LACOMBE, La. – While time on the water – fishing, boating, paddling, gaping at ‘gators and birds – is a constant theme in southern Louisiana, the serendipity of life, and the celebration of food, hover in the background. But not too far back.
Driving away from prime destination New Orleans increases your chances of happening upon down-home people in the same time zone as, but half a world away from, the Big Easy’s liquor-infused gaiety.
Whether their Cajun accents are syrup-thick or just a drawl, these folks are welcoming and willing to share their stories, as Shannon Villemarette (cq) does while standing between displays of fishing lures, bug spray and live crickets in her bait shop: “This got into me – I didn’t get into it.’’
Shannon – get used to calling everyone by their first name — means running the store, renting kayaks and bicycles, hiring out as a fishing guide.
Formerly manager of the state’s American Diabetes Association, Shannon recounts how she came to run her Bayou Adventure shop:
She had rallied residents of this area by Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, to protest possible pollution of nearby bayous that writhe through the lowlands until merging near this village.
“But there was no way to get people who didn’t own boats on to the bayous, no outfitters,’’ she continues.
“Coincidentally, about then I saw an ad in the paper for a bait shop for sale. I drove up, offered the owner $100 cash (as a binder) and he threw me the keys and walked out the door.
“I didn’t even know how to work the cash register.’’
Shannon leads me back to her office — within, but walled off from, the bait shop. I’m now standing in the State of Louisiana, Parish of St. Tammany, Seventh Ward Justice Court. Judge Shannon Villemarette presiding.
She laughs when I ask if she had to sling mud to get elected to the $560-a-month office.
“On social media there were these anonymous posts: “Don’t vote for the hoochie in the bait ship – she wears Daisy Dukes every day’.
“That brought a bunch of guys in to check me out, but I don’t own any Daisy Dukes,’’ says Her Honor, now wearing a pale lavender top and faded jeans.
She then closes her chambers so we can pedal her rental bikes along the tree-shaded Tammany Trace Bike Trail.
We pause while a boat loaded with fishing traps passes through a raised drawbridge on the trail.
More serendipity, because it gives Shannon time to consider life here.
“There are all these little charms. People enjoy meeting people, everyone’s laidback, we have blueberry farms, a winery, recreation areas like these.
“This is sort of a gentle place.’’
Gators, eagles — and crawfish
PATTERSON — “Cajun Jack’’ Hebert offers a different slice of bliss to passengers aboard his swamp-tour boat, 120 miles to the west. He happily interrupts his narration, for instance when his boat passes someone pulling net traps set for crawfish:
He calls out, “When’s the crawfish boil? I’ll bring the beer!’’
The passengers chuckle. Jack has set them up perfectly for his next line.
“We Cajuns love to boil our crawfish and our shrimp in a big ol’ pot, with lots of seasonings,’’ the captain drawls. “And we love our ice-cold beer. That’s why we Cajuns ain’t Baptists.’’
He erupts in a laugh, shared by all of his customers except for the young couple from Germany, apparently not familiar with Baptists’ abstention.
A gator glides through the Atchafalaya Basin
Twice a day, the captain narrates a 2 ½-hour tour of the vast body of water and swamp that is the Atchafalaya (cq) (pronounced at-CHUH-fuh-LIE-uh) Basin. It’s huge — roughly 140 miles long and encompassing 931 square miles.
It teems with alligators, 90 species of fish, innumerable waterfowl and raptors. On this trip, the passengers gasp at the squadron of five bald eagles overhead.
Jack hasn’t motored or paddled through all of the basin, but he’s been on plenty of it in his 73 years. He can’t pass another boat without seeming to recognize the fellow seated by its outboard motor and calling, “Hey, dog, where y’at?’’ – Louisiana slang for “how are you?’’
Then the two boaters idle engines to chat. Sometimes they do know each other, exchange gossip. Serendipity.
From pipeline welds to sportsfishing
MORGAN CITY – Less than 7 miles from Captain Jack’s dock, Ivy St. Romain’s hands flash across the table top, threading onto a thin metal rod tiny plastic beads, a tear-drop-shaped piece of shiny metal, and brightly colored silicon strands. He bends the rod into a right angle and at the other end he adds a tiny swivel, then a fishing hook.
Ivy has created a fishing lure. But it’s just busy work for the owner of Blu (cq) Rebel Charters & Guide Services: Ivy is in his tackle shop, riding out a ferocious thunderstorm that has negated our plans to fish a nearby lake or the Gulf of Mexico, 26 miles from Morgan City.
After he quit 30 years of inspecting pipeline welds in western Africa, South America and the Caribbean, Ivy got his captain’s license so he could pretend to “work’’ at his first love – fishing. Now he heads out on charters at least three times a week in the summer.
When he’s back at the shop, he says, “I hold knot-tying and fishing 101 classes, for beginners.’’
For the umpteenth time during a half-hour interview, Ivy moves his hand just a few inches to grasp his cellphone. It’s another customer, asking about a particular lure.
If the buyer doesn’t see what he wants in the shop, Ivy will pull out trays of components and on a burgundy cloth, he will arrange pieces from the trays until the customer is satisfied.
In less than three minutes, the angler can have a custom-made lure. And that bit of serendipity will cost the buyer $6.99.
Where the menu is on the door
While New Orleans seemingly has gourmet restaurants on nearly every corner, Cajun Country offers mouthwatering meals in small towns and rural crossroads. Or as Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant instructs:
“If you want country cooking, come to the country … Come visit us, say hey to Joan’’.
Owner/operator Joan Suire (pronounced sweer) is likely to say “hey’’ first, as she greets shoppers, works the take-out counter and waits on tables on the restaurant side of this old building with wooden floors. Even before you’ve taken the three steps onto the porch, you can read the menu: It’s painted around the doorframe.
Specialties range from crawfish etouffee (spicy) and shrimp fettuccine (creamy, of course) to alligator a variety of ways to boudin (cq) balls (a basic of Cajun meals, made with various cuts of pork, rice, chopped onions, garlic and more, then fried) and pistolettes (cq) (akin to an empanada, a roll is stuffed with spices, chopped onions, seasonings and a choice of shrimp, crawfish or crab, then it’s fried).
Suire’s is at a crossroads outside teensy Kaplan; the nearest town is Abbeville, pop. 13,000. “Dining’’ in Abbeville centers around Dupuy’s, opened in this location about 140 years ago to sell oysters.
They are still the specialty. Get them raw, or battered with breadcrumbs and grilled. Or topped with crabmeat stuffing and pepperjack cheese … chargilled and topped with a spinach cream sauce and mozzarella …
Between the rural atmosphere of Swuire’s and the casual in-town ambience of Dupuy’s, there is Susie’s Seafood, which lacks pretension, presentation and a website.
Tables at this Morgan City eatery are covered with brown butcher paper and the napkins come off a paper-towel roll. The specialty is the crawfish boil; minimum order, four pounds.
Boiled for about 10 minutes in heavily seasoned water, the crawfish go in brown and come out orange-red. Cooked with them are slices of potato and corn on the cob, which comes out tasting the spiciest.
Your “basket’’ of crawfish is actually a plastic tub that the waitress dumps on the table. Then, paper towels nearby, you dig in, tearing off and discarding the crawfish heads, thin shell and legs. If you are fastidious, you might pick out the sand vein along its back. Not many dining at Susie’s slow down to do that.
As the locals say: There’s three ways to become a Cajun: By the ring, by the blood, and by the back door.
The longer a visitor hangs out with these Cajuns, the more that back door seems to open.
If you go
Bayou Adventure, 27725 Main St., Lacombe, La.; (985) 882-9208; www.bayoudadventure.com
Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tour, 118 Main St., Patterson, La.; (985) 395-7420; www.cajunjack.com
Blu-Dog Charters, 7209 Hwy. 90 East, Morgan City, La.; (985) 518-4277; www.ivystacklebox.com
Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant, 13923 Hwy. 35, Kaplan, La.; (337) 643-8911; www.suires.yolasite.com
Dupuy’s Oyster Shop, 108 S Main St., Abbeville, La.; (337) 893-2336; www.dupuysoystershop.com
Susie’s Seafood, 6701 Hwy. 182 East, Morgan City; (985 702-0274)
Also worth your time
While in Cajun Country, make time for:
The famed Tabasco factory tour ($1 charge per car), Avery Island, La.; (337) 373-6129; www.TABASCO.com
The nation’s oldest, continuously operating rice mill, Conrad Rice Mill (free tours), 307 Ann St., New Iberia, La.; (337) 363-7242; www.conradricemill.com
Kayak on Bayou Teche (pronounced tesh) with Donovan Garcia, passionate for the environment. It’s free, by appointment: (337) 923-9718
Among plantation-home museums, consider Shadows-on-the-Teche (317 E. Main St., New Iberia, La.; 337 369-6466), and Joseph Jefferson mansion (55095 Rip Van Winkle Road, New Iberia, La.; 337 359-8525; www.ripvanwinklegardens.com/josephjeffersonmansion.html
The most-distinctive place I stayed was Apartment A, a B&B cottage in Abbeville, vividly decorated by owner Debbie Garrott. TV, Wi-Fi, DVD player, kitchen, shower/tub combo … 110 N. Charles St., Abbeville, La.; (337) 652-6148; www.abbevilleapt-a.com