Sunday, April 26, 2015


There's so much more to the state of Louisiana than famous New Orleans.   What most tourists don't know about is central Louisiana, where they have the same delicious triple by-pass food and foot-stomping music.   Called the land-less-traveled, the small towns and back roads of central Louisiana offer bona fide Cajun and Creole culture in an unpretentious and slower-paced setting.   And add to that the restored centuries-old plantations with their controversial history and the alligator-filled swamp life in the bayous, and you have a destination that is worthy of a visit.   Even the words Cajun and Creole have different definitions here, depending on where you are, who you ask and what color he or she may be.  

The genesis of our trip

Ever since my visit to New Orleans and the start of my infamously- aborted bicycle ride up the Mississippi River (hence my blog's URL),  I have bugged Bruce about going to New Orleans (NOLA). My harping fell on deaf ears until six months ago, when he read an article in an issue of National Geographic Traveler about an area in Louisiana that offered good food, great music and a cultural component as well.  Northwest of NOLA, this area could be best described as Cajun, Creole and cowboy country.  "I'd love to do this trip some time," Bruce said, as he handed me Andrew Nelson's article to read, hoping I would have the same positive reaction he had.  Exploring central Louisiana would take us off the beaten tourist track, and expose us to a different landscape and a unique culture, aspects that both of us crave when we travel.

One of Bruce's many talents is developing an itinerary and bringing it to life, so with that in mind, our good friends Karen & Barry came along, making it even more fun.   Although we were too late for Mardis Gras and too early for Jazz Fest,  New Orleans was enduring another crazy time called spring break.     I could write a separate post about our two days and three nights there, but let's just say that after two days of gustatory debauchery, we headed northwest where we immediately felt the essence of a much quieter life.  With Barry behind the wheel and Bruce as his co-pilot, we stopped often, took lots of pictures, talked to quirky people, and read crazy signs. 

Our menu at Cochon, a popular restaurant in NOLA

Is it hot enough for ya?

Did you ever wonder where Tabasco sauce comes from?   Well, we did, so we visited McIlhenny's, the fifth-generation family company that produces more than 700,000 bottles of the famous hot sauce every day when the operation is full up and running.    In my growing up days in the Granite State,  we had our mouths washed out with soap when we swore or talked back to our parents.  Here in Louisiana, kids might get a dose of tabasco instead.   The factory is located on Avery Island, 170 acres of sprawl with its very own bird sanctuary where  thousands of egrets love to hang out.  Many of the live oak trees  have an unusual posture, with moss-ladened branches hugging close to the ground. 



Cajun Central

The charming college town of Lafayette, 150 miles northwest of NOLA, has many things going for it, and we experienced the top three, beginning with a delicious dinner at Prejeans,  a traditional Cajun restaurant with the best dessert of the week;  tasty bread pudding with white chocolate sauce that Karen and I shared and devoured, with our two spoons rapidly moving toward the center, so that neither of us got more than our share.   One dish at the next table caught our eye -- a Shrimp Festival Platter -- a three course meal of shrimp salad, shrimp gumbo, a platter of grilled, stuffed, fried and blackened shrimp, served with a shrimp butter cream sauce for dipping with a side order of french fries and rice.   Rather than showing offense at my overt reaction, the man being served seemed amused.  "Where y'all from?" he asked.   "You mean you came all the way from San Francisco to eat at Prejeans?"    He shook our hands and introduced us to the group around the table.  "Here's my wife, my two daughters, my nephew, my grandson, and a granddaughter.  My granddaughter here is about to deliver our first grandchild," and then with a big smile he went on to say "she's married."  "My parents didn't have any money, so they put me on an orphan train and a Louisiana family adopted me.  Pleased to meet y'all, and enjoy your time in Lafayette."   




A men's clothing store on Jefferson Street called Right on Fashion sold what some people might call pimp clothes -- every color-of-the-rainbow shoes, some patent leather, some two toned;  chartreuse and bright orange men's suits, and hats for every occasion.  When we saw the flashy display in the window, we knew we had to go in.



 Lafayette's Blue Moon Saloon has become a premier venue for local music.   Located in a funky house with a hostel upstairs, Blue Moon has live music every night.  We had planned to be there on a Wednesday, the night when local musicians come from near and far to jam.   There is no food.  Only beer.  And no cover.   By the time we arrived, the small main room was already crammed with beer-drinking locals, gathering close to the slightly raised platform where the musicians were tuning up.  I counted 15 of them; some were standing off the edge of the platform, which was not big enough for everyone who wanted to play.  There was no announcement and no introductions.   I saw every string instrument I can think of,  plus a few Cajun extras, like an accordion, a triangle and a washboard.   The music was so infectious that it was impossible to stand still, but there was no way I could move my feet like that.  Cajun dancing is a true art form.  It may be called many things, but I say it's an exuberant two-step, where the footwork is more like a jitterbug than the West Coast swing.   All of the folks we talked to were happy to meet us.  You mean you came all the way from San Francisco to hear music at the Blue Moon Saloon.  

The next day we drove the scenic route to Nachitoches (pronounced Nakatish--don't ask me why), a small town whose claim to fame is the movie Steel Magnolias, which was filmed there.  Our plan was to have a meat pie lunch at Laysones, which is described by restaurant authors Jane and Michael Stern as "One of the 500 things to eat before it's too late."  The drive to Nachitoches wasn't that far, but the guys were having so much fun at the Right on Fashion store in Lafayette that by the time we started driving north, it was already past noon and Laysones closed at 3.    

Even with a map and three GPS devices, finding Laysones had a few problems, as each device gave us different directions.  In the backseat, Karen and I were not much help since we were in hysterics as Barry made one U-turn after another.  "We are going in circles," Karen hooted, as I crossed my legs and prayed to God we'd arrive at Laysones by three.   Not only was I hungry for a meat pie, but I needed a bathroom urgently, and the last thing Barry needed to hear was: Can we find a bathroom?  At 2:45 we walked into Laysones, passing framed photos of visiting celebrities, and asked "Are we too late?"    "No problem," said Helen, our excellent server, who Barry said looked just like.........   "You look like Liza Minnelli," Barry exclaimed, and immediately Helen was in Barry's pocket.  "You mean you came all the way from San Francisco to eat our meat pies?"  We didn't deny this, despite our indecisions about what to eat.   Helen patiently crossed out several orders when one dish sounded better than the other. "Yes, we'd all like a meat pie, but will that be enough? "  We were starved.  After all, we hadn't eaten since breakfast and the clock said 3 pm.   Three meals a day was de rigueur.   "Maybe we should order a meat pie, a crawfish pie, and a bowl of gumbo just to be sure." And a side order of fries, which seemed to be the only vegetable so far in this part of the state.    For those who don't know, a Louisiana meat pie is like an empanada, except it's deep fried.  The operative word here is deep fried.  Need I say more?

Bruce and Karen checking out Laysone's menu

Our B&B in Nachitoches

We made another friend in Nachitoches besides Helen.   David was sitting at the local bar when we walked in.  I don't know whether the khaki pants that Bruce and Barry were wearing tipped him off, but David definitely spotted us as tourists and wanted to become instant friends.  When he heard we were from California, he told us about how he fell in love with redwood trees when he visited Muir Woods.    He also mentioned a serious brain injury he incurred from a bicycle accident, and after a few drinks together, Barry and I wrote down his Natchitoches address and promised to send him a California redwood tree.   Have you done this yet, Barry?

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues................

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