Louisiana is one of those states that I never gave much thought to visiting. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to visit, but other than New Orleans, I really had no idea what Louisiana had to offer. Turns out it has a ton to offer. In our short time here we’ve already discovered long stretches of wild coastline, swampy bayous teaming with life, and friendly folks who know a thing or two about down home cooking.
Spending time in Louisiana has got me thinking about my shifting attitude regarding unfamiliar parts of the country. It’s easy to look at a place from afar and turn your nose up because the people who live there might have different political and religious beliefs, practice different customs, or even because the landscape is simply not what you’re used to. By far the best way to get over this undue prejudice is by simply visiting these places.
One of the dangers of living in the same place for a long time is that you tend to cultivate a sense of superiority regarding your town or state. Especially when it is a great place to live. We come from Vermont, which for many, many reasons is an excellent place to live. In fact, if I were to list all the things I want in a place to call home, Vermont hits on most of them – scenic, opportunity for year-round outdoor activities, thriving local food scene, politically progressive, low population which leads to a sense of community…and on and on. For a long time I found myself comparing everywhere we went to Vermont. I’d find myself thinking, oh look at those ugly billboards, Vermont would never allow that (billboards are against the law in VT) or, all that trash on the side of the road is so gross, they need a Green-Up day like we have in VT. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but some point I began to let go of all those silly comparisons.
Maybe it was because as time went by I felt less of a connection to the state I grew up in, or maybe it was because I realized that you don’t need to agree with the local politics and regional customs, be dazzled by natural beauty, or feel enamored of every little thing, to enjoy someplace new.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I like Louisiana. It may not be the kind of place where I want to live full-time, and it may have some ugly/scary/backwards/ things about it that don’t jive with my personal opinions and values, but I like it nonetheless. Certain places will always hold a special place in my heart, but I am happy to say that these days I am able to spend less time making comparisons and judgements, and more time simply enjoying where I am.
Which brings me to a crisp, sunny November day on a swamp in Louisiana. We rented canoes from the state park (for the whopping fee of $5/hour) and set out for a few hours of paddling through the canals and lakes. The canals were narrow in spots and filled with water plants that made paddling a bit of a challenge. We passed one kayaker who commented, “kinda like paddling through a bowl of salad.” The perfect analogy. We didn’t mind the slow progress though because the scenery was incredible. We paddled past banks lined with colorful autumn tinted trees, dense palmettos palms, and bunches of thick-bladed grass. We saw moss draped trees, dainty water hyacinth flowers, and even a few alligators far off in the lake.
The same day of our paddling adventure, we had another adventure of a different kind. A local food adventure. When we checked into the park the ranger gave us a flyer for a Dutch Oven Gathering. This event, held every second Saturday of the month at one of the picnic pavilions in the park, is a big deal. We found out from the camp host that the last one attracted 400 people! The group welcomes anyone to come enjoy the meal for free (donations are appreciated), and even invites other dutch oven cookers to cook with them. I kind of wish I had a dutch oven, because it would have been fun to join in and contribute a dish.
We arrived just as they were piling over 50 different dutch oven delights on a giant makeshift table. Everything from collard greens to chocolate cake made an appearance. We lined up with the massive crowd and shuffled along slowly to the meat carving station where we picked up a plate already filled with a portion of the regional Cajun specialty, Cochon de Lait. I’m going to admit right off that I am not a terribly adventurous eater, especially when it comes to meat. I’m by no means a vegetarian, but when I come across a dish that is basically the pig version of veal, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I won’t eat it. But I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took my plate of milk fed baby pig and continued down the line to the where the good stuff was waiting.
All of the dishes were labeled and arranged in groups…desserts, vegetables, casseroles, etc. This is not the kind of gathering that vegans or vegetarians would find appealing. I can say with near certainty that all of the veggie dishes had some sort of meat or meat product in them. I took a scoop of some very tasty looking Skillet Fried Corn. Turns out the tasty part came from the 50/50 ratio of bacon to corn. It was delicious.
My very favorite part was the desserts. I guess you can cook practically anything in a dutch oven, including cakes, pies and puddings. Between the two of us we tried five different desserts. My favorite was the Palmetto Pudding – a cake and chocolate concoction obviously infused with a good amount of rum. Tim’s vote went to the Not Quite Pumpkin Pie, which had a sweet brittle crust combined with silky pumpkin interior that was way better than any pumpkin pie I’d ever had.
What a feast it was! We both ended up with a full plate and enjoyed every bit of it. Well, except for that baby pig. I did try it, but as I suspected it was not for me. We truly appreciate all the work that went into making this amazing meal, and are so thankful that we got to be part of this event.
For our next Louisiana adventure we took a trip to Avery Island, the home of Tabasco. Ever since I read about this place on a food blog many years ago I’ve wanted to visit. Not necessarily because I’m a Tabasco fanatic, but because in addition to a factory tour and samples at the country store, the island is also home to a bird sanctuary and botanical garden. And as anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I am a sucker for a botanical garden.
The general store was a ton of fun. We perused the merchandise, dipped pretzels into all of the spicy sauces, and even had a taste of their two signature ice creams, Jalapeño and Raspberry Chipotle. The jalapeño was better than expected with a sweet flavor followed by a bit of spice at the end. The raspberry chipotle on the other hand was just strange tasting. Somehow we made it out of there with a minimal amount of merchandise, purchasing only a magnet and a bottle of Sweet and Spicy Tabasco that I used last night to make a creamy salad dressing. Yumm!
The factory tour was pretty dull. It consisted of a 5 minute talk, a 10 minute movie, and a quick walk through the bottling plant which doesn’t operate on the weekends. We did get some mini samples though, and learned a bit about the history of Tabasco. This spicy pepper sauce was first conceived by Edmund McIlhenny in the late 1860s as a desperate attempt to add flavor to the what was considered then to be a bland local cuisine. The sauce was such a hit with friends and family that the former banker decided to turn it into a business. To this day the same family owns and operates the Tabasco brand, and it is still made right here on the island.
After our tour and tasting we made our way over to the botanical gardens. On the advice of blog reader Lynda Harries, we decided to ride our bikes around the gardens. There is a 4-mile road through the gardens that most people tour by car while stopping at the various pull-offs. Since we had the Airstream with us (we made this stop on our way from one campground to another), it would have been a huge pain in the butt to find places to stop, so biking was a great choice. It also allowed us to see more, and overall I think it was a much more enjoyable choice than driving.
We finally saw a few small alligators up close. They were dozing in the water and didn’t seem to care that we were gawking and taking pictures.
The same guy, Edmund McIlhenney, or Mr. Ned, who created Tabasco also made these gardens. The 170 acre Jungle Gardens, as it’s called, is basically the private collection of a very wealthy banker and business man who collected rare azaleas, camellias, papyrus and more. It was very lovely.
One of our last stops was Bird City. The story goes that Mr. Ned created this bird sanctuary after thousands of snowy egrets were slaughtered for their feathers as decoration for ladies hats. Mr. Ned’s Bird City began with eight egrets that he raised on the island and then released in the fall. The birds migrated to Mexico, returning in the spring along with their off-spring. This migration pattern continues today, and in the spring you can witness thousands of birds as they flock to this protected place. But if you come at another time of year…say November, don’t expect to see much more than some nicely constructed wooden platforms. No bird sightings for us.
That wraps up our first week in Louisiana. Up next – onto New Orleans for music and more good eats!