans, and beignets. But they’re not the only kind of food here:

Diane eating a slice of pizza off a white paper plate

Pizza near Bourbon Street

• There are more African-Americans, and a lot fewer Hispanics than Texas. Louisiana has no common border with Mexico.
• Louisiana has a laid-back, convivial atmosphere, living their common expression Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
• Like Texas, people here like to dance. The dance floor is always full, even outdoors on sunny afternoons.
• Louisiana has visible French roots. It was named after French King Louis XIV. It is the only state in the union to have parishes rather than counties. The Fleur-de-lis is everywhere. Most streets and places have French names.

A gold fleur-de-lis on a blue fabric background with a gold border

Fleur-de-Lis

• The United States paid $15 million to France in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory, 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. These lands stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Thirteen states were carved from the Louisiana Territory, and the Louisiana purchase almost doubled the size of the United States at the time.

A white cathedral with three pointy towers fiewed form the Mississippi River

The Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America, from the Mississippi River

• Louisiana has a vibrant Cajun culture. Cajuns are an ethnic group, descendants of Acadians, French-speakers who came primarily from the Canadian maritime provinces in the mid-1700’s because they refused to swear allegiance to the King of England.
• Cajuns speak their own dialect of French which evolved from 18th-Century French.
• The Creoles are another ethic group in Louisiana. They are descendants of African, West Indian, and European pioneers.
• Tabasco sauce has been made by generations of the McIhenny family on Avery Island, Louisiana since 1968. It’s ingredients are tabasco peppers (Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco), vinegar, and salt.
• Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on the morning of August 29, 2005. The eye of the storm hit St. Tammany Parish as a Category 3 hurricane at 9:45 AM, causing massive flooding that extended over 6 miles inland, from 7 to 16 feet deep plus wave action. By August 31st, 80% of New Orleans was flooded. The historical French Quarter, the highest part of the city, was spared.

A reddish corner building with 2 white metal balconies over a street full of people

French Quarter Spanish-style Building

• Louisiana appears to have a lot of obese people (perhaps too much bons temps), many of which seem to be African-American.
• There is still a cotton and sugar cane industry here.
• There are alligators in most of Louisiana’s bodies of fresh water. They can run up to 40 mph (60 kph) on land over short distances.

A yellow sign showing a black alligator and the words "No Swimming" against a white sky background

Alligator warning sign

Alligators are hunted and eaten here. Like Diane, they also love cats.

2 large alligators lifted by a backhoe with 2 men posing beside them


New Orleans Gastronomy

May 13, 2013

In addition to the culture, and the history, and the amazing music, an essential thing to do in New Orleans is to eat.  And to drink, but that almost goes without saying in New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). We were here about 10 years ago (pre hurricane Katrina) while I attended a business conference, but other than some convention food and a great steak at Smith & Wollensky (since closed), we didn’t really experience the food here. Thankfully my buddy Lee introduced us to his friend Greg, a foodie from North Carolina, who sent us his top picks for New Orleans.

We approached the city from the North, over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway (the longest continuous bridge over water in the world at 23.8 miles or 38 kms) , which allowed us to stop at the Abita Brewery for their afternoon brewery tour.  The tour includes a video about Abita and a quick walk through of the brewery itself.

Patrick and Diane standing with a large stainless steel tank behind and blue paper booties over their sandals

Enjoying the tour, booties and all!

The best part of the tour is that all of Abita’s beers are available on tap, from which guests can pour as many or as much as they like. Diane’s favourite beer was something called ‘Purple Haze’. With unlimited beer, the tour quickly turns into a ‘kegger’, with everyone having a great time. We met Andre and Laura here, a couple who just recently started full-time RVing. The tour and the beer are both free!

Patrick standing in front of a wooden bar with many beer taps and pouring beer into a plastic cup

Open Bar!

The next afternoon, after narrowly avoiding a deluge on the walk there, we visited Cochon, a restaurant in the Garden district. We arrived moist to find the restaurant was just getting going again after a power failure. Neither affected our great lunch.

Our first appetizer was the Wood Fired Oyster Roast. Others had raved about this dish online. They were the best oysters I’ve ever eaten. An ideal combination of garlic and spice that didn’t mask the taste of barely cooked oyster. The perfect compromise between cooked and raw. They were so good that we licked the shells. They were so inspiring that afterwards Diane launched in to a spontaneous emotional monologue about how “I just don’t understand people who don’t like good food”. I wanted to make a trip back later in the day, just for some more oysters. That’s how good they were.

A white bowl of dark brown gumbo and beside it a metal plate of 6 oysters with red sauce on a bed of rock salt

Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo & Wood Fired Oyster Roast

We also had the Shrimp and Deviled Egg Gumbo. Dark in colour and rich in flavour, it had a deviled egg floating on top. It was good, but not hot enough, and it paled in comparison to the oysters.

The Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli was lightly battered, deep fried and dressed in aioli containing sizeable pieces of parsley and mint. It was pleasingly firm on the tooth with the occasional chewier piece. The meat was perfectly spiced to balance the creaminess in the sauce.

Fried alligator bites in a beige sauce on a white plate

Fried Alligator with Chili Garlic Aioli

Next up were Smoked Pork Ribs with Watermelon Pickle. The ribs were cooked just right, and easily encouraged to shed the bone. The rib sauce was tangy, with a pronounced but agreeable vinegar taste. It contained diced, pickled watermelon which is sweet, almost like candied fruit. The combination was packed with flavour.

Finally, we shared the Louisiana Cochon. The base of the dish is pulled pork fashioned into a disc and then baked to crisp the exterior. It’s topped with turnips, cabbage, and picked turnips with a large cracklin balanced on top. The cracklin was intentionally served at room temperature and was perfectly salted. It wasn’t the moistest pork I’ve ever eaten, but was good when dipped into the flavourful pan sauce.

A disc of roast pork with a large crackin on top in a white bowl

Louisiana Cochon

Another New Orleans essential we visited twice is Café du Monde. The original French Market location has been serving hot coffee with a hint of chicory and glorious beignets since 1860.

Patrick in white shirt holding 3 beignets coasted in confectioner's sugar on a small white plate

Patrick (right) and Beignets (left)

We ate dinner at Adolfo’s, an Italian Creole restaurant above a tiny jazz bar in a nondescript building on Frenchmen Street. It’s a small and incredibly popular place that people line up for. No reservations, no credit cards, and no web site. The service was more efficient than caring during the first stampede seating.

We started with the Muscles, classically prepared with garlic and white wine. Amazing. The huge serving (enough for 2) was perfectly cooked. They served it with bread, lightly flavoured and barely toasted, which was essential to soak up every drop of the flavourful broth.

A large white plate of muscles on a red and white checked tablecloth

Adolpho’s Muscles

Salad and pasta starters also came with our meals but were nothing special. The bagged salad had a spicy dressing, and the spaghetti was properly cooked but forgettable.

As an entree, we shared the Drum (a type of fish) with Spinach Lemon Sauce, which was recommended by the waiter. It had no shortage of creamy yet light spinach sauce that was surprisingly spicy.

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce on a white plate on a red and white tablecloth

Drum with Spinach Lemon Sauce

We also shared the Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce, another favourite of prior patrons. The inch thick steak was cooked medium rare, but wasn’t overly tender. This was more than made up for by the fact it was topped with Ocean Sauce, a house speciality. Half of the steak was covered in shrimp and the other half in crawfish, both in light cream sauces. Gorgeous. Worthy of the acclaim.

A thick rib eye steak covered with shrimp and crawfish and sauce on a white plate

Rib Eye Steak with Ocean Sauce

We frequented d.b.a, a primarily beer bar with live music. It has a less than rustic décor and no furniture, but is packed every night because of the live music, with performers on the low stage so close that you can almost touch them.

Black sign with white an yettlow writing

Diane also liked the Spotted Cat Music Club, another intimate music venue on Frenchmen Street. Like d.b.a, the musical performers were almost too close. We listened to a jazz trio on steel guitar, harmonica, and washboard.

A sign of a black cat with white spots sitting on a brown wooden fence in front of a full moon

The Spotted Cat

On our last day in New Orleans we went to Elizabeth’s, a funky restaurant in Bywater for brunch. The colourful décor included bright colours and plastic tablecloths on simple wooden tables. The service was very fast, despite it being a busy Saturday. In our case, they lived up to their motto, Real Food Done Real Good.

A 2 story rectangular white building with a dark roof covered with hand painted signs advertising food they make

Elizabeth’s Exterior

Diane ordered Crabby Eggs, crab cakes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Each had just the right amount of hollandaise to accent both the egg and the fresh warm crab. Unfortunately, the dish had a lacklustre presentation on an oversized plate filled with fried potato chunks.

2 poached eggs on 2 crab cakes and fried potato chunks on a white plate

Crabby Eggs

I ordered Eggs Florentine, an over-the-top dish of creamed spinach and fried oysters on a bed of pan-fried potatoes topped with 2 perfectly poached eggs, each with a dollop of hollandaise. The sauce was rich and subtly spicy, but the potatoes which could have been warmer.. The hollandaise was creamy and sweet with a distinct lemony top note. The deep fried oysters had a crunchy coating sealing in a juicy, flavourful interior.

Potatoes, fried oysters, and poached eggs in a white bowl

Eggs Florentine

We also ordered the house speciality, Praline Bacon. 4 thick slices of bacon covered in a sweet praline topping, which wasn’t hard or overly crunchy, just on the edge of crystalline. It was sweet and salty, but a bit of gimmick. Not something that I’d order on a regular basis. Bywater is 1 mile east of the French Quarter, and the trek back allowed us to start walking off our brunch.

Diane eating a piece of pracline bacon

What’s better than bacon? Bacon AND dessert!

Later that afternoon, we had 2 plates of crawfish boil from a booth at the 30th Annual French Quarter Festival that we’d been attending all weekend. After Mardi Gras, the <> is probably the largest event in New Orleans, with live music from over 1400 musicians on more than 20 outdoor stages. The streets are packed with lively people moving between the various venues, restaurants, and bars.

A large stainless steel vat filled with boiling crawfish

Crawfish Boil

Crawfish (also known as ‘crayfish’, ‘crawdads’, and ‘mudbugs’) are boiled whole with spices, sausage, potato, and corn, which augment the terrific flavour and provide accompaniments. If you’ve never eaten crawfish, it’s relatively simple. Using your hands, you pull the head off, and suck out its rich, savory contents. Then you peel the body and eat the small bit of meat. It takes a lot of crawfish to satisfy one hungry crustacean-loving person, typically 3 pounds or more.

A styrofoam food container with boiled crawfish, dorn , potatoes, and sausage

A crawfish boil serving

Thanks again to Greg for some great food recommendations. New Orleans is a terrific city that never disappoints, espeically in the food and beverage department!

A hand holding a singe boiled crawfish for a side view

Wave bye-bye!


River Road Slavery

May 7, 2013

At the River Road plantations that we toured, there was only a brief mention of slavery, despite the fact that each of them relied on the forced labour of approximately 200 slaves.  Although both plantations retain some slave quarters, and the topic received an obligatory acknowledgement in the guided tour, not enough information was provided about this critical aspect of the plantations.  It would undoubtedly interrupt the sense of fantasy and glamour that these mansions and their beautiful grounds tend to evoke.

Slavery existed in the United States from the early days of the colonial period.  Slavery had its early roots in indentured servitude, where people of all races could pay off their debts with their labour (for example, the cost of their passage to the Americas).  Over time, as more captive slaves were imported from Africa, state laws were passed that racialized slavery, restricting black Africans and their descendants to slavery. By the time the United States sought independence from Great Britain in 1776, slavery was firmly entrenched.  By 1804, all states north of the Mason Dixon Line had either abolished slavery outright or passed laws for its gradual abolition, but slavery continued to grow in the South with the expansion of the cotton industry.  The fledgling nation became polarized into slave and free states.

The United States and Great Britain both prohibited the international slave trade in 1808, but the domestic trade in the United States continued and expanded.  The South was vigorously defending slavery and supporting its expansion into the new American territories. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, eleven Southern states broke away to form the Confederate States of America.  This led to the Civil War, during which (not before) the abolition of slavery became a goal.  On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln unilaterally freed the slaves in the territory of his opponent, the Confederacy, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln's head and shoulders wearing a black suit

Abraham Lincoln

This decree was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, not a law passed by Congress. It proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the Army to treat as free all those enslaved in the 10 states that were still in rebellion (3.1 million of the estimated 4 million slaves in the United States at the time). The Proclamation could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but as the army took control of Confederate regions, the slaves in those regions were freed rather than returned to their masters.  After the war, the 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery throughout the entire United States and its territories.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas (South, Central, and North). Of these, only an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.  But by 1860 the slave population in the American South had grown to four million.   Of the 1.5 Million total households in the 15 slave states, nearly 400,000 held slaves (one in four), which was 8% of all American families.  The great majority of slaves worked on plantations or large farms, cultivating cash crops like rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. By this time, most slaves were held in the deep south, where the majority worked on cotton plantations.

A small building with a tiny front porch

Slave Quarters for 2 families

Slaves could gain freedom only by running away (which was difficult, dangerous, and illegal), or by rare manumission by owners, which was regulated by states and became increasingly difficult or prohibited.  Slaves resisted through non-compliance and rebellions, and escaped to non-slave states and Canada, facilitated by the Underground Railroad.  Even after abolition, freed slaves in the South were forced into second-class legal and economic status through Jim Crow laws intended to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy which persisted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The terribly scarred back of a black slaves, seated with no shirt on

The first African slaves were brought to Louisiana in 1708.  On the River Road, and throughout Louisiana, slavery was governed by The Code Noir.  Passed by King Louis XIV in 1685, it defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.  Among other things, it also restricted the activities of blacks, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and forbade Jews from living in French colonies.  Ironically, it required that all slaves be baptised in the Roman Catholic church (they were apparently still concerned with their immortal souls while disregarding all their earthly human rights).  The Code Noir outlawed torture, but institutionalized corporal punishment like beating, disfigurement, and execution (not much of a difference in my book).

A small grey and white building with porch out front and a museum sign on the lawn

River Road African American Museum

One place that I learned about slavery was at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.  Founded in 1994, this small museum is a labour of love of one woman, Kathe Hambrick.  She created the museum to celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans in Louisiana, and to provide a more accurate historic account.  Like me, she noted that the plantation tours which bring thousands of people to the area provide little information about slavery.  Unfortunately, her museum is sparsely attended, and was only open by appointment when we visited.

Some small black dolls in front of a wall with signs saying, "White", "Coloured"

Museum Artifacts


River Road Plantations

May 6, 2013

In the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, the 70 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was a corridor of sugar cane plantations, many showcasing monumental homes.  Today the sugar cane and a few of the antebellum mansions remain, intermixed with petro chemical plants that sprang up in the 20th Century.  We drove the length of the River Road, visiting the plantations and small, historic towns along the route.

Of the historic River Road plantations, the most recognized is probably Oak Alley.  Its white pillared house, built in the Greek Revival style, has been featured in many movies and television shows.

A white pillared house at the end of a long walk line with beautiful old oaks

Oak Alley

The 300 year old Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) which line the path extending from the house to the river, pre-date the building.

Pat and Diane on the oak-lined walk of Oak Alley

Visitors to the plantation are taken on a guided tour of the house.

Our tour guide wearing a white dress standing in front of a fireplace

Our tour guide in period dress

Oak Alley looks like the stately southern mansions of my imagination.

The parlour filled with furniture include blue upholstered wooden furniture, and a small piano

The Parlour

A foyer long foyer extending the width of the house with a narrow staircase extending to the 2nd floor

The Foyer

A long dining room with wooden floor and a set wooden table, with a fabric fan hanging above the table

The Dining Room

Many plantation homes were abandoned, ruined, or destroyed during the 20th century due to encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy.  The revival of the remaining River Road homes began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s.

Diane standing behine a large metal cauldron filled with water and lillies

Diane with an old sugar cauldron

The River Road plantations were narrow and long, allowing each to have access to the Mississippi river, which was bounded by a small levee to protect from spring flooding.  In addition to the main house, each had a large number of buildings including a sugar mill and many slave cabins.  The plantations produced a cash crop on a large scale for world export.  They were self-contained communities run like a manufacturing business.

We also visited the Laura Plantation, one of the few Creole plantations that remain.  Creoles were a multi-racial people descended from the French, African American, and Native Americans.  Creole plantation houses were generally smaller and brightly coloured.

A 2 story house painted hellow with an upper pillared balcony

Laura Plantation House

At its largest size, the Laura Plantation was approximately 12,000 acres (4850 hectares), which included properties amassed over time.  The main house, in addition to being the living quarters of the plantation owners, was also their business office and the place where grand social occasions took place.

Dinae standing in a white walled room in front of a fireplace with a large set dining room table with white tablecloth

Laura’s Dining Room

Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate. The guided tour offered at this plantation is based on personal accounts about life on this historic farm found in Laura’s journals and the French National Archives.

in the center of the property, 3.5 miles behind the house were the slave quarters.  There were 69 cabins, each holding 2 families, communal kitchens, an infirmary, and several water wells.  By the 1850s, the Laura Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.

2 small shacks among trees in the distance with a large bell int the foreground

Slave Quarters


Scott Boudin Festival

May 1, 2013

We drove out of Texas and into the swamps of Louisiana. The tourist office at the state boundary mentioned something called the Boudin Festival happening in the town of Scott. We had no idea what boudin was, but when we learned it was food, Diane set a course for Scott.

Brightly coloured festival poster with a train and pig engineer and boudin!Boudin is a dressing of meat (usually pork), rice, traces of vegetable, and spices that is packaged in a sausage casing (i.e. pig intestine) and boiled. Not as much meat as sausage, and no oatmeal like haggis. Like sausages everywhere, it’s something to do with the leftover bits of slaughtered pig (like liver and butt). Boudin has been made in southern Louisiana since the mid-1800s, probably originating with French Acadians, ancestors of the Cajuns, Some modern versions of boudin substitute crawfish or shrimp for pork.

We arrived hungry on the opening day of the festival. The announcer put out a call for anyone from out of state who had never tried Boudin before. I volunteered and soon found myself onstage and being introduced.

The announcer worked the crowd saying, “We had to go all the way to Canada to find a person who had never tasted boudin before!”  Cheers from the crowd. After some pleasantries, I was handed a foil wrapper. Fearing a set-up, I opening it carefully.

Patrick on stage with drums behind, wearing shorts and a t-shit and standing beside the annouuncer with a microphone.  Patrick opening a silver foiil package.

Opening my 1st boudin

What emerged was an 8 inch brownish tube, warm and slippery. I wiggled it. The announcer said to, “keep it above your waist”. It was family show. Laughs from the crowd.

Patrick on stage holding a half unwrapped boudin

Staring down my 1st boudin

I tasted it. The crowd held their breath. Who knew food could be so exciting?

Patrick on stage with boudin to his lips

Bite the casing and slurp out the goodness

The announcer asked me to describe it.

Tasting Boudin (P1100598)

Patrick on stage holding a boudin in one hand and a microphone in the other

Trying to describe boudin

As is my nature, I gave an overly analytical response, like a damn restaurant review, “flavourful, surprisingly spicy”. What the crowd really wanted was for me to throw my arms in the arms and say, “I love it!”.  Leeson Learned.

Patrick on stage with both arms raised in the air

Patrick whooping it up on stage

My on-stage appearance raised our visibility for the rest of the day. People approached us, we were given tastes by a couple of food vendors, and I was interviewed for local TV.

Patrick being interviewed by a reproter with the camera man int the foreground

My TV interview

An impetus for this inaugural festival is that Scott, Louisiana was recently named Boudin Capital of the World, the result of a bipartisan bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate in April 2012. This was done over the objections of Broussard, Louisiana which had previously been using the title but couldn’t prove it had an official designation, and despite the protest of Jennings, Louisiana which was declared Boudin Capital of the Universe in the 1970’s. The feud between the Boudin capitals even made the Wall Street Journal.

The small city of Scott (8800 people) produced 1.5 Million pounds of boudin in 2012. That’s 3 Million links! Within the city limits there are four establishments employing 80 people who make and sell $5 Million of boudin each year.

Although boudin is the raison d’être of the festival, there are other things to do. There is a busy stage with non-stop cajun, zydeco, and rock performances. People aren’t shy about dancing, even in the afternoon sun. Folks sit around on folding chairs enjoying the music. There is a busy midway for the young and young at heart. But the star of the show is definitely the food.

A street lined with food tents and filled with people

Busy food vendors

We ate our way through virtually everything the food vendors had to offer. In addition to boiled boudin, we enjoyed:

Links of boudin on a cutting board with 2 pairs of hands

Smoked Boudin

2 deep-fried balls of boudin about 2 inches in diameter in a white paper dish held by Diane

Boudin Balls

Diane eating jambalaya with a plastic fork from a disposable bowl

Jambalaya

We really liked the cracklins, which are seasoned, crispy bits of deep-fried pig skin and fat with an occasional bit of meat.  Very tasty, but not even remotely close to healthy.

A man in a red t-shirt with a long metal pole standing over a boiling black vat of oil

It’s hot work making cracklins  I

A black pot filled with boiling oil and bits of pig skin

Cracklins fryin’

Diane with a cracklin in her hand about to eat it

Diane enjoying cracklins

We still managed to find room for a grilled pork sandwich, a huge slab of tasty pork on soon-to-be-sloppy white sandwich bread.

A person standing over a large frying grill covered in pork steaks

Grilling Pork

Patrick eating a pork sandwich in one hand with a paper tray to catch the drips in the other

Tricky to eat

A suggestion for next year’s festival is to offer real beer, something other than mini-Budweisers.

Patrick holidng a small can of Budweiser beer

Even when it grows up, it still won’t be a real beer

Overall, it was a great small town festival. Comfortable and friendly. Tasty and interesting food. Terrific music. It’s wonderful to stumble across gems like this, where we can experience something new and unique.

The back of a woman with a lime green t-shirt with the words, "Where the west begins, and the boudin never ends"

A friendly festival organizer’s t-shirt