Southern Louisiana is Acadiana. It is swamps, alligators, pipelines, boudin, cracklin and sugarcane. It is Spanish moss so thick it grows on oak trees and covers the crepe myrtle, too. It is rivers and bayous the color of melted chocolate and the smells of dirt, leaves and grass that stick to the hot summer air. It is a fleur-de-lis sticker made of deer, duck and bass on the back of a truck, and a yard sign that says, “God, guns and guts. Let’s keep all three.”
It was refuge for the French kicked out of Canadian colonies by the British in the 1750s. These days it is the Halfway Cemetery in Gray where above-ground graves are painted with the names and handprints of loved ones, and tombstones say “sunrise” and “sunset” instead of “birth” and “death.” It is boats in the garage and crab tracks stacked in the yard. It is fields of sugarcane, orange trees and Creole tomatoes rising next to the steel and smokestacks of refineries. It is gas stations with the Presto Player’s Club or Cash Magic Casino machines, and local butcher shops that still process bone-in meat and wrap purchases in white butcher paper.
It is French and Choctaw names turned melodic by a Southern voice. Thibodaux, Atchafalaya, Chacahoua and Rue Chavaniac sound even smoother when you add “Louisiana.” Streets and parishes are named after the French explorers, Bienville and D’Iberville. In LaFayette, a street named Rue Louis XIV runs parallel to a street named John Wayne.
Venice, in Plaquemine Parish, is the southernmost point of Louisiana. Barely above sea level, it is where the world ends and the Gulf of Mexico begins – where the Mississippi River flows into the sea. Tidewater Road ends at a bayou and when the sun disappears cars swerve to miss gators crossing late into the night. Fisherman take off for the deep from the Venice Marina and Crawgators Bar & Grill has the best seafood gumbo around. A full moon rises over the slips holding boats named Peacekeeper, Adios, Grand Slam, Offshore Lounge and Poledancer (the owner says he has a weakness for strippers).
That southern point was once protected by Fort Jackson, built in 1822 and named after Andrew Jackson. A marker points across the river to Bayou Mardi Gras where on Fat Tuesday, March 3, 1699, D’Iberville and his companions camped on the French pre-Lenten holiday and gave the bayou its name.
Highway 23 is the only way to reach lower Plaquemines Parish by car. The Empire Inn rents out trailers on concrete blocks for $75 a night, and the Port Sulphur High School Football team is called the Hurricanes.
Ten years ago, a hurricane named Katrina almost washed away the parish with a 29-foot storm surge.
“The people and destruction at Plaquemines Parish are always forgotten, but we are still human,” says Teri Wilson, a lifelong resident. “We all live in mobile homes and lost everything. It could happen again and we will leave for the moment, but we will come back. We will always rebuild because there is no place like home.
“Everybody knows everybody here and we are all related. We are a friendly people, and if you meet someone who isn’t then turn around because you are on the wrong place.
“The only jobs here are commercial fisherman and oil fields but the oil fields are going under since oil prices dropped,” she says. “A lot of people have been laid off. People have lost their vehicles and homes because they can’t pay for them any more.”
Oil is the fuel that drives this economy and prices hitting a 12-year low has created an economic disaster in Acadiana.
“I am unemployed right now and it is hard to find work,” says Casey Troglen, whose husband is a welder and suffering through a cut in hours. She said they are barely keeping their heads above water.
“The economy is tough on everybody, not just the oil field workers, and we are downgrading what we do. We are lucky that there is hunting and fishing and things we can do with our kids that don’t cost much,” Troglen says. “Gas prices are finally going up a little bit but I don’t know how long it will take to go back up to where it helps us. When gas was over $3.00 it was good.”
Life is hard right now, but people raised in South Louisiana stay here, just like their parents and great grandparents. Family businesses and farms go back for generations and each generation finds a way to adapt and survive.
The Lula Sugar Factory is on Louisiana 999. The mill rises above the acres and acres of tall grass that grows the cane. Harvest is in November and warehouses with sweet, candy store smells and sticky floors store millions of pounds of unrefined sugar.
“I am sixth generation,” says Daniel Mattingly, land manager of the Lula farm. “Our family corporation started in about 1870. Together our family owns about 40,000 acres through two different land companies. About 26,000 of that is agricultural, the rest is woods and swamp. We have two sugar mills and process about 55,000 acres of cane. We process 400 million pounds of sugar in raw form from 2 million tons of sugarcane. Sugarcane came in this area in the late 1700’s. My great grandfather, grandfather, father and brother have all done the same job I do.”
The sign outside Bourgeois Meat Market in Thibodaux says, “Miracles in Meat since 1891.” Meat is processed, smoked, packaged and sold in the store from recipes passed down for 120 years. They are known for beef jerky made from strips of steak and boudin made with pork and rice that is cooked, ground down and wrapped in a burrito. Their crisp, light cracklin is made with the skin and back fat from pigs.
Ninety-two-year-old Lester Bourgeois still stops in to “raise hell.”
Most towns in Acadiana have a least one locally owned butcher shop or meat market claiming to have the best boudin and cracklin. Shelves are filled with alligator legs, marinated rabbit, chicken stuffed with crawfish and shrimp, stuffed tongue, or deer-and-pork sausage. They sell hog lard and pickled eggs, carrots, okra and asparagus.
The towns are also surrounded by swamps, rivers and bayous. Pink spoonbills and white egrets fly over cypress and coniferous trees. Tupelo gums keep the mosquitoes at bay and white lotus flowers bloom above lilypads the size of hubcaps that float on still water. Black-bellied whistling ducks and teal fly past rusted duck blinds made of oil barrels staked to trees while cicadas click in the leaves. Invasive hydrilla weeds cling to kayak paddles and the snouts of alligators. The reptiles are active and looking to mate when the weather turns warm.
When mating season ends, alligator hunting season begins. “They are making their nests and the eggs will hatch the middle of August through early September,” says Derek who hunts gators with Troy Landry of the TV show “Swamp People.” Hunting season starts the last Wednesday of August. We set the line with rotten chicken bait the night before and if an alligator has been on the line all night, it will fight for about 5 of 10 minutes.
“You have to shoot them in the right spot on the back of their head but the spot is about the size of a quarter,” Derek says. “The hardest part is getting an 800-lb alligator over the side of the boat. My family has 50 tags, but I go out with Troy and he has 500 tags.
“We will use all of those during the season.”
KANE1240 AM radio in downtown New Iberia plays zydeco, blues and the song “Americajun” by Kane Glaze.
Sometimes laughed upon. Sometimes looked down on by those who don’t understand our tradition. We love to dance and sing. It’s a family thing . . . We are proud of spirit and you need to hear it. There is no better place to be than Louisian. Americajun across the nation. Americajun by the grace of God.
There are still places in the South that are their own world and a little wild. Where roadkill is an alligator, bullfrog and crawfish tail in a row on hot asphalt like a Cajun cookout. Fourteen–foot alligators are preserved and displayed in restaurants. Fiddles and harmonicas sound in open rounds at the Blue Saloon and kayakers paddle through the Lake Martin swamp at the orange, pink and gold light of sunset. People speak their own language and sit on above-ground graves talking to loved ones passed, leaving a rock and a kiss on the tombstones before they walk away.
Acadiana began as a land of escape and a new beginning for the French expelled from Canada. Despite dropping oil prices or hurricanes hell bent on a clean sweep, South Louisiana will always be the home that Cajuns never want to leave.