Our first morning is chilly but sunny, and the light promises beauty not to be found in this RV park. It’s an old one, full of tired, long-term trailers, among which are 5 vintage, unrestored Airstreams. The park owner has collected them and rents them, we suspect, to oil-rig workers off their work cycles from rigs in the gulf. We are flanked by untenanted trailers, which make things more private, if a bit desolate. The few trees in the park are song-posts for mocking-birds and a cardinal, singing his territory. These are the scant adornments of this place. Fortunately, we’re not here for the RV accommodations, but for the rich Cajun culture that surrounds it.
We’d heard about an Airstream Cajun Rally after it was fully booked, so we’re creating one on our own, and doing quite well, so far. We found Landry’s Restaurant where whole families danced to live Cajun music, while we buffet-dined on etouffee, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crab bisque, okra and crawfish gumbo, hush puppies, stuffed crabs, okra/eggplant/crawfish casserole, boiled shrimp, and bread pudding. We had to pace ourselves.
Not far from here, are the beautiful and diverse attractions of Avery Island. The island, surrounded by swamp, is a massive salt-dome that’s one of the largest in the world. After the civil war, Edmund McIlhenny, a war-ruined bank owner, had moved in with his in-laws in their plantation home on Avery Island, where he tended the family garden, including tabasco peppers. Over time, he figured out the exact red ripeness needed for the perfect pepper. Even now, his pickers carry ‘un petit baton rouge’, a dowel painted the proper shade of red to match the color of the perfect pepper for picking a peck. He then mashed and salted the pepper pulp (remember the salt dome?) and aged the result in cleaned-out Jack Daniels whiskey barrels for three years. During that time, juices and gasses from the fermentation would bubble out of a hole in the top of the barrel. To keep contaminants from entering the vent hole, a layer of salt was spread on top of each barrel.
Fermentation barrels with a coating of salt on top.
After this fermentation was complete, grain vinegar was added and voilà! Tabasco sauce! It was prized by friends and family and soon McIlhenny was bottling to sell commercially. His entrepreneurial genius eventually spread Tabasco sauce into a vast, hot, worldwide empire and established a tourist trap on Avery Island.
We’d taken the Tabasco tour, but it being Sunday, no factory activities were running, and the only part shown on working days is the bottling, (750,000 bottles a day). The films and exhibits were well done, with an actual full, working mash stirrer (redolent of hot pepper), aging barrels with their salt-crusted tops, a detailed scale model of the entire island, showing its peculiar topography due to the salt dome beneath, and hands-on devices for kids to determine the hotness of Tabasco.
BTW, Tabasco is a town in Mexico, and the name, meaning ‘hot and humid’, perfectly describes the Louisiana location where the specially-selected pepper seeds are raised before being shipped to South America to be planted in a grand scale in that optimum growing climate.
Where Tabasco Sauce is bottled.
The bottling line.
Another, and arguably more interesting feature of Avery Island are the Jungle Gardens.
From the island’s layer of topsoil grows a lush woodland of massive live oaks, a bamboo forest, camellia, azalea, holly, and palm plantings. Surrounding all of this, are lagoons of ‘gators, turtles, herons and egrets.
One large lagoon has long, elevated bamboo piers, on which hundreds of egrets nest and to which they return from their migrations. This remarkable ‘Bird City’ was created by McIlhenny’s conservationist son, using some South-American-imported egrets’ eggs. He hatched them, cared for them, and after their winter migration to South America, they returned to Bird City and have been doing so ever since.
The entire ‘Jungle’ is looped with gravel roads for people to drive, park, and explore. I’m sure there must be a season where people can enjoy a stroll. On our self-guided tour, the trick was to jump out of the truck and photograph all this beauty before mosquitoes found us for their blood meal. They were very much out in force, explaining all the different bottles of repellant on the Jungle Gardens’ Gift Shop counter! Sometimes, breezes protected us, but often, not: very distracting when you’re trying to get a perfect composition, light exposure, and focus.
Determined to track down as many elements of Cajun cooking as we could, we visited the Konriko Rice Mill: the first of its kind in the U.S. It was probably saved from eventual ruin by its current owners’ efforts to get it registered as an historical site, thus guaranteeing that its operations could continue, unchanged, in the same charmingly antiquated but ingenious processes of the last century. The twenty-plus people employed here don’t seem to mind being part of a functioning antiquity and the number of rice products they produce and ship everywhere is impressive: lots of great rice mixes, spice mixes, gluten-free mixes as well as finished products: everything you could possibly need to become a good Cajun cook, including the generous advice of our store-keeper/docent, who grew up here and has stirred giant pots of gumbo, jambalaya, and etouffee ever since she was old enough to hold a paddle.
Before touring the old mill, we watched a good little film on the history of Acadiana, from the tragic deporting of French Canadians by the British in 1755, to their desperate years seeking a new place in which to survive and finding it at last in the Eden of the Louisiana bayou country.
Seeking area history, we found a delightful museum in Jeanerette, housed in a sweet pink Victorian House. Its many rooms surprised us with the diversity and abundance of donated artifacts from the region. Very little was under glass and our charming docent led us from room to room, delighted to answer any and all questions as she turned on the lights before us and turned them off behind us. What could have been an attic-like jumble was artfully arranged and the dedication of local volunteers to conserve and instruct Jeanerette’s history was inspiring.
We’d been told not to miss the Le Jeune Bakery, and like the Konriko Rice Company, this 5-generations-old bakery has been listed as an Historical site, with the obligatory tour. Like Konriko, nothing can be changed, but the present Le Jeune-in-charge, Mathew, knows machine fabricators in the oil industry who can make replacement parts for the elderly ovens, and mixers. Le Jeune makes an extraordinary ginger cake: really a cross between cake and bread, with a light ginger flavor. I wish we’d bought more; must order some online. We also bought some warm-from-the-oven French bread and garlic bread, both of tender, memorable texture and taste. Mathew trucks his breads to NOLA, and in turn, carries NOLA’s Hubig’s tarts mentioned in the HBO series, ‘Tremé’. We got some and they’re in our freezer, waiting for a nostalgic viewing of ‘Tremé’.
We finally found a vet with a good groomer, and Sprocket was restored to his former elegant self.
A well-groomed, decorated Sprocket.
I had to record the silly ribbon, but took it off immediately afterward and despite the discomfort of its removal, he seemed most grateful. Now he’s cooler, and full of himself: just in time for a surprising heat-wave.