Louisiana – The Weirdest Country In America
A sign showing two crossed baguettes topped by a skull welcomes me to Killer Poboys, a New Orleans hole-in-the-wall known for its renegade version of Louisiana’s state sandwich, the po’ boy. The eatery is crammed into a back room of the Erin Rose, a pub sitting just a stumble up from the 24/7 party known as Bourbon Street. Few of Bourbon’s revelers will find it; fewer still will know to squeeze past Erin Rose’s regulars to the tiny kitchen area, where crusty French loaves bulging with Gulf shrimp seasoned with coriander or sliced pork belly flavored with rum are being assembled by the New Orleans-born team of Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow. Killer Poboys could be a metaphor for Louisiana, I think as I place my order. It’s an outlier in a place that has slowly standardized itself. Its front room—the boozy, convivial Erin Rose—could be in any bar.
But behind it, like a furtive pirate’s hideout, sits a little piece of real Louisiana, homegrown, eccentric, and bursting with the flavors of the land. I’m in Killer Poboys to meet with Charles Chamberlain, a Ph.D. in American history and local History Man. Ten years a historian at the Louisiana State Museum before setting up his own company, Historia, to provide outsiders insights into the Pelican State, Chamberlain knows Louisiana. His clients have included academics, producers of the supernatural FX series American Horror Story, and, now, me. Chamberlain, I figure, is just the guy to explain why Louisiana is so different, even a little cray cray—and I don’t mean the fish.
“Louisiana couldn’t be anything but,” he declares as we share a bag of Zapps Voodoo Potato Chips, a favorite Louisiana foodstuff. By the time President Thomas Jefferson bought the land from Napoleon in that X803 geopolitical fire sale, he explains, this French colony was well populated with French and Spanish immigrants, refugees from Haiti, and Congolese slaves, all of whom had seeded the land with their cultures, foods, and traditions. “If you’re looking for different,” he tells me, laying out an itinerary, “start here in New Orleans. You can see how we turn our quirkiness into art by visiting one of the recently formed New Orleans krewes that parade at the start of Carnival’s two-week celebration. Tourists wait for Mardi Gras, which is at the end; almost no one comes for the beginning, but that’s when you see something really crazy. Then follow the French settlements up to the Cane River.
That’s where Creoles of color built their own world. On your way back to New Orleans, explore the Atchafalaya, America’s biggest swamp, by getting out on the water with the local Cajuns. You’ll be glad you did.” As we emerge from Killer Poboys, blinking, into the French Quarter’s afternoon light, Chamberlain adds, “Louisiana is another country. But you better see it soon; who knows how long it’s going to last.” The reality is that Creoles and Cajuns, cowboys and costumers, shrimpers and planters—really, all who make life and art out of this watery land—are threatened as their world is digitized, outsourced …and submerged. Lit ex-ally. Low-lying Louisiana loses a football field an hour to, among other things, rising seas.
NEW ORLEANS – LIVING ON-AND LOVING-THE OUTER EDGE
A BREEZE RATTLES THE PALM FRONDS and nags at the curlicued brackets that grace traditional Creole cottages in Bayou St. John, a New Orleans neighborhood ignored by most travelers. Little do they know that here lies a secret world inhabited by south Louisiana’s Mardi Gras krewes, the private organizations responsible for the colorful Carnival parades. Inside a house on St. Philip Street, two dining-room tables have been pushed together and piled with glue guns, glitter, and lunacy. Eight middle-aged men and women work as intently as a Guangdong factory line cutting, assembling, and pasting little things such as miniature smartphones, candy sticks, and tiny comic books (which Ziggy, a black cat, is attempting to eat). “What can I say, he likes my work,” artist Caesar Meadows, who wrote and illustrated the micro-comics, remarks.
Meadows and his wife, Jeannie Detweiler, are my hosts at this party, gathered to make the keepsakes, or “throws,” that krewes toss out along their parade routes during the pre-Lenten season. In any other city in any other state, these librarians, teachers, and bartenders would be talking property values. Here, they form the Krewe of’tit (for Petit) Rex, which distinguishes itself from New Orleans’ hallowed Krewe of Rex with the upside-down s, or schwa, to avoid confusion. Not that that would happen. Even in the demimonde of Louisiana’s Carnival, the ’tit Rex krewe is considered a little out there. Each year its members create an entire Mardi Gras parade—in miniature. Floats barely reach the length of shoe boxes; thumbnail-size throws challenge even the adroit. Maybe it’s the small scale of its work, but the ’tit Rex krewe remains largely unknown outside New Orleans.
It, along with the Star Wars-themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus and the bawdy Krewe du Vieux, generally parades two to three weeks ahead of Fat Tuesday, well before the world focuses in on Mardi Gras. Its route takes it through the Faubourg Marigny, a once forlorn neighborhood downriver that has blossomed recently into a Brooklyn with bougainvillea, attracting artists and the avant-garde. “Toss in the palm trees, the day drinking, the gays, the girls, and the sense of eccentricity here, and you have one of the most deliriously creative communities in the U.S.,” says Kevin Fan-ell, who, with his partner, Nick Vivion, opened Booty’s Street Food, an eatery now considered a staging ground for a new culinary sensibility in a state where gumbo still rules. I glance out the window and spot a woman in silver boots and a sparkly red tutu skittering into a second-hand store across the street. She illustrates his words perfectly.
A few weeks later, ’tit Rex’s 26 floats and three marching bands gather on oak-shaded St. Roch Avenue. The marchers sip tequila and kombucha tea as they admire their tiny assemblages. The theme this year: “Wee the People.” Each float is a witty set piece on contemporary society, from selfies to senatorial sex scandals. Meadows and Detweiler arrive together but won’t march together. “Some couples have separate bedrooms,” says Detweilei-. “We keep separate floats.” Suddenly, a “pace marshal,” in a blue sash, shouts, “Let’s roll!” One band starts in with an all-brass version of a Beastie Boys song. Haltingly, the floats’ tiny wheels begin to jounce along the pavement. The route is lined with smiles, but Chamberlain is right: The spectators are locals, not tourists. They’ve set up dioramas of their own as homages to the minuscule march. One depicts a Lilliputian Velma, Scooby, and Shaggy. “This is so AWESOME!” a boy shouts. It is.
The sun begins to set as the floats trundle along, glowing like neon signs with their LED lights. The parade ends at the side door of the Allways Lounge & Theatre, a cabaret bar serving as the site of the post-parade ball. “Welcome, y’all, to my place,” booms proprietress Zalia Beville in her best Liza Minnelli voice as footsore marchers head for drafts of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Guest marcher Curt Schulz, an Oregon schoolteacher, marvels at the gathering. “In Portland this would be sanitized and sponsored by an organic sports-drink company,” he says.
“The garbage would get picked up and the sharp edges shaved down. But here it’s all about sharp edges, and ’tit Rex—raw, sexy, colorful, on the edge of falling apart—fits in just fine.” Two days later I’m lunching with friends and describing the march through the Marigny twilight, the happy crowds, and the tiny homages lining the route. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parade like that,” I say. “Ever.” “You missed the Chewbacchus krewe, with its twerking Princess Leias,” someone replies. “That was something else.”
CANE RIVER NATIONAL HERITAGE AREA – WHERE CREOLE CULTURE HOLDS SWAY
The river town of Natchitoches (NA-ka-tesh) dates to 1714, when French traders paddling up the Red River from the Mississippi put down roots here, making it the oldest permanent settlement in the entire 828,000-squai-e-mile Louisiana Purchase. It immediately impresses me as a downsized version of New Orleans’ Royal Street, with its filigreed iron balconies, antiques stores, and art galleries. Natchitoches even has its own mini-Mississippi River: the Cane River, a 36-mile-long band of shimmering silver water that defines the surrounding Cane River National Heritage Area. Great plantations—Magnolia, Oakland, Melrose—front either side of this twisting waterway, like base molecules attracted to a strand of antebellum DNA.
But here, a seemingly upside-down world evolved, where plantation owners had African ancestry—and owned slaves. Among them was Marie Therese Coincoin, slave and mistress of Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who would free her and their children, then deed her land. Their son Louis established Melrose, modest by plantation standards but extraordinary for the change it represented. It was another African-American woman, cook and self-taught artist Clementine Hunter, who would bring Melrose renown with folk paintings she began crafting in the 1930s, when she was in her 50s. Wandering the plantation’s grounds, with its African- and French-influenced outbuildings built by slaves, I feel dislodged from the present day.
“Natchitoches and the Cane River? We’re in a time of our own,” asserts Tom Whitehead, the area’s unofficial ambassador who, if you’re lucky like me, will ask you to his house for shrimp and grits—overseen by Clementine Hunter artworks, depicting daily plantation scenes, on his wall. “We appreciate differences.” Different this region is. Take the line of cars idling to buy frozen daiquiris at Maggio’s, a drive-through liquor store. Or the farmers in muddy boots and Wrangler jeans sipping $15 glasses of Cab at Janohn’s, a restaurant in a renovated cotton gin in nearby Boyce. The past is very present in Natchitoches. I encounter Lisa and Michael Prud’homme at Mama’s Oyster House, on Front Street, where the zydeco music is loud enough to ripple your beer. Born along the Cane, Michael Prud’homme returned home with Lisa after a big-city career. “We’ve moved around a lot, but we’re done. We’re in our ‘dying house’ now,” Prud’homme says. Our dying house.
Prud’homme’s ancestors arrived here in the 1720s. He and his siblings, heirs to Oakland, one of the major Cane plantations, sold it to the National Park Service so it could be preserved for a nation forgetful of its rural roots and ways. “To connect with that time,” Prud’homme’s sister, Kathy, tells me, “visit St. Augustine’s, a Catholic church and the center of local Creole life, in nearby Isle Brevelle. It’s having a birthday celebration for Grandpere Augustin Metoyer tonight. Go.” The fact that Grandpere Augustin—son of Marie Therese— died in 1856 isn’t affecting the party. Metoyer is revered along the Cane River as the founder of the Creole community and as the builder, with his brother Louis, of the original St. Augustine church. It burned down in the 1800s and was replaced by today’s white wooden structure.
St. Augustine’s parking lot, when I arrive at 6 p.m., is as packed as its cemetery grounds with generations of Metoyers, Balthazars, Roques. Creole identity is complex. In this part of Louisiana it describes a person descended from some mix of French and Spanish settlers, Africans, and Native Americans. Tonight, Charles Roque will play the role of gray-haired Grandpere Augustin. He’s the mirror image of the patriarch who stands tall in a portrait painted more than a century ago and hanging on one of the church walls. That’s no surprise. Roque grew up on the Cane. His wife, Betty, is a Metoyer. “Charles is an old-school river man,” Roque’s son-in-law Larry Atteridge whispers to me as I navigate the hall. “They don’t get deeper than that, and that’s a fact.” As night descends, the party gets going.
Out back, men fry the last of 49 white perch, or sacalait, fished from the Cane River that morning as they listen to the New Orleans Saints game on the radio. Inside, deviled eggs, mac ’n’ cheese, black-eyed peas, and 50 gallons of steaming gumbo are placed on the table. I’m introduced to Miss Nazy Metoyer LaCour, who baked Grandpere’s huge vanilla birthday cake, slathering it with blue icing and layering it with pineapple slices and locally grown pecans.
At a table behind the cake sit “the elders,” 12 men and women over 80 who are being honored. The bar is serving beer, shots of Old Crow, and Long Island iced teas, dispensed by a cheerful woman who warns that her generous pours will soon have me “acting single and seeing double.” When the amplified music revs up, young and old Cane River natives start a line dance. It soon strikes me that no one here wants to be anywhere else. Everyone is in this moment—a moment of its own along the Cane River. Just as Tom Whitehead had predicted.