Sunday, November 30, 2008

Visitor Welcome Center, Exit 880

Moving Day. A day to pack up, tie other things down, and bring in the slide outs on the RV. As soon as the cats hear the motors of the slides, they run for their space under the sofa. The first time we checked on where they had chosen to travel, we found three pairs of eyes staring back at us as we checked under the sofa.

It was a day to say our fourth "good-bye" to Jim and Lynn Claxton, the Park's managers. They combine friendliness and helpfulness with a desire to make their guests feel at home. And they succeed in this desire. And our geographic connections with them (Jim from Princeton, IL, and Lynn from Feasterville, PA) helped make it easy to enjoy their company.

Some of the places we missed visiting were the three casinos within a stone's throw of the Park. I just liked the name of this one. The nickname of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's athletic team is "The Ragin' Cajuns," so seeing the Wagin' Cajun Casino seemed to fit--geographically speaking.

By sunset, we were packed, organized, and ready to travel early in the morning.

Welcome Centers not only provide enough brochures and maps to cover a month's worth of activities, but they also provide an opportunity to change drivers and take a walk. So we looked forward to beginning our stay in Texas with a stop just after crossing the border. Above the sign announcing the Center were the words "Exit 880." The idea of driving 879 miles and still not having crossed the western border was a bit daunting, to say the least.

On our walk around the Center, we stopped to photograph this scene. There was little doubt where we were.

Every time I return to our truck and RV at one of these stops, I'm still surprised that we are able to navigate all this equipment down the road. One more travel day ahead.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tweaking Gyros and Pizzas

Who’d a thought that I’d come to Cajun Louisiana and find the best hummus – that Middle Eastern spread/dip made from chickpeas, sesame paste, olive oil, and garlic – ever. Recently, we made a second visit to Cedar Grocery and Deli in Lafayette, because we saw that, in addition to a fine mufaletta, they had gyros on their long list of sandwiches. Since we hadn’t had a gyro since leaving Pennsylvania five months ago, we were long overdue.

On this return visit, we ordered two lamb gyros and, as a last minute addition, an order of hummus and pita bread. The gyros were good but very different from what we’d had before. Instead of being served in a folded pita, Cedar’s was served in a hollowed out and toasted po’boy style roll. And, instead of the thin slices of seasoned ground lamb gyro meat, Cedar’s was served in larger chunks. But the traditional tomato, lettuce, and yogurt-based tzatziki sauce were all present.

While not what we expected, the sandwich was still good. But it was the hummus that stole the show. We got a generous cup of this Middle Eastern staple, which was more coarsely ground that grocery market hummus. It was redolent of garlic and came topped with a film of olive oil to be mixed into the paste. Absolutely wonderful! Since we were getting our hair cut following lunch, frantic gum chewing was needed to offset the strong odor of garlic we both exuded.


When we checked into Frog City RV Park a short five weeks ago, I asked Jim Claxton, who, along with his wife Lynn, is the resident park manager, for a recommendation for a local pizzeria. Jim mentioned the Pizza Palace in Scott. For this, we are eternally in Jim’s debt for we have become regulars at this pizza, pasta, seafood, etc. place during our stay in Duson. ("Swem," our server laughed, "In all my years here, no one ever asked to take my photograph.")

Pizza Palace has the three elements that, to me, define good pizza. The crust is super thin – almost like a cracker – and stays crisp to the last slice. (We were told that the secret to the crust is the addition of beer.) The sauce is applied with a light hand. And the sausage is presented just as I like it.

When in high school in Clinton, Iowa, I worked at a local – but very authentic –pizzeria. The owners ground and seasoned the pork for the Italian sausage in house, and rather than applying the meat in little round discs, the raw sausage was dropped in teaspoon sized pieces. Since then, I have always preferred pieces of sausage to discs of sausage. And the Pizza Palace’s pie has a very generous application of fennel-tasting lean sausage pieces. (This photo shows that the pizza hand is quicker than the photo hand.)

On our early visits, we ordered the large but always left wanting more. So the other night we decided to live dangerously and ordered the GIANT!! Ate this bad boy without breaking a sweat.

A couple of housekeeping items, including the door to the ladies room swelling from humidity such that I almost didn’t get out, resulted in the Pizza Palace being awarded 4.0 (out of a possible 5.0) Addies.

After finishing our pizza and passing along our praises to our server, we were asked if we had tried their fried catfish. Our answer: “No, but that would mean that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the pizza.”

“Our catfish is even better than our pizza” was her quick response.

We met the owner as we were paying our bill and passed along our praises to him, also. He was pleased to hear our comments, but quickly asked, “Have you tried our catfish?”

Before we could expand our “No” to add “but our server said they were even better than the pizza,” he broke in with “They’re the best. As a matter of fact if you think you can find better fried catfish, I’ll pay for your meal.”

At that time a woman walked by, a wide smile across her face and a finger pointing to herself, identifying the one who prepared their entry in what could become The Great Catfish Challenge.

That is conviction I love to hear: a restaurant owner (or a chef/cook) who takes great pride in his and his staff’s product and will challenge others to serve a better product.

The date of the Challenge: TBA

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Magic of the Plate Lunch

We've never been fortunate enough to attend a premier showing of any production, but we jumped at the opportunity to attend a screening of Raised on Rice and Gravy. While the opportunity itself was enough of an attraction for us, the fact that we were to view a documentary about "South Louisiana Plate Lunch Houses" was enough to get us to The Coffee Break, the site of the showing, in Breaux Bridge.

There was a festive air present as we approached the coffee shop. Rocking chairs had been placed in the street and the block roped off to prevent parking.

It was a warm evening, so the crowd spilled into the street, waiting for the showing to begin.

When we walked in, we noticed a group gathered around a table with cakes and dessert pastries. In the back of the shop, we noticed two rooms filled with people and serving dishes. There seemed to be a good supply of red beans and rice, among other hot dishes.

We passed all the food selections and headed for a seat in the room where the documentary was to be shown. We found two seats in the back row of the screening room. The room soon filled to Standing Room Only capacity. An air of anticipation engulfed the room. At 7:00, Conni Castille announced to the 36 of us that the show was to begin. It took a question from a member of the audience to inform us that Conni was one of the producers (along with Allison Bohl).

The documentary focused on the Plate Lunch. Back in the day, when lunch was the main meal, it was the hearty and substantial plate lunch that provided the energy to do the work of the day. More and more, it was the local diner that provided this meal.

The plate lunch became a restaurant fixture in the early 1900’s. Before long there was even a customary plate for lunch: a large china plate in the popular and familiar blue willow pattern with compartments to divide the meat from the potatoes and the vegetables.

The blue plate special began to refer to a large plate with generously large and inexpensive portions, commonly consisting of a main dish, three or four vegetables, some kind of bread, and a drink.

In the best of these Lunch Plate restaurants, there is a common denominator: a universal pride of mission and reputation, a celebration of longevity, and a joy of service. “It is these qualities that make owners go whistling off to work at four in the morning, employees serve faithfully for years on end, patrons return time and time again with enthusiasm, and restaurants survive and prosper for decades” (John Edgerton, et. al., Southern Food).

The film featured the owner of staff of Carl's lunch-only restaurant in Lafayette. Carl's comment, "I'm not doing this to get rich. I just like serving good food to good people" summarized the whole philosophy of the Plate Lunch eateries. Interviews with the cooks and the patrons noted the connection among these two groups and the food.

Another characteristic of these restaurants was summarized by Carl in this pithy observation: "I don't need to read newspapers. I get all the news from my customers." The documentary covered a day in the life of the Plate Lunch participants (restaurant staff, the food, and customers). The warm, human touch to the people in the film left one wishing there were more "helpings" of all three ingredients than the 20 minutes provided.

Another group of people started filing in for the next showing.

On the way out, we stopped to listen to the Huval Family Band.

I had this urge for a heaping plate of chicken, rice and gravy, green beans, cole slaw, collards, a roll, and an iced tea (unsweetened for the outsider).

But it was 8:30 p.m.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving dinner 2008 was a different experience.

Oh, we had roast turkey, smoked turkey, and ham. And yes, we had mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, cranberry sauce (three kinds), and green bean casserole (two kinds). Plus, deviled eggs, baked beans, rolls, and collard greens. All topped off with pumpkin pie, carrot cake, brownies, and about three other creations. (I didn't really get a good idea of all the dessert selections--after two good-size helpings of just about everything else, I decided to leave the desserts for the other campers.)

Kate and I joined 26 others for a dinner in the campground's office. Jim and Lynn, the campground hosts, prepared the turkeys and mashed potatoes, and the rest of us brought a dish to pass.

We joined Jim and Lynn and a couple from eastern Washington at one table. The couple from the West traveled to places in the area via their Harleys once they settled into the campground. The wife was originally from the Quad Cities, and both found jobs as day truckers while they were staying here for the winter.

Their son is a deep sea welder, working on oil rigs to repair damage from the hurricanes. He was going on a 228-foot dive today, but since he really enjoyed the work, it did not bother him that it was Thanksgiving.

After dinner, we took some of the left over turkey for our cats, so they celebrated later in the day--in between naps.


In the Odds 'N Ends Department: No. 1. The daiquiri seems to be the drink of choice among the locals.

This photo shows the Daiquiri Island with the sign reading "Drive Thru Daiquiris."

No. 2. Butch Guchereau made it a point to emphasize that his name did not end in an "x" when he introduced himself before our swamp tour with him. He told a story about the Acadians who were driven out of Nova Scotia and transported to New Orleans. When they were asked for their signature after giving their names, many simply wrote an "x." He wasn't sure if they signed with an "x" because they couldn't write their name or because they were protesting their forced re-location. But the "x" was added to their last names.

At any rate, the "eaux" suffix is present in many names in this area. It has even appeared in signs such as "Geaux Tigers" to support the Louisiana State University athletic teams.

However, it was this permanent sign that topped our list of "Eaux My--That's Too Much."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Teacher and Student Show Off

Yesterday was the day for Jerald to demonstrate the early steps in duck carving. Today was the day for him to show some of his finished carvings. Jerald had invited his friend and student, William, to show us some of his work, also. William's wife, Dot, joined Kate and Judy in further conversations about everyone's travels, food, and life in Acadiana (south-central Louisiana).

Unfortunately, Jerald had only a few of his carvings to show me. This pair of Wood Ducks were ones of which he was particularly proud. Note the band present on the leg of the male (photo above; leg on the left as you view the photo.)

Jerald told me that he begins his carvings from "the ground up," that is, he will often meet with landowners and lumber comapnies to learn where tupelo trees are being cut down. He uses the part of the tree closest to the ground, so this softest part of the tree is usually left after the tree is removed.

Not only did Jerald carve the cardinals (right), but he also carved the branches, leaves, and the blueberries.

The photos do not show the texture and the detail that goes into these carvings. Individual feathers are created by using a wood-burning tool to create the individual blades in each feather. Jerald let me use this tool to draw the blades of a feather. This was very delicate, slow work. I think I'm a patient person, but this work appeared beyond my limits.

The next photos show the work of one of Jerald's students, William, who has been carving for about 12 years.

Now if I could only remember the name of this species of duck (above).

This is a Pintail (right). The two pintail feathers are a separate piece and can be removed.

Jerald and William talked about the extreme attention to detail that is expected of duck carvings entered in competition. They use calipers to measure every detail, for example, the length or width of the bill, the shape of the feathers, and the positioning of the eyes.

This is William's Wood Duck. Both carvers said that the Wood Duck is their favorite duck to carve because the male (shown here) is so colorful.

Jerald noted, "Painting the ducks is the work I enjoy most." While some is done by hand, much of the painting is done with the delicate use of an air brush.

I really liked Williams' Hooded Merganser.

Both Jerald (right) and William were justifiably proud of their work. When William was first learning to carve, he became quite frustrated with his slow progress. Jerald encouraged him to come to his workshop; William did and worked side by side with Jerald. Watching Jerald work gave William an opportunity to observe each step and then duplicate it. The result was a student who now enjoys the results of his work.

Before saying good-bye, we took a photo of our hosts and their friends (l. to r., Jerald, Judy, Dot, and William).

As we drove back to the campground, both Kate and I had a feeling that we would be back someday to sit down for a bowl of gumbo with our new Cajun friends.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jerald, Carver of Ducks

"Do you know any duck carvers who wouldn't mind people dropping by their workshop to talk about their work?"

In response to this question, the folks at the Breaux Bridge Information Center suggested we call Jerald Lasseigne. We did, and that call led to an informative, educational visit to Jerald's workshop.

Jerald was a very gracious host and spent a good amount of time showing me some of his ducks. Then we headed to the workshop.

Jerald seemed right at home in this House of Sawdust. There were a variety of drills, saws, sanders, and paints for delivery via airbrush in this carved-duck nest.

Jerald is self-taught. He has read books and talks to other carvers, but it has been his patient attention to detail that has led him to be commissioned by a private collector to carve 124 ducks for him. Jerald has completed six.

Jerald took me through the initial steps to obtain the rough model. He brought out a block of tupelo, a light wood that made carving very easy. He then traced a pattern of the side view, front view, and top view of the head on one block and the same three views of the body on another, larger block.

The completion of the tracing produced blocks that looked like this (right). They were now ready for the band saw.

At this point, I was having difficulty visualizing how to make cuts on each of those blocks.

As I watched Jerald make the cuts around the tracing on the side view, I noticed that he did not completely remove all the excess wood.

On the top view side of the block, he also made cuts around most of the pattern. The cuts were not complete because the block needed to remain flat on all four sides until all the necessary cuts had been made.

I still had a hard time visualizing how the cuts affected the other cuts. That difficulty is probably not clear to anyone reading this, but I couldn't explain my inability to picture how to get to the end product to Jerald, either. So he kept cutting.

The he began cutting the final view--the front view (drawn on the end of the block). He cut into the wood and just began cutting around the traced pattern. When cutting this third view, Jerald left no sections uncut.

When his last cut completed the entire line of the pattern, he pulled the block from the band saw and the rough form of the head just slid out (above). I was beginning to understand how those three cuts on the block of wood produced this rough form of the head.

Jerald put a finished example of a duck head (photo above) on the rough form. Later, he presented me with both of these items, which now have a prominent position in our collection of items from our travels.

When the head and body in these rough cuts were put on the band saw, I looked at Jerald and said, "Half an hour down, only 249-1/2 hours to go."

Jerald smiled, "That's about right."

Kate had spent the time talking with Judy, Jerald's wife, and Gizmo, their Pomeranian. Food, music, travel, and life in Acadiana were topics they covered. I guess that Judy and Jerald had a good time, also, becase they invited us back to meet two of their friends who are frequent travelers and duck carvers.

Tomorrow we will talk about the second visit with this friendly Cajun couple.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Meet the Anhinga

There are swamp tours and there are swamp tours. Some will make a production of feeding "Big Earl," the resident alligator, who has come to rely on the daily 2:30 feeding for the entertainment of the tour crowd. Then there are tours that aim to educate visitors by slowly moving through the swamp so that one becomes part of the life of the swamp.

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, we were fortunate to find "Butch" Guchereau, who is one of the guides who is knowledgable and focused on teaching visitors about the wonders of the Cypress Island/Lake Martin Swamp near Breaux Bridge, LA.

While we were familiar with some of the birds that inhabit the swamp (spoonbills, white ibis, great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, cormorants, herons, wood ducks, and barred owls among others), it was the anhingas that we saw for the first time. This fellow (above), framed by the tree branch, seemed to be aware of his starring role in the tour.

Anhingas are the birds closest to prehistoric birds. Their bones are solid, not hollow.

They prefer to roost in the highest points in trees in swamps.

The anhinga is also known as the snakebird. When it swims, its body is submerged under the water. It stretches its head and neck flat out on the surface of the water, making it look like a snake gliding through the water. The anhinga spears his prey with his pointed beak like an arrow. Sometimes its thrust is so powerful that it has to swim to shore and pry the fish off his beak by rubbing it against a rock.

The anhinga is a water bird, but it does not have oil glands for waterproofing its feathers like most water birds. When it goes swimming its feathers get wet. This helps it dive and chase fish underwater. However when it is above water, it must spread its wings (above) to dry in the sun. It can fly with wet feathers but not as well.

This ibis kept inching away from the path of our boat as it coasted silently past this stump.

At several points in the swamp, several egrets watched the approach of our boat.

Wading slowly through the water, they are extremely successful at striking and catching fish or insects. Studies found that, standing still, great egrets were able to ingest more prey of intermediate size than if they moved around. This suggests that their goal is not to catch the largest quantity of food, but to catch high quality food.

We were only able to photograph a couple of egrets as we approached them. However, observing these magnificent birds in flight was worth missing a photo.

Seeing the great blue heron in this pose in this setting confirmed that this bird was aptly named.

I can imagine the swamp early in the morning with the sun trying to break through a fog.

We will have to return.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Another Day at the Swamp

There is something about a swamp that draws me to it. It's the type of attraction that one experiences when facing the Unknown--the combination of the Unfamiliar, which creates interest, and Mystery, which is associated with 1950's monster movies, "swamp gas" and "Big Foot" stories. The choice facing us was: take a tour with a zoology/botany guide who knows the area or rent a boat and head into the swamp at night with only a flashlight.

We opted for a 2-hour tour in a Cajun crawfish skiff with "Butch" Guchereau. Whether or not the third person in our party, Jan, from the northwestern part of France, faced the same decision was left unresolved. Jan spoke English, but it was interesting to hear Butch using his Cajun French to describe events and customs and Jan "translating" terms into continental French.

We had wanted to see the swamp in all its natural beauty. A scene like that on the left fit my image of the trees growing in a swamp. The closer the trees are to each other, the shallower the water is.

A lot of the color is missing at this time of year, but the afternoon sun highlighted some of the features of the bald cypress trees. At the base of the cypress, the reddish color of the wood places it in the redwood family.

There are different explanations for the existence of these "spikes" or "knees" at the base of the tree's trunk. Some believe they help the tree "breathe" and others believe the tree stores extra food in the form of starches in these knees.

At this time, the purpose of the knees is unknown--"one of the Good Lord's mysteries for us," as Butch put it. For the photographer, the reason is less important that the mere existence of the knees for the creation of a more interesting picture.

Butch pointed out some indicators of the health of the cypress trees. The tree at the left is dying as indicated by the bare portion of the trunk rising above the rest of the tree. A parasite attacks the cypress and hollows out the tree, beginning at the center and working its way to the outer bark. Since the diameter of the trunk is smaller at the top, the parasite reaches the outer layer of the tree sooner at that part.

This tree (right) is also dying. The flattened appearance of the top branches of the tree indicates that the upward growth has slowed or stopped. Butch described trees in this condition as looking like Bonsai Trees.

This tall tree is an example of what the healthy cypress should look like.

A relatively recent addition to the swamp is the Willow Primrose or "swamp daisy." As is evident in the photo, the single flower creates a nice picture. But this is a fast-growing plant and over time it can form a blanket over sections of the swamp, cutting off food supplies for creatures living in the water.

Tomorrow: Meet some of the residents of the swamp.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"My Sister's Getting Married Saturday . . . .

Would you want to come to the reception?" asked Robert Credeur. That question occurred at the end of our second meal at Chef Roy's Frog City Cafe in Rayne, LA, and our second conversation with Robert, the owner. We said we would be pleased to attend.

And so, this evening we attended Robert's sister's wedding reception at the Cafe. We felt very honored to have been invited after just meeting Robert, but he and the others whom we met this evening made us feel like distant relatives who had come to join in the celebration. What a wonderful experience!

We also met Jackie (of Jackie Callier and the Cajun Cousins), and in the course of the conversation, he said he could teach me to play the accordion (or at least one song) in three months. I just might take him up on that. He sure played the "diatonic melodeon" well.


But first there was Breaux Bridge (or Pont Breaux, as the sign over the bridge at the entrance to the town reads).

This town of about 8,000 people seems to have music venues in every block. One of its main restaurants with music every night is Mulate's, where we had hoped to spend more than one evening. However, Gustav had eliminated all chances to hear some fine music. The hurricane earlier this year was responsible for lifting the roof off the entire building. Its re-opening is scheduled for the day after we leave the area.

The boards cover the stained glass windows, while workers replace the lead strips around pieces of glass in the ornate windows in the St. Bernard Catholic Church.

One of the top places to hear music in downtown Breaux Bridge is Cafe Des Amis. This Saturday morning it was the Creole Cowboys who provided the entertainment. A zydeco band at 8:30 in the morning will effectively remove any cobwebs in one's brain. The core of the band remains the accordion and the frottoir (a washboard with shoulder straps, above), with additional rhythm provided by guitar and drums.

With words like "up-beat tempo" and "vibrant" used to describe it, zydeco is made for dancing--with words like "passionate" and "sexy" used to describe the dancing. Even this early hour did not slow the dancers. As you can see, there was little space for standing when we arrived at 9:30.

We were seated at a table with David and Denise, a couple from Melbourne, Australia. Conversation was limited because of the amplified music, but we did have time to compare travel plans. We also learned that the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz movie The Long, Long Trailer was called The Big Caravan in Australia. Oddly enough, we all knew this 1950's movie and the difference in terminology for one type of RV.

After the Cafe, we headed to The Coffee Break to listen to a group of local musicians. This Cajun music jam session was in marked conrast to the zydeco performance. The group played waltzes and songs for 2-step dancing.

I spoke to the accordionist at a break about one of the songs the group played. He identified it as Te Mon and said that his band The Cypress Bottom Boys would be playing at a local restaurant Monday night.

Kate had been talking to another woman about the lives of the musicians and some other local places to hear bands and to a man about his daughter and his retirement. So as we left, we made the rounds of good-byes to about half of the people in the small coffee shop.

We have met many, many wonderful people in Acadiana.