Cajun and French Culture!!
by Donald Anthony
Some of our emails indicate that our readers have been following our travel schedules to develop their own trips. Well here is another schedule to follow. This is our second trip to Louisiana and this one was almost to the southern tier. As you may remember the state is somewhat in the shape of a hiking boot with the toe facing east, so we kind of worked the instep / southern tier area: Cajun Country of song, food, history and probably the birth of the American Spirit.
Academy of the Sacred Heart
Our first stop on this trip was a tour of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Since 1821, the school has provided Catholic Education in a single gender setting for girls. In 2006 a second school was added, St. John Berchmans, which does the same for the boys. As the second oldest school west of the Mississippi there is an historical importance, but we were here for something more than history: a miracle. In 1866 a young woman named Mary Wilson from Canada joined a religious order of nuns called the Society of the Sacred Heart. During her first year of membership she got very sick. Since the weather in Louisiana was warmer than Canada, she was sent to the school that the religious order was operating at Grand Coteau. The order had a deep respect for John Berchmans who had died in 1621 and was known as an ordinary person with extraordinary piety. In 1865, the year before Mary Wilson arrived at the school, John Berchmans was elevated to a high place of honor by the Roman Catholic Church to a title called “Blessed”. Mary prayed with a great intensity for the spirit of John Berchman to help her get well. The doctors of the time couldn’t explain it, but Mary did get well and she claimed she actually saw John Berchman. So here at the Academy are two “miracles”- Mary being cured and the spirit presence of someone who died long ago. Whether one believes it or not, the place feels special. I suppose this is why we started here, because this trip would be special.
The Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant
That night I stayed at The Steamboat Cottages, which is right in back of the Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant, in the town of Washington. And yes, it is located on an old steamboat landing. Neat, clean and close enough to the restaurant to allow a guest to be first on line for some of the best local French cooking to be had. The warehouse dates from the early 1800’s but the cooking uses ingredients fresh from the market. Chef Jason Huguet grew up in the area, took up cooking and is making a culinary statement at each meal. If you ever wanted to go to a local place, with good food, friendly folk and just plan fun, this is it. Remember it was a warehouse with very few windows to look in, so it might look closed but it's not. Just bring your appetite, push open the door and enjoy the night.
Orphan Train Museum
One of our first stops this morning was the "Orphan Train Museum” in Opelousa. Located in a 100+ year old renovated train station, this is one of the newest museums in the town and certainly in the nation, to cover an almost unknown period of American history: the transportation of urban immigrant children, primarily from New York City to the country life of Middle America. This was the world that Jacob Reese told us about in his book "How the Other Half Lives". These were immigrants that could not speak more than basic "job English," living in overcrowded tenements in a life of poverty. The room is nicely laid out with exhibits with pictures, memories and even the very clothes the children wore. The docents are the children and grandchildren of the train riders and are really giving their own family history. In New York, however this period is subject of much discussion, since the New York families were promised their children would return. Parents were left waiting at the station to greet empty cars when the children's "summer vacation" was over. Many of the New York immigrants did not speak much English and did not know what they were signing. It was a tough world and the social activists of the time did what they thought was best. The bottom line is this: it happened, it's part of history and it's open to discussion. This museum certainly starts the discussion and it is a tribute to the wonderful and generous people who took the children of the trains in and gave them a home. The Orphan Train Museum is on the grounds of the Le Vieux Village. This is a gathering of older historic homes showing off the local Cajun architecture.
Before leaving the town, we stopped in to taste boudin at Billy’s Boudin. They look like sausage but these are not sausage. This is a pork and rice mixture with mysterious seasonings that comes in two styles- soft and crisp. I can tell you that the takeout line never stopped. I ate about half a dozen and wished I had time for more.
On the way to Lafayette, we stopped off in Eunice. Here we did a quick visit to the Eunice Depot Museum to look over a bit of the local Cajun arts and crafts and then next door to the Cajun French Music Hall of Fame and Museum to see some of the early roots of Cajun Music. Down the block is the Liberty Theatre of the Performing Arts built in 1924, which features performances of Zydeco and Cajun Music. And up the block is KBON 101.1 FM, which plays local home grown music of the people. Cajun music to study, listen and even take home through the internet on www.kbon.com.
Before leaving Eunice we stopped in at the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve. This location is one of five units of the park focusing in on Cajun heritage and culture. Music, cooking, exhibits and other programs are held weekly to promote an appreciation of the Cajun history in America.
Lafayette is where it all comes together. Until now, we ate Cajun food, listened to Cajun music, met Cajun people and saw the architecture. Here in Lafayette, at the Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center, we learned the history, background struggles and basic tenants of American Freedom that they had envisioned before the US was invented. Here was shown the depth of British aggression on the people that was romanticized out of its true history by Longfellow. Boy did he blow it!
Our last stop of the day was to Vermilionville for a tour of Cajun/Creole folk life. Set up like a craft village, each house is an exhibit on the lifestyle of the people who may have lived there. Music and crafts are an important way to enhance an understanding of a lifestyle, and the various craftspeople do it very well. From the person spinning wool, to a musician on a porch singing Cajun folksongs, this is a living culture.
Dinner was at Prejean’s Restaurant for a little taste of alligator, crawfish, shrimp and anything God created and the Cajun folk eat. To make the night more interesting the group eating dinner could be seen over the internet at Prejean’s website, so I kept my hat on. I didn’t need any long distance phone calls about sticking to my diet.
Blue Moon Saloon
After dinner we went back to the van to drive to the Blue Moon. My first Honky Tonk...and I will always remember my first. On a residential street in a one and one-half story detached frame house is a Bed & Breakfast. It welcomes visitors and friends to stay with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. But several nights a week the front gate through the hedge is the entry to a world of Honky Tonk. On the back porch are bands playing anything from Country, Zydeco to good old Rock and Roll. The pounding of the beat and the stomping of the people’s feet can be felt before being heard. The backyard was wall to wall with people, but they were extraordinarily polite. Everyone was just there for the music.
The next morning’s sunlight saw us on Lake Martin/Cypress Island Preserve with Bryan Champagne’s Swamp Tours. Almost two hours out on the water looking for alligators, birds, snakes and different types of trees. The keyword is quiet. It is very quiet, with only the occasional call of a bird and distant sound of another boat. Bryan tells stories of the Cajun people living off the water and catching alligators and it is only at the end of the trip that you realize he is telling stories of his family.
Welcome to the Mardi Gras Museum
Lake Charles is the next stop on this tornado of a tour, where we arrived at the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. This exhibit is in a converted school building which enables the room necessary to show Mardi Gras costumes in full display splendor. The colors, designs and themes are really breathtaking. Just when you think they have done it all, the next room shows how much further they can go. If there is one thing to be learned here, it is that New Orleans doe not have the only Mardi Gras festival in Louisiana. Many towns have such festivals and although they are not as big, they certainly have as much enthusiasm. So avoid the crowds and come to Lake Charles.
To end the afternoon, we stopped into the Boudin and Blue Jeans Festival where we met Terrance Simien and his band. Terrance won the 2008 Grammy Award for his Zydeco music. A unique performer and warm personality, his history and love of music goes into every performance. Zydeco is not just a genre of music, but a slice of a lifestyle or a little taste of Creole culture.
On our last night we visited the L’Auberge du La Casino Resort for dinner at the Snake River Grill. I had the buffalo steak. Grilled just the way I wanted. Tasty! Great! Nothing more to say... I loved it.
Grand Coteau, Louisanna – http://www.grandcoteau.org
Academy of the Sacred Heart – http://www.ashcoteau.org
Washington, Louisiana – http://www.townofwashingtonla.org
Steamboat Warehouse Restaurant - http://www.steamboatwarehouse.com
Louisiana Orphan Train Museum – http://www.laorphantrain.com
Le Vieux Village – http://www.cityofopelousas.com/le-vieux-village/index.php
Lafayette, Louisiana - http://www.lafayettetravel.com
Eunice Depot Museum - http://www.eunice-la.com
Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve- http://www.nps.gov/jela/prairie-acadian-cultural-center-eunice.htm
Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center – http://www.nps.gov/jela
Vermilionville – http://www.vermilionville.org
Prejean’s Restaurant – http://www.prejeans.com
Blue Moon – http://www.bluemoonpresents.com
Champagne’s Swamp Tours – http://www.Champagnesswamptours.com
L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort - http://www.ldlcasino.com