Palm Springing

Posted December 2nd, 2010 at 1:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Palm Springs.

Somehow I feel ritzy, elite, just writing the name.

If you’ve ever seen a classic black-and-white Hollywood movie such as “Sunset Strip,” there’s almost certain to be a reference, if not a celluloid visit, to the “resort city to the stars.”

Pedestrian-friendly downtown Palm Springs has a Mediterranean feel. (Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism)

Pedestrian-friendly downtown Palm Springs has a Mediterranean feel. (Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism)

This California desert town of 48,000 or so people ranks with places such as Malibu and Beverly Hills in the L.A. area, Greenwich in Connecticut, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Long Island’s “Gold Coast,” and another “Palm” — the one followed by “Beach” in Florida — among the nation’s aristocratic addresses.

But Palm Springs stands alone in one category: it is considered the “Mecca of Modernism” — the most concentrated collection of mid-twentieth century modern architecture on earth.

“Desert Modernism,” the style is sometimes called. It saved Palm Springs from the relentless onslaught of faux-Spanish, red-tiled houses that overtook much of the rest of Southern California.

This is a modernist Palm Springs home, not a fire station!  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is a modernist Palm Springs home, not a fire station! (Carol M. Highsmith)

To be fair, I know about as much about architecture as I do about, oh, Etruscan pottery. I couldn’t tell a finial from a newel post. And as you know if you’ve been with me for awhile, Carol’s and my tastes run toward cozy Victorian, not angular modernist.

But I respect what I read about Palm Springs’s ambitious architecture. I know what Carol and I saw: more glass walls and long, low roofs — and decadent swimming pools — than we’d ever seen in one place.

And I know what Robert Imber told us.

Imber, a Midwesterner who vacationed in Palm Springs before finally moving there, is now a passionate writer about, and preservationist of, the city’s Desert Modern treasures. He’s also guide to them, via minivan or, if you prefer, two-wheeled Segway “self-balancing transportation devices.” (We took the van.) Read the rest of this entry »

M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I

Posted November 29th, 2010 at 2:31 pm (UTC-4)
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A sure way to get a giggle out of your young child is to challenge him or her to SPELL “Mississippi” — and fast!

M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.    M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.

It’s actually not as hard as it looks, once you get the rhythm of it.

The Old South state of Mississippi, not the lazy “Old Man River” Mississippi, on the western border between it and neighboring Louisiana and Arkansas — is America’s poorest state, and routinely ranked last in several educational measures as well.

This photograph was taken in 1950, but the scene’s not much different these days in the poorest, most rural counties of Mississippi, which was — and remains to a degree — “the Land of Cotton.” (Library of Congress)

This photograph was taken in 1950, but the scene’s not much different these days in the poorest, most rural counties of Mississippi, which was — and remains to a degree — “the Land of Cotton.” (Library of Congress)

Yet in a country in which the population seems to be shifting constantly, 99 percent of the people of Mississippi, by one count, were born there!

Why? you have to wonder.

Mississippi is not what you’d call scenic.  It’s mostly farmland and piney woods. No beaches to speak of along its tiny piece of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.  No mountains.

And only one city of any size: the capital, Jackson, where only 175,000 or so people make a home. Even there, there’s no industry, no theme park, no attractions other than state government buildings, fine restaurants and a few jazz spots, and beautiful old, antebellum mansions.

Longwood in Natchez has the beautiful white columns that are common in antebellum mansions.  What’s uncommon are the manor home’s octagonal shape and onion-shaped dome.  (Carol M. Highsmith)Those mansions are a really big draw, though, especially come spring-garden time in lovely and fragrant towns like Natchez.  And the slow, 715-km [444-mile] drive along the verdant Natchez Trace parkway — an old Indian trail once used by “Kaintucks,” walking back north after delivering goods on flatboats down the Mississippi River — is as soothing as any in America.


Casinos have enlivened Gulf Coast towns, turning some of them into miniature versions of Las Vegas.  Even Tunica County in Northern Mississippi — once the poorest county in the whole United States — is now booming, thanks to the gambling action. Read the rest of this entry »

Red, Hot, and Phew!

Posted November 26th, 2010 at 1:38 pm (UTC-4)
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You may have read my two recent postings about so-called “Cajun Country” in swampy southwest Louisiana. Well, it’s time to get your swamp boots and mosquito repellent on again, for right in the middle of the ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and the black bayous — or slow-moving streams — full of alligators in the Louisiana marshes near the Gulf of Mexico is an amazing tropical oasis.

It’s Avery Island, a treasure island, in truth, that has been owned by the same family for more than 150 years.

Once called Petite Anse Island by the first French-speaking settlers who pushed out the native Indian population, it was renamed for Daniel Dudley Avery, a judge from the state capital of Baton Rouge, who took over the island’s sugar plantation in 1849.

You can see, in the distance, why Avery Island looks, well, like an island!  It’s not.  (Skb8721, Flickr Creative Commons)

You can see, in the distance, why Avery Island looks, well, like an island! It’s not. (Skb8721, Flickr Creative Commons)

Before going further, I should point out that Avery Island is not really an island at all. It’s a 900-hectare [22-hundred-acre] rise atop a salt dome, 15 kilometers inland from the Gulf. By salt dome, I mean the tip of a seemingly bottomless pillar of salt that stretches farther down into the earth than the tallest mountain — Tibet’s Mount Everest — is high. Eventually Louisiana salt domes got covered over with rich sediment washed down the Mississippi and Red rivers, giving them the appearance of islands above their flat coastal surroundings.

And as a result, the big bump that is Avery Island is the highest spot of land between Brownsville at the southern tip of neighboring Texas and Key Largo, Florida, three states to the east.

During the American Civil War, Avery Island supplied more than 10 million kilos [about 22 million pounds] of salt to the southern Confederacy.

Four years after the war ended in 1864, a man named Edmund McIlhenny, who had married one of Daniel Avery’s daughters, began manufacturing pepper sauce on Avery Island. In 1870, he received patents for a processing formula that is, basically, still in use today.

This is a Mayan temple in Tabasco province, in southeastern Mexico — a long way from Avery Island.  It, too, though, is coastal.  Its capital city, if you’re into capitals, is Villahermosa.  (marcopako, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is a Mayan temple in Tabasco province, in southeastern Mexico — a long way from Avery Island. It, too, though, is coastal. Its capital city, if you’re into capitals, is Villahermosa. (marcopako, Flickr Creative Commons)

McIlhenny began growing a variety of Capsicum peppers from Mexico and Central America on Avery Island. The sauce got its name from a region in Mexico. “Tabasco” is an Indian word meaning “humid land.”

The stuff was initially poured into cologne-type bottles with cork stoppers and sprinkler fittings. This was — and is — important, because Tabasco sauce is so concentrated that, if you have any sense, you dash, not pour, it onto your food.

The white “specks” in the trees are roosting egrets.  You’ll see more of the long-necked herons poking for fish and tadpoles in shallow marshes.   (Carol M. Highsmith)

The white “specks” in the trees are roosting egrets. You’ll see more of the long-necked herons poking for fish and tadpoles in shallow marshes. (Carol M. Highsmith)

On Avery Island today, besides the salt mines and sauce factory, are oil wells, an incredible botanical garden, a bird sanctuary where elegant white egrets roost by the hundreds, and archaeological dig sites where mastodon bones, deep pockets of oil, and early Indian pottery have been unearthed.

A film orients visitors to the McIlhenny Company operation, where each workday, almost three-quarters of a million little 57-milliliter bottles of flaming-red (and flaming-hot) Tabasco pepper sauce — and other bottles as large as four liters for restaurant use — rattle off production lines.

Let me reemphasize that: 720,000 bottles of hot sauce roll out of this otherwise-obscure piece of marshland each day. Read the rest of this entry »

Safely Rest

Posted November 24th, 2010 at 12:33 pm (UTC-4)
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Even if you’ve not been to Washington, D.C., perhaps you’ve sized it up for possible places to visit. So you’re allowed to answer this question:

What would you guess is the most popular tourist attraction in the capital city of the United States of America? 

The Museum of the American Indian’s postmodern curvilinear look suggests waterscapes that are accented by real ones below.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Museum of the American Indian’s postmodern curvilinear look suggests waterscapes that are accented by real ones below. (Carol M. Highsmith)

If you said the Smithsonian Institution museums, such as the futuristic Air and Space Museum or the relatively new Museum of the American Indian, you’d be right.

But they have a big advantage as a tourist draw, because there are more than a DOZEN of them, including a postal museum; ones dedicated to Asian, African, and American art; two air-and-space museums; and a delightful zoo far from the National Mall in Rock Creek Park.

That’s a lot ‘o museums! So we won’t count them as the most-visited site.

Just as in 1927 when this photo of a long White House tour queue was taken, such tours are still free.  But they are limited to those with tickets, obtained through members of Congress.  And security is a LOT tighter.  (Library of Congress)

Just as in 1927 when this photo of a long White House tour queue was taken, such tours are still free. But they are limited to those with tickets, obtained through members of Congress. And security is a LOT tighter. (Library of Congress)

What’s your next guess? The White House?  For sure, thousands and thousands of people want to, and try to, get in to see the president and first spouse’s residence, but tours are tightly controlled. You need a ticket, and you have to stand in line. You can’t just walk in and look around.

Before I reveal today’s magic answer, I must tell you about a time when things were quite different at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: 

In 1829, Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn “western” former general from Tennessee — and quite the ruffian compared to the refined incumbent, John Quincy Adams — was inaugurated as president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, per tradition that continues to this day. Read the rest of this entry »

Only in America: Quack, Quack!

Posted November 22nd, 2010 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
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Let’s talk museums.  Not the artsy kind we so often cover.  Not the Smithsonian Institution’s many museums in Washington, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

I’m talking strange museums.

There’s a museum for just about everything, all right.  This photo was taken at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  It tells the story of American pop culture going back a couple of centuries.  (Spike55151, Flickr Creative Commons)

There’s a museum for just about everything, all right. This photo was taken at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It tells the story of American pop culture going back a couple of centuries. (Spike55151, Flickr Creative Commons)

You see, Americans may be unique in saving and displaying all kinds of unusual, even useless, items in tiny collections devoted to just one subject.  Somewhere in America, for instance, you’ll find a salt museum, an oyster museum, and museums devoted to nothing but bedrooms, vacuum cleaners, popcorn poppers, pretzels, mushrooms, and trumpets! We love these places.

And I’d have told you all about a truly unusual museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota, except that its founder and driving force, Robert McCoy, died in May.  Much of his collection was moved to a bigger museum across the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

McCoy’s pride and joy was his free, hands-on “Museum of Questionable Medical Devices” — a big room full of gadgets and dials and blinking lights.  It was all financed by his wife, Margaret, a practicing physician. All of the items were once advertised as magic cures for what ails us, from flat feet to blood pressure to cancer.  Some even claimed to regenerate missing organs!

What these gizmos had in common is that . . . they didn’t work!  Most were complete frauds, scams, hoaxes, designed to separate the desperate and gullible from their money.

Bob McCoy was once a salesman himself.  He sold steel products throughout the Midwest.  He was also a lifelong skeptic who began to collect some bizarre, fake medical machines to expose the trickery of quacks, faith healers, and con men.  The American Medical Association and the government’s Food and Drug Administration even loaned him some fraudulent devices from their collections.

Here’s Bob with one of his favorite props — L.N. Fowler’s china model showing people’s “phrenology faculties.”  (www.museumofquackery.com)

Here’s Bob with one of his favorite props — L.N. Fowler’s china model showing people’s “phrenology faculties.” (www.museumofquackery.com)

McCoy had several “phrenology machines” such as the “Psychograph,” which supposedly “read” the bumps on people’s heads and rated the individuals in categories such as “sexamity” and “suavity.”

McCoy once took a phrenology device onto television’s “Tonight Show,” where host Johnny Carson stuck a pineapple into a phrenology-reader box.  After all the bells and whistles had finished, the machine gave the pineapple a printed personality rating.

Called it “prickly,” perhaps.

These machines were generally harmless — more of a curiosity than a device used to defraud people.  In fact, Psychograph readings were popular in movie-theater lobbies and department stores in the 1930s.  Read the rest of this entry »

Only in America: Thanksgiving Fact, Fiction

Posted November 19th, 2010 at 1:01 pm (UTC-4)
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Many history majors have a hard time landing good jobs — or any jobs at all — out of college. Today’s big guns — business and entertainment — don’t pay much mind to what happened long ago.

But it’s a good thing a few historians did find jobs and are fact-checking our tales about the past, many of which have been muddled, botched, exaggerated, or simply made up to suit whatever story we’re telling.

Stories that get passed around and handed down soon lose much connection to the facts.

Stories that get passed around and handed down soon lose much connection to the facts.

I remember playing a party game called “Telephone” as a kid. It calls for several people. The first person tells the second a short story. I might, for instance, have mentioned the time  I put a rubber band around my cocker spaniel’s stub of a tail and promptly forgot about it, leading to a painful infection for Taffy and a visit to the veterinarian.

The second person in line whispered the story to the third, and so on.

By the time each person had mis-remembered — and then mistold — one detail and then another, Taffy had become a cat, the rubber band was a mousetrap, and the poor, dying creature never made it to the vet.

Add to this problem of historical fuzziness the desire to put one’s own spin on a story — especially when there’s a buck to be made — and villains become heroes, events move far from where they happened, and characters who weren’t even there show up.

Thankfully, there are a few good historians around to prevent or correct it.

Ah, a golden-brown, stuffed and plump turkey: a delicious Thanksgiving tradition, but a relatively recent one.

Ah, a golden-brown, stuffed and plump turkey: a delicious Thanksgiving tradition, but a relatively recent one.

And speaking of thanks, the classic case of historical reversioning is our country’s Thanksgiving celebration — the very favorite annual holiday of many of us, including me.

Next Thursday, we will gather around a lavish dinner for family and friends that begins with a prayer of thanks for our blessings. Some of us will cook a big meal for those at shelters and soup kitchens, or give money to send the warm trappings of Thanksgiving — emotionally and literally — to U.S. military personnel serving abroad.

This celebration is modeled after harvest-home feasts — especially what’s been called the “First Thanksgiving” in colonial Massachusetts. It’s the pleasant story of a cold, late-fall day almost 400 years ago, when about 50 pious English settlers called “Pilgrims,” who had barely survived their first year in the New World, shared a feast with their neighbors, the friendly Wampanoag Indians. Read the rest of this entry »

Bite-sized America

Posted November 17th, 2010 at 3:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Every once in awhile, you’ll hear a radio host or a comedian joke that “a letter poured in,” implying that a lot of response to something was expected, but a minimal amount was received.

This, in case you don’t recognize it, is a handwritten letter.  Imagine the excruciation of penning such a thing today!  (Library of Congress)

This, in case you don’t recognize it, is a handwritten letter. Imagine the excruciation of penning such a thing today! (Library of Congress)

Nowadays, not even one letter would pour in. An e-mail or two, perhaps. Or a text message. When one receives an actual letter — especially from a friend or family member, not some company trying to sell you something — it’s an occasion, a novelty, a treat. If — and this is unlikely — the letter is handwritten, as all correspondence was for centuries before the typewriter was invented, you might even consider it miraculous.

The other day, I got to talking with a younger colleague about texting — thumbing coded bursts of information to each other on various mobile devices and Internet social networks. Almost by definition, these are blurts, if there is such a word: a few abbreviated words dashed off without much deliberation.

They are electronic chit-chat, a product of our increasing impatience, necessarily quick because we’re busy and because our thumbs certainly aren’t going to fly around the tiny keyboard to create long words or deep thoughts.

And this (on the left!) is a typewriter, vintage 1918 but not a lot different from the one on which I wrote for 20 years.  (Library of Congress)

And this (on the left!) is a typewriter, vintage 1918 but not a lot different from the one on which I wrote for 20 years. (Library of Congress)

Even my young colleague wistfully remembered the days when he kept a typewriter in a certain place in his home. That was his “writing place,” he said. It was quiet, without a lot of distractions. He could think as well as write.

What a concept!

Now, we dash off texts, tweets, Facebook updates, e-mails on laptop computers from anywhere and everywhere: on the subway, in a bar, at the office, while walking down the street, even in the middle of class or a business meeting, when we’re supposed to be paying attention.

There are fewer and fewer “writing places,” and little time to write if there were. Keep it brief, we tell ourselves. Make it fast. Get it now. Keep me up to date, day and night and weekends.

We tell our friends we’re overloaded. We’re “swamped.”  We’re distracted. Friends, did I say? You bet. We have 50 of them on Facebook, and we must keep them “updated.” Who has time for conversation, books, or a good TV show? Not that there are many such shows any more. Parades of commercials interrupt them. Just when you get to the good part, say the denouement of a courtroom drama, up pop — cavorting about the bottom of the screen — a couple of idiots from a comedy show that the network is promoting. Read the rest of this entry »

Only in America: John Brown’s Body

Posted November 15th, 2010 at 2:25 pm (UTC-4)
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If you started to softly sing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” most Americans would quickly identify the tune as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  And they’d be right — but only up to a point.

Julia Ward Howe, a poet and ardent abolitionist, was inspired to write the “Battle Hymn” after meeting President Abraham Lincoln and watching troops parade. (Library of Congress)

Julia Ward Howe, a poet and ardent abolitionist, was inspired to write the “Battle Hymn” after meeting President Abraham Lincoln and watching troops parade. (Library of Congress)

The words to one of America’s most performed — and most bellicose — patriotic songs were composed by Boston writer Julia Ward Howe during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.

Bellicose? Consider this verse:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.

Years after the Civil War, that last line was softened to read, “Let us LIVE to make men free.”

Even so, I was always amazed, as a young man, to find “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in my Presbyterian church hymnal, next to gentler tunes such as “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.”  (It is after all, I concede, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.) Rather than connecting it to God, I kept picturing bloody Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, which I don’t think was what the choirmaster had in mind.

But back to the story of the song:

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was one of the “Songs of War” depicted in a print by Winslow Homer for “Harper’s Weekly” magazine in 1861. (Library of Congress)

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was one of the “Songs of War” depicted in a print by Winslow Homer for “Harper’s Weekly” magazine in 1861. (Library of Congress)

During a stay in Washington, D.C., Julia Ward Howe was inspired by the tune that Union soldiers were singing as they drilled by the thousands on Pennsylvania Avenue beneath her hotel window. So she wrote words such as, “He hast loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.” 

The tune had originated as a Methodist camp song, “Say Brother, Will You Meet Me,” from which Julia Howe borrowed some of the words, such as “Glory, glory, hallelujah” in the chorus. Read the rest of this entry »

Battle Row and Beyond

Posted November 12th, 2010 at 4:17 pm (UTC-4)
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There’s a lot more to Southwest Louisiana, about which I wrote last time, than Cajun honky-tonks, alligator-infested wetlands, and pepper-sauce factories. Tucked down in the corner, away from the spooky swamps, is Louisiana’s . . . pick your analogy . . . odd duck, loose cannon, eccentricity in an already-eccentric state, or wild and woolly — in its case, wild and beefy — frontier.

The people who live there call it “Louisiana’s Outback.”

When Napoleon Bonaparte sold his enormous New World colony of Louisiana, then amounting to what Adley Cormier correctly describes as “the middle third of the continent,” to the United States in 1803, this neutral ground between French Louisiana and Spanish Texas wasn’t part of it.

You don’t usually associate the word “grassland” with Louisiana — “swamp,” “bayou,” “marsh” being more frequently used.  But there’s a huge coastal prairie all across the southwest corner of the state.   (Adley Cormier)

You don’t usually associate the word “grassland” with Louisiana — “swamp,” “bayou,” “marsh” being more frequently used. But there’s a huge coastal prairie all across the southwest corner of the state. (Adley Cormier)

It was a no-man’s land, a sweeping prairie with razor-sharp tallgrasses more akin to Kansas than to damp Louisiana or dusty Texas. Immense pine and cypress forests grew there, too, and its rivers drained straight south into the Gulf of Mexico rather than running over towards civilization in New Orleans to the east or Galveston to the west.

Adley Cormier is a preservationist, devoted historian, and quite the raconteur.  (Melinda Cormier)

Adley Cormier is a preservationist, devoted historian, and quite the raconteur. (Melinda Cormier)

Cormier, a retired state Labor Department official and meticulous historian, points out that you really couldn’t get anywhere of note from these rough plains. Trains were decades away, and it took three days of hard riding by horseback just to cross what became Imperial Calcasieu Parish.

Imperial. How’s that for a pretentious name for a big patch of weeds and woods?  “Calcasieu” — pronounced CAL-kih-shoe — is an Attakapas Indian name that translates to “Crying Eagle.”  You’d be crying, too, if stiff grasses had sliced open your leg or your horse.

This remote stretch of nothingness was claimed, without much inspection, by the new State of Louisiana in 1805, and after 35 years of halfhearted settlement, it became its own parish, or county. A big one, larger than either of two entire states — Delaware and Rhode Island. Thus the “imperial” part.

But no self-respecting emperor or empress would have set foot there, amongst the Acadian pirates, runaway slaves, English-speaking Americans called “Texians” who wandered over from Spanish Texas, and what Cormier calls “filibusters and rowdies from Mississippi and the Carolinas.” The few people you’d bump into thereabouts were likely running from the law or looking for a big piece of nowhere in which to mind their own business, farm a little, and raise cows.

This flourish-filled Victorian stands out in Lake Charles’s lovely Charpentier District, whose homes were built before thousands of pines and cypress trees were erased from the landscape during a lumber boom. (www.VisitLakeCharles.org)

This flourish-filled Victorian stands out in Lake Charles’s lovely Charpentier District, whose homes were built before thousands of pines and cypress trees were erased from the landscape during a lumber boom. (www.VisitLakeCharles.org)

There’s plenty more that’s colorful about the place, as Cormier recounts in a precise “timeline history.”  But before I dip deeper into it, let’s jump ahead to describe what you’ll find in these parts now.

The City of Lake Charles, population 80,000 or so, is the hub of what are now five parishes carved out of the imperial one.

Originally named “Charley’s Lake” after a fellow who settled there, Lake Charles is not one of those roll-up-the-sidewalk-at-6 p.m. towns. Not only does it boast an array of lovely Victorian homes and a lakeshore promenade that Cormier swears rivals Parisian esplanades along the Seine — forgive him; we exaggerate about the things we love — it also packs 28 massive petrochemical plants and five liquefied natural-gas terminals out of sight and smell, three glittering casino resorts next to the interstate highway, a racetrack at which to bet your casino winnings or what’s left after your losses, fishing spots to die for, nature trails everywhere you look, and all kinds of niche stores that sell — to customers worldwide — things like duck calls and alligator skins. Read the rest of this entry »

Bayou Country

Posted November 5th, 2010 at 1:11 pm (UTC-4)
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You may have had a chance to visit one of those restaurants or clubs in which the owner proudly displays photos or cartoons on the wall, depicting the famous people who’ve preceded you there. Usually they’re autographed by the celeb, or sometimes just the signatures and a little message are scrawled there.

Well, I’ll have you know that MY name appears on the wall of one establishment. It’s not a swanky steak joint or some $15-a-drink bar. It’s a dark, remote, and somewhat garish little roadhouse, closer to a swamp than to civilization.

The Atachafalaya Basin is America’s largest swamp. It’s not long after you leave Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge, heading west, that you’re on a long, long causeway that skims just above these immense wetlands. (Army Corps of Engineers)

The Atachafalaya Basin is America’s largest swamp. It’s not long after you leave Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge, heading west, that you’re on a long, long causeway that skims just above these immense wetlands. (Army Corps of Engineers)

I was pleased and proud that the proprietors of Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, asked me to write, “Ted Landphair, Voice of America” for all to see. That’s because, along with its catfish and alligator just pulled out of the nearby Atatchafalaya Swamp — and then breaded and fried and served with hush puppies and a bottle of red-hot pepper sauce — that old Cajun honky-tonk serves up something that money can’t buy: Acadian joie de vivre.

Breaux Bridge and its generally soggy surroundings are home to trappers, fishermen, rice and sugar-cane farmers, oilfield workers, and families who raise crawfish — a tiny but tasty freshwater crustacean. This is “Cajun Country,” named for French-speaking Acadian people who were driven out of eastern Canada by the British governor in 1755 during the French and Indian War.

This is the “Cajun Strangers” band between gigs. The middle fellow is playing the “squeezebox,” a single-row accordion that’s lighter and simpler to play than the full accordion you might hear in a German polka band. (psforsberg, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is the “Cajun Strangers” band between gigs. The middle fellow is playing the “squeezebox,” a single-row accordion that’s lighter and simpler to play than the full accordion you might hear in a German polka band. (psforsberg, Flickr Creative Commons)

Thousands of Acadian exiles migrated all the way to swampy Southwest Louisiana, where they could hunt and fish in peace. And many Cajuns still keep to themselves — close to the old folks who’ve never made peace with the English language and English ways.  Close, too, to the Gulf of Mexico, where their shrimp and fishing boats are starting to sail again now that the massive oil spill triggered by the April 20th explosion of the BP-licensed Deepwater Horizon rig has been largely stanched.

The 22 (of Louisiana’s 64) parishes, or counties, that informally make up Cajun Country are just regaining an economic pulse after deadly blows. Literal blows, from two hurricanes. Not the infamous Katrina that nearly wiped out New Orleans and much of the Mississippi coast in 2005. That storm just brushed Acadiana. But Rita cut its own swath through Southwest Louisiana less than a month later.  Then Hurricane Ike leveled many a home and store there in 2008. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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