The Heart of Cajun Country

I’ve been remiss in posting, but to be honest I haven’t really traveled anywhere since last December. Two factors influence this; The first being a new software release, and second, nobody wanting live classes.

Some of this is the economy, a lot more is that a new release of software keeps me busy building eLearning and most that would pay for a live class tend to delay plans for an event until the new software is out.
So, I’ve been doing a lot of computer face time.

I have a mission trip coming up next week that will be interesting, and some great trips looming in the fall so I thought it best to flex the blogging muscles and crank out an entry. As I thought about this, I have been to one place (quite a bit as it turns out) this year and that would be Lafayette, LA.

Lafayette, as much as the tourism people would disagree, isn’t really a destination. In the big picture, If I live nearly anywhere in the country I’m not going to blow a few thousand bucks to fly into Lafayette to take in the attractions. Acadian Village is cool, and the Tabasco plant in New Iberia is interesting but I doubt I’d go out of my way to see them.

From where I live it’s a brutally boring six hour drive. After Shreveport, there is pretty much nothing to see until Lafayette three hours later. And it’s hot hot hot during the summer.

Probably the biggest thing in Lafayette is the campus of The University of Louisiana, formerly USL. Take that tidbit and the size of the city and it reminds me of a real hot, humid, and mostly flat Charlottesville VA.

I go there because it’s where my wife’s family lives, for the most part.

Lafayette has the distinction with me of being the one place in the world that I have trouble finding my way around. I’m flumouxed as to why I can land in any city and quickly get the lay of the land, yet it’s taken me
over twenty years to get from here to there in Lafayette. I get completely twisted, even still.

When I first came down there my future father-in-law pressed me into service by taking him to the Firestone to pick up his car. So we drove to the auto shop, Me barely paying attention. He handles business, jumps into his car and says something along the lines of “See you later”.

Before I can get out “HeywherethehellamIandhowdoIgetback?” He’s gone.

So I pick my way around the city, including a trip to the other side of the tracks – which is literal there, and made it back to their house over an hour later. Mind you, this is before cell phones. Turns out, the Firestone is literally three blocks or so away from the house.

The story lives in infamy in my family.

So I’m better with navigating around the city, but it’s been a long journey.Turns out, part of my confusion comes from the city being bisected by the Vermilion river. They’ve since built a major bridge crossing the river and creating a new artery between the southeast and the northwest.That helped quite a bit.

The city isn’t as quaint as I remember from when we were first married. It seems that after Katrina the older part of the city got more seedy and urban. I saw my first “Hoopty” (what I call a car propped ridiculously high off the pavement by 22″ rims – Twenty-twos). Funny, since I’ve been to far more major metros and hadn’t seen one.

In the formerly outer fringes a new city has popped up. This may be as a result of the new bridge I mentioned earlier, or white flight. Being a frequent visitor the latter seems most likely to me.

St John’s Cathedral – Where my wife and I were married

And honestly it’s a shame. The new part has none of the character of the old town. Matter of fact it looks identical to most everywhere I’ve been – tons of chain restaurants, stores, and look-alike themed construction. I’m no civil engineer, but having watched those buildings go up I’ll bet they’ll be toast when the big one hits.

So what’s good about this place?

Two things really, the people and the culture – what’s left of it. Nearly all the people I’ve met there have been great, very friendly. A lot of that comes with the culture. Lafayette’s claim to fame is ground zero for the Cajun culture. It’s funny that the area is surrounded by the deep south on one side and Texas on the other yet if someone has an accent at all, it’s french.

The Cajun culture is really an American treasure. Reminds me a lot of the Irish crowd I come from. Less fighting though. Work hard, party hard, the older crowd that have been through tougher times have an amazing grounded outlook. At one point during the wedding plans, my future father-in-law looked at me and asked why didn’t I just go over to Avery Island and “jump the broom” (Get it over with). Honestly, till this day the only reason I can come up with why not is I’d have been killed.

Unlike a north Dallas supermarket stocked to the gills will preprocessed food the supermarkets there sport a selection of every thinkable kind of food. At one time my mother-in-law sent us on a mission to get a chicken. Not just any chicken, she had specific instructions – a fryer, not a hen, not a roaster, not something else. How hard could it be I thought? They have cut up and whole chickens. It’s the same chain where I shop in Texas, right?

Wrong. There were at least four different types, Hen, rooster, roaster, fryer, parts. Amazing. Apparently, an old hen is the ticket for soups and stews – can handle long cooking times. Go figure.

There are foods that you can really only get there – Sausages, Boudin (look it up), Crawfish (Tasty local ones, not the fishy Chinese imports). Usually we pack a cooler to bring some of this back.

And Unlike every pent up state I’ve visited, it’s one of the only I’ve been to that the grocery store has a booze aisle. Honestly I see more drunken idiots here in Texas with the puritanical liquor laws than I’ve ever seen there where you can buy a pint of Jack Black at the gas station.

Also Unlike every city of it’s size I’ve been, it sports a ton of amazing restaurants. Places of the type I seek out when I travel – sole proprietor, unique places. Most of them of the Cajun-seafood types. One of my favorites there is Prejeans. It sits just at the entrance to the area on I49, and has some of the best seafood you’ll taste anywhere, ever. There is a divey breakfast place on Pinhook called “T-coons” that vies for the best restaurant on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives”. Amazing food. My wife ordered wheat toast. It was a homemade slab of the most amazing bread you’ve ever tasted. The biscuits are amazing. And the exterior is so unassuming, you’ll drive right past. I know, I’ve done it a few dozen times before I went.

But Lafayette is changing. Sadly, it seems to me to changing into the same sort of city I see way too much of these days. Rubber stamped, carbon copy, yuppie-fied hell. Yuppies ruin everything. I should know, having been one.

One of the things that in my opinion that Lafayette is sorely missing is my Father-in-law, Benny. He was a great man, and a former councilman as a matter of fact. You know, when you are around someone every day, especially family, you take for granted how special a person is. Then they are gone and it hits you. I knew Benny was special from the day I met him and he told me the picture of me they had posted on the fridge had the added benefit of scaring away the roaches.He was one of the few men I know that would completely disassemble a part – such as an alternator, and rebuild it by hand – old school. Most of us would simply cough up the dough for a rebuilt one, or even worse pay some dude to fix the problem. At our wedding, Benny and my dad spent practically the whole reception in the back at a table at the bar, birds of a feather.

I spent a day with him once where we basically went all over Lafayette meeting all kinds of people. In the same day I saw him chat with the highest officials, and then an hour later he’s out by a ditch rapping with the construction dudes. Quite a day.

So Lafayette isn’t quite the same as it was and it’s changing.I miss Benny, almost as much as my own father. They both died at roughly the same age, way too early. I’m at a point now where having some of that wisdom would be helpful.