If It Moves, We Make Rice

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Flag of United States  , Alabama
Wednesday, April 13, 2011


    Leaving Austin, we again bypassed the interstates and took scenic Hwy 21 into the heart of east Texas.  Lady Bird Johnson started a good thing with the wildflower seeding of the highways and the Texas road department has kept it up with yearly re- seedings of bluebonnets, orange Indian paintbrush, yellow daisies, pink and white primroses, red clover and many other varieties of bright and showy wildflowers foaming along the center divides and against the roadsides. Add to this a hundred-mile corridor of trees, a varied mix of conifers and lush, leafy hardwoods, lime to dark green and every shade of green in between.  Elegant, hauntingly beautiful dogwoods glowed ghostly white here and there from within the forest. 

    Eight hours of driving found us in San Augustine, on the Texas side of the Red River, with Louisiana on the other side, a lovely small town with handsome white Greek Revival style homes landscaped with beautiful gardens exploding in pink, white, red and purple azaleas in full bloom. Complimenting them were white and pink dogwoods, camellias and roses.  It was a scene so beautiful and so relaxing that it stopped us in our tracks.  We found the nearby and secluded Mission Dolores city park, a peaceful, wooded setting with spacious lawns and lots of trees, and set up for a three day stay to rest and recuperate from the busy sight-seeing of the previous week and the day’s long drive.  

    Ilana, as is her talent, found the best food deals and places to see.  We went over to the local drug store for their special drink, a ‘grapefruit highball’ served in a clear glass cowboy-boot mug.  It was ice cold and totally refreshing and the first one is on the house.  A couple of local geezers sat at the one table in the place passing the time of day.  The one with the twinkle in his eye looks at us and then says to his friend, “seems like ever-time I try me one of those dad-burn grapefruit highballs I can think better.”    His friend answered back  “those grapefruit highballs make me feel a little cuckoo.”  “I guess I sorta flew here into the cuckoos nest and stayed too long,” said the other, “and I think it’s made me cuckoo too.” 

    We crossed the Texas border, drove through Nacogdoches, Louisiana, then spent a few hours in  Natchitoches, Mississippi (pronounced Nach-a-tush by the locals, or “naked tushy,” by our friend, Lorainne),   on our way to Natchez, MS.  There’s an Indian legend about 2 brothers who didn’t get along and so were separated, one going West, the other East.  The two towns were named after them).  After touring a cotton Plantation at the edge of town, and learning yet more about the Pre-Civil War South,  we headed out, stopping for lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  After paying the bill I asked the young Mexican lady behind the register, “Do you know how far it is to Natchez?  She gave me a questioning look and then leaned across the counter with her pad and pen and said, “You want Nachos?“   “No”, I said, “no nachos.  We’re on our way to Natchez.  Do you know how long it takes to get there?”  She scratched her head and tried again (so confusing, these gringos), “Nachos?“ she asked, nodding, pad and pen ready.  “Never mind,“ I said., and “thanks,” as I walked out the door.  I knew we would make it to “Nachos” soon enough. 
     Natchez is a town full of dozens of gorgeous, eye-popping plantation homes and Antebellum mansions on park-sized lots, shaded by huge 300-year-old live oaks whose massive, fern-covered, moss-draped arms spread two hundred feet across.  They are joined by mountainous magnolia trees that are even older yet.  For all this, the town seemed deserted.  No children played in the yards.  No one walked the sidewalks through the old Historic District.  There seemed no life to the place but for the groups of visitors filling some of the better restaurants and taking the Plantation Home tours.
     The town has lost 16% of it’s population in the last several years.  The young people are leaving for schools and jobs elsewhere and not coming back.  The paddle-wheel riverboats no longer run since Katrina.  This is the first we heard about that hurricane’s effect on the South but not the last.
     Wilting in the hot afternoon sun and humidity, Ilana led us on a search for a place she had read about that was the perfect spot to sit in the shade and sip on a mint-julep, like they used to do from rocking chairs on covered Plantation porches in the Old South.  It was a bar in a nice restaurant in a historic mansion cross town, with just the right old-world ambiance, and of course, celebrated mint juleps.   Thankfully, it was somewhat closer than Flip-Happy Crepes had been.
     For those of you not familiar with this favorite libation of the Old South, a mint julep is made with fresh spearmint leaves, sugar, bourbon and water.    You are supposed to pass a hot and humid afternoon sipping one very slowly, for as Ilana found out, it is a very potent drink.  Well, she was thirsty, and even with watering it down more than once, she still finished it off way too fast, wobbling a little when she stood up to leave.  She smiled sheepishly.  “I feel a little drunk,” she said.

    From Natchez we dropped back down along the levee road to Lafayette, Louisiana, the home of Zydeco.  We put in at the Catfish Heaven R.V. Park  and Fishing Pond.  It wasn’t for the fishing, as you may think.   I’m not about to abandon my trout flies for a coffee can full of writhing worms.  If catfish isn’t the State Fish, it should be…it’s on all the menus.  Craw fish WOULD be the State fish if it was a fish.  We arrived at the height of craw fish season and everywhere we went to eat, huge people were digging into heaping jumbo-pizza sized platters of boiled red craw fish, a maelstrom of legs and antennae.  A table of eight might weigh 2400 pounds……the people, not the food.  At one such table sat five platters of craw fish, one of soft-shelled crabs and another of sausages, along with bowls of grits, cornbread muffins and other fixins, everything boiled or fried and not a green thing in sight.   Fascinated and a bit repulsed, we self-consciously shared an order of shrimp and craw fish etouffe, finished off with a slice of pecan pie; yum.  We headed out the door long before any of the locals were done peelin'.

The Swamp Tour
With a kick from Norbert Leblanc’s rubber booted foot, our small, flat-bottomed boat eased out into the cypress swamp of Martin Lake, in the Bayou country of Southern Louisiana.  We moved quietly through the dark water, parting thick rafts of floating hyacinths and slipping by occasional large alligators napping on floating logs .  It was like entering another world, one full of alligators and turtles and long legged, broad winged egrets and herons, spoonbills and ibis.  Long, draping beards of Spanish moss hung from every branch.  Cypress Knees, pointed root stumps, stuck up through the water, surrounding some of the trees and adding to the foreboding beauty of the place.
     “I raised and fed my family from the swamp,” said our white bearded, rawhide skinned guide, who looked something like a wiry, croc-hunting,  Cajun version of Santa Claus. “I brought home crocs, turtles, catfish, deer, squirrels, ducks, crawfish, whatever I could catch,” he said.  “I skinned and butchered and cooked it all, tanned and sold the hides, everything.  We didn’t shop at the grocery store like other people but we ate good, and it was always fresh.”  Later, while touring an old plantation in St. Martinville, a jovial black man with Cajun roots told us, “yeah, we’ve always hunted and fished here in Louisiana and we love to eat.  If it moves, we make rice.”



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