When my sons were in second grade, their favorite part of the school day was the “Get to Know Me” half hour. At that time, each student got up before the class to talk about himself and share some show and tell about her favorite things. Today’s blog post is a “Get to Know Me” about my home state of Louisiana.
In September, hundreds of crime writers will descend upon the city of New Orleans. If you’ve ever attended a writers’ conference, you’ll know that the venue city can be as much a lure as the gathering of your peers. New Orleans has plenty of lure, and allure, and mysteries in all of its nooks and crannies.
I’m thrilled that the conference is exposing folks to the complex and colorful culture of la Louisiane. But if you follow current events, you will know that Louisiana is in trouble. The new governor has inherited a fiscal crisis so deep, he’s threatened to cut out LSU’s football program. Relax. We all know that particular threat is sabre rattling, because cutting out Tiger football would make the earth stop rotating on its axis.
The financial crisis is real, however. It is my hope my writing friends will dig deep and spend lavishly on food, books, trinkets, souvenirs, and everyone’s favorite breakfast, beignets and beer.
My way of aiding my homies is to explain out some of the state’s peculiar ways and language. If you want to write a bayou story with authenticity, I suggest you live down there a while. If you can’t do that between now and September, read ahead as I do my best with some deciphering.
Bodies of water:
A bayou is a natural, murky, slow, snaky tributary that shows where the highway department should build roads. (As in most places, settlers in Louisiana built along a water source.) One thing to understand about bayous: they are not always deep. If you jump in, you might get stuck in 10 feet of mud at the bottom. Alligators live in bayous. So do an invasive plant called water hyacinths that cover the surface and clog up the waterways each spring. Bayous can be good spots for fishing. Their banks are overhung with weeping willows. Boats that travel the bayous can be skiffs, pirogues, or trawlers. You can swim in a bayou. My mother and her siblings learned to swim in the bayou. But, seriously, check for alligators first.
A canal is a man-made narrow strip of water that follows a highway or cuts through a parcel of land. They are often covered with green pond scum. Turtles like to sun on fallen logs in them. Drunk people like to drive their cars into them and, sadly, often drown.
The river is the Mississippi. It’s the biggest, the baddest, the most romantic, and don’t bother arguing about it.
The lake is Lake Pontchartrain, which butts right up to the New Orleans airport. If you fly in from the north, there is a good chance your plane will descend over the lake. It looks like you’ll crash into the water. You won’t. (But if you can’t swim, don’t look out the window.) The Causeway Bridge crosses the lake. It has a 23 mile span and is the longest bridge over a body of water in the world. On a pretty day, is a lovely drive when the flat expanse of water is dotted with sailboats. (But it’s still scary as heck when you look out the window descending to the airport.)
A swamp is a forested area of wetlands, along the coast. Cypress trees tower overhead, Spanish moss hangs down, cottonmouths nest among giant ferns, nutrias eat plants, herons and egrets pose, and when floods raise the water level, giant mounds of red ants float by. The water can be fetid and brackish. You need a small vessel like a pirogue to travel through a swamp. A paddle is good but bring a long wooden pole in case you get stuck. If you get lost, don’t try shooting a flare up through the canopy of the trees. (Think about that for a second.) If you get lost or stuck, whatever you do, don’t get into the water. The regional French word for swamp is a marais. You should also know that swamp gas is a real, and really stinky, phenomenon. Cypress knees are…well, I’m not sure, exactly, some kind of root projection from a cypress tree, but cypress knees poke out of the swamps like stunted, oddly-shaped stalagmites.
A barrier island is a small island, often a long thin strip of land, at the edge of the coast. Jean Lafitte, the pirate, and his buccaneers hung out on Louisiana’s barrier islands before saving the country in the Battle of New Orleans. (See the movie starring Yul Brynner. It’s a hoot.) Kate Chopin wrote about rich people leaving New Orleans in the summer for their homes on the barrier island of Grand Isle, as much to escape the city’s heat as to avoid the yellow fever epidemics.
DTB means down the bayou. UTB means up the bayou. Forget north, south, east, west–in Louisiana, the bayou provides the GPS.
A Parish is a county. Louisiana has 64 parishes. There are no counties in Louisiana. A parish is the same thing as a county. In Louisiana, there are church parishes, true, but the parish on my birth certificate is the same thing as a county. It has no religious affiliation. A parish is the exact same thing as a county. I am being repetitive here as I practice for the next time I renew my Delaware driver’s license and have to say this many times that a parish is the exact same thing as a county.
NOLA stands for New Orleans, LA.
East Bank or West Bank: Two sides of the Mississippi River. People who live on each bank fervently believe that their bank is the best bank. Fer-vent-ly.
North Shore refers to areas on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
River parishes are the parishes (not counties) along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
North of Baton Rouge is populated by Northerners.
North of Arkansas is populated by Yankees.
West of the Louisiana state line is populated by Aggies and Texians. The latter is pronounced “Tex-yans” and refers to everyone from Orange, Texas to Orange County, California.
East of Louisiana is populated by Rebels, Gators, Bulldogs, Razorbacks, Volunteers, Gamecocks, Commodores, Wildcats, one Crimson Tide, a noble War Eagle, and a bare-bottomed Vulcan.
Food and Cooking
Gumbo is dark brown with a tinge of green from the filé powder (powdered sassafrass leaves) that is added as binding after the gumbo is cooked. (Turn OFF the heat before adding filé .) Gumbos can be seafood, chicken, turkey, duck, etc. Some people add okra. Other people think okra is too slimy to talk about in a blog post.
Etouffee is brown. Sauce Picante is red. Fricasse is white. Jambalaya is brown or red. Pastalaya is jambalaya cooked with pasta instead of rice. My cousin-in-law Rodney cooks pastalaya in batches for Mardi Gras parades and tailgating. His pastalaya pots are in two sizes: for 200 people or for 500 people.
Dirty rice is a rice dressing with meat. White rice is eaten with almost every meal, except breakfast.
Grits are eaten at breakfast. Slow cooking grits only. If you buy instant grits, you should just go ahead and eat the cardboard box, because you will have the same culinary experience as eating instant grits.
People cook red beans and rice on Monday because Monday is traditionally laundry day, and women could leave a pot of red beans unattended on the stove while they did laundry by hand.
King cake is a sweet cake that celebrates Mardi Gras by putting a tiny plastic baby inside and covering the top with colored sugar (purple, green, gold).
Boudin is a sausage. It is not to be confused with “boudee” which is the La. French word for pout. You would not boudee while eating delicious boudin.
Steens is a local syrup made from sugar cane. Sugar cane was the primary source of income in my home parish (not county) of Lafourche, which is La. French for “the fork.”
Tabasco is the one true hot sauce. It is produced by the McIlhenny Company on Avery Island. If you want your sinuses cleared, take a tour of Avery Island.
A poboy is a hoagie or a sub or a sandwich made on a long loaf of bread. A dressed poboy includes lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. A naked poboy . . . you can figure that out, right?
A muffaletto is a round sandwich with a lot of Italian meats and cheese and a marinated olive/pepper/onion dressing. It is best purchased and eaten at Central Grocery in the French Quarter.
Beignets are not like donuts. Don’t say beignets and donuts in the same sentence. A beignet is a delectable square of fried heaven covered with powdered sugar. It’s sold at Café Du Monde. You eat it with café au lait or hot chocolate. You will get powdered sugar all over your clothing, but everybody knows you’ve just been eating a beignet, so it’s okay.
People in Louisiana have coffee at 3 o’clock every afternoon and, in their homes, they make fried dough. Fried dough is not a beignet, either, though it’s very tasty. Fried dough is similar to a funnel cake sold at a state fair, except there is no powdered sugar on fried dough.
Blackened food is burnt. No native of Louisiana will eat blackened food on purpose any more than any woman native to Louisiana will raise her shirt and shows her boobs during Mardi Gras. Only tourists eat blackened food or perform a boob flash.
A roux is the foundation of cooking Cajun and Creole foods. A roux is a mixture of flour and oil, browned very slowly to a beautiful caramel or dark chocolate (depending on the dish) in a cast iron skillet using a wooden roux spoon. Most people have a spoon that never touches anything but a roux. Sometimes, cooks will get a wooden spoon blessed by the parish priest. A cast iron skillet is never put in water to be washed.
When the roux is the right color, the Holy Trinity is added to the skillet. The Holy Trinity is chopped onions, celery, and bell pepper. If garlic is added, that’s the Holy Spirit. This is not sacreligious.
A rouxgasm is the what the cook experiences when she adds the Holy Trinity to the roux at the exact right moment to create a cloud of heaven-like aroma. That might be slightly sacreligious.
A boucherie is a celebratory hog killing. A pig is fattened throughout the year and slaughtered on a cool fall day. The pig is put on spit outside over a wood fire and turned for a long time while men, women, and children drink beer iced down in a pirogue. Neighborhoods gather for a boucherie. Before the pig is skewered for the spit, its throat is slit (to kill it) and some of the blood is gathered to make blood sausage. The intestines of the pig are washed out in the bayou, then boiled to purify it, then stuffed with the blood sausage mixture. I don’t know what’s in the blood sausage mixture because, as a child, I ran off as soon as the intestines appeared. After the pig is killed and before it is put on the spit, the pig is skinned and strips of fats are fried in vats of boiled oil. The result is a graton, which is a light and delicious morsel of food even though it’s utterly disgusting to think about. A graton is not a pork rind, just like a beignet is not a donut.
Hot bread means a loaf of French bread fresh out of the oven or bakery. Many people in Louisiana will bless the bread by carving a cross in it before slicing.
Fried pickles is a thing. A good thing.
Louisianians are warm, friendly, and personable. If someone eats a meal at your table or spends a night at your house, they become an honorary cousin. I have more honorary cousins than winter has snowflakes. Bayou people are casual. They call their cousins or people they like by first names. Sometimes, only by first names. These are some first names you should know.
Huey is Huey Long. Huey was Governor and was assassinated.
Earl is Earl Long, Huey’s brother. Earl was Governor and was committed to a mental institution.
Edwards is Edwin Edwards. Edwards was Governor and was sent to federal prison.
Moon is Moon Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, father of current mayor of New Orleans Mitch, and former state senator Mary. Moon’s legacy is the Moon Walk. It is a walkway along the Mississippi River, near Jackson Square and the Superdome. The Moon Walk has nothing to do with dancing.
Chris is Chris Owens, legendary Bourbon Street entertainer. She was born in the 1930s and still performs. Chris is the Cher of Louisiana.
Fats is musical legend Fats Domino. Fats wrote and performed “Blueberry Hill.” “Blueberry Hill” was my grandmother’s favorite song. Fats went missing for a few days during Katrina. He had been removed from his New Orleans home by the Coast Guard and went to a shelter near Baton Rouge. He was rescued from the shelter by the LSU quarterback, who was dating Fats’ granddaughter. Fats’ gold records were destroyed during Katrina but were replaced.
Les is Les Miles, the LSU head football coach. Les eats grass for good luck. I don’t know how that came about.
Mike is Mike the Tiger, a Bengal cat and LSU mascot. He lives in a specially built house on the Baton Rouge campus, near Tiger Stadium, which is called Death Valley because it is the loudest stadium in college football. When I attended LSU, I walked by Mike’s cage every day on the way to class. It was kind of dinky then. It has since been remodeled. Mike’s house is now nicer than mine, and probably yours.
Archie is Archie Manning. Archie attended Ole Miss, which made him a natural Louisiana enemy, but then he became the long-suffering Saints quarterback, so all was forgiven. Archie has some sons. I think some of them play football, too.
Nash is Nash Roberts. Nash was a long-time meteorologist famed for his accuracy in predicting the path of a hurricane. New Orleanians trusted Nash to a fanatical degree. If Nash said evacuate, you’d evacuate. If he said board up your windows and ride it out, you did that. Nash’s nickname was “Weather God.” Long after he retired, he’d be brought out before looming storms to reassure older people and tell them whether or not to evacuate. He used a magic marker on a paper map to track storms. If a person spoke badly of Nash, that foolish soul might be found tied to a cypress knee with a beignet stuffed in his mouth. (I don’t know if this ever really happened, but it certainly could have.) Don’t name a negative character Nash.
Hilda, Audrey, Betsy, Camille, Juan, Katrina – Devastating hurricanes. The only time Nash Roberts evacuated for a hurricane was for Katrina. A lot of older people freaked out when Nash left town.
*This is the end of Part 1. In Part 2 on Monday, I will address Cajun vs. Creole and decipher some Louisiana French phrases for you.