Time on the water — fishing, boating, paddling, gaping at gators and birds — is a constant theme in southern Louisiana, while serendipity and the celebration of food hover in the background. But not too far back.
Driving away from New Orleans increases your chance of happening upon down-home people in the same time zone as the Big Easy’s liquor-infused gaiety but half a world away from it.
Whether their Cajun accents are syrup-thick or just a drawl, these folks are welcoming and willing to share their stories, as Shannon Villemarette does.
Standing between the displays of fishing lures, bug spray and live crickets in her bait shop in Lacombe, Shannon tells me, “This got into me — I didn’t get into it.”
She means running the store, renting kayaks and bicycles, hiring out as a fishing guide. Before she owned her Bayou Adventure shop, she had rallied residents of this area by Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans, to protest possible pollution of the 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 onto the bayous, no outfitters,” she said. “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, which is 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 whether 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 shop — 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 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 laid back, we have blueberry farms, a winery, recreation areas like these.
“This is sort of a gentle place.”
“Cajun Jack” Hebert offers a different slice of bliss to passengers aboard his swamp-tour boat, 120 miles west in Patterson. 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 the young couple from Germany, who apparently were not familiar with Baptists’ abstinence.
Twice a day, the captain narrates a 2½-hour tour of the vast body of water and swamp that is the Atchafalaya 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.
FISHING & LURES
Less than seven miles from Captain Jack’s dock, Ivy St. Romain’s hands flash across the tabletop, threading onto a thin metal rod tiny plastic beads, a teardrop-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 busywork for the owner of Blu 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 during 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 finds a satisfactory design.
In less than three minutes, the angler can have a custom-made lure. And that bit of serendipity will cost the buyer $6.99.
While New Orleans seemingly has gourmet restaurants on almost 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 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 door frame.
Specialties range from spicy crawfish etouffee and shrimp fettuccine to alligator a variety of ways to boudin balls (a basic of Cajun meals, made with various cuts of pork, rice, chopped onions, garlic and more, then fried) and pistolettes (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 or grilled. Or topped with crab meat stuffing and pepperjack cheese ... char-gilled and topped with a spinach cream sauce and mozzarella...
Between the rural atmosphere of Suire’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 onto 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 of those dining at Susie’s slow down to do that.
As the locals say, there are 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.
Going to Cajun Country
Where to stay: 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; 337-652-6148; www.abbevilleapt-a.com
WHAT TO DO
Bayou Adventure, 27725 Main St., Lacombe; 985-882-9208; www.bayouadventure.com.
Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tour, 112 Main St., Patterson; 985-395-7420; www.cajunjack.com.
Blu-Dog Charters, 7209 Hwy. 90 East, Morgan City; 985-518-4277.
Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant, 13923 Hwy. 35, Kaplan; 337-643-8911; www.suires.yolasite.com.
Dupuy’s Oyster Shop, 108 S. Main St., Abbeville; 337-893-2336; www.dupuysoystershop.com.
Susie’s Seafood, 6701 Hwy. 182 East, Morgan City; 985-702-0274.
ALSO WORTH YOUR TIME
Tabasco tour: The famed Tabasco factory tour ($1 charge per car), Avery Island; 337-373-6129; www.tabasco.com.
Conrad Rice Mill: The nation’s oldest continuously operating rice mill; free tours; 307 Ann St., New Iberia; 337-364-7242; www.conradricemill.com.
Kayak on Bayou Teche with Donovan Garcia, passionate for the environment. Free, by appointment: 337-923-9718.
Museums: Among plantation-home museums, consider Shadows-on-the-Teche (317 E. Main St., New Iberia; 337-369-6446; www.shadowsontheteche.org), and Joseph Jefferson mansion (5505 Rip Van Winkle Rd., New Iberia; 337-359-8525; www.ripvanwinklegardens.com/josephjeffersonmansion.html).