Louisiana Cajun Country: ‘Gators, Gumbo and Gallic History

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Music is an treasured part of Cajun Culture in Louisiana. Photo by Louisiana's Cajun Bayou
Music is a revered part of Cajun Culture in Louisiana. Photo by Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou

And always, Cajun culture in Louisiana means southern hospitality taken to extremes; the sense of community, the emphasis on family and values. Cajun Country is one of the few local societies from which the young folk are not moving away; they’re just moving down the street.

And to the visitor, Cajun Country might just may be the ubiquitous nature of crayfish, the unique accent and the prevalence of white rubber shrimp boots, known locally as Cajun Reeboks.

As one local explains: “Our Cajun runs just a little bit deeper than the rest of the state, and it shows up at every bend in the bayou.”

Cajun country Acadian Wetland Cultural Center. Photo by Fyllis Hockman
Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center. Photo by Fyllis Hockman

Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center       

The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center explains all this in a rich tapestry of exhibits which bring Cajun Country to life. The center relates the history, lifestyles, traditions, aided by films, interactive programs, walking tours, boating expeditions, and weekly gatherings of French descendants who share coffee and conversation in their native language.

Another throwback into sugar cane history comes compliments of the Laurel Valley Village and general store, the largest surviving sugar plantation complex in the United States – where sugar cane is still farmed today.

The general store alone, built in 1905, merits a trip to Lafourche Parish. An eye-widening assortment of a wide variety of old – and odd – objects many of which are delightfully unidentifiable. From edibles such as pickled quail eggs, jams and jellies and homemade pralines and dilly beans to old walking sticks, corn husking machines, cane harvesters and tractors.

The multiple shelves were a jumble of thousands of items from saws and knives to cavalry saddles and sewing machines, water pumps and deer antlers. It was hard to know what most of them were, but don’t even think about wanting to buy any. These are living remnants of a storied past and the history is to be preserved. The earrings, photos, and dried flowers, however, are for sale.

Historic slave quarters dating back to the 1840s. Photo by Fyllis Hockman
Historic slave quarters dating back to the 1840s. Photo by Fyllis Hockman

And then we stepped outside. Antique engines and farm equipment were everywhere. I felt like I was engulfed within a metal jungle and the other-worldly iron dinosaurs were on the attack. I could do nothing but shake my head at all the personifications of a 250-year-old industry.

A couple of miles down the road are 55 original buildings dating back to the 1840’s, most of which functioned as slave quarters for the 135 slaves working the sugar mills. Unfortunately, nothing is identified and invaluable history is lost among the decrepit remnants of the buildings themselves.

Donner-Peltier Distillers  

More recent history, still enmeshed in Lafourche’s sugar cane and other local products, can be found at Donner-Peltier Distillers. It opened in 2012 after two local doctors, whose families had been in the sugar industry for years, were sipping rum while vacationing together with their wives.

Cajun Country. Fyllis Hockman
Rum distillery. Photo by Fyllis Hockman

Said one: “I have sugar cane in my backyard; why is no one in Lafourche making any rum of its own?” Several years later – after thorough and thoroughly enjoyable research into the rum industry – they opened their own distillery. They use only Louisiana products in their rum, vodka, whiskey, and gin, which are now distributed in 11 states and Canada.

Sugar cane from across the street is used for their rum, local long-grain rice for the vodka and Satsuma oranges in the gin – the only distillery in the U.S. to do so. Tours and tastings of these very unusual products are available, and like the alligators, the metal stills also have names – Betty produces vodka, Veronica gin and Stella whiskey. I was happy to sample them all.

Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and Museum

More Cajun history can be found at the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and Museum in Lockport which celebrates the Pirogue, a long, thin boat made from Cypress trees with which Acadians have traveled the Bayou for centuries –and which, like the sugar cane, is still being made today.

Resident boat maker, Ernest Savoie, demonstrates the labor intensive artistry employed in constructing the boat by hand. He also talks about his French heritage harking back to Nova Scotia. His pride is evident as he relates that he was born into a family that extended along three blocks. Again, it’s all about family! And building his pirogues is keeping that culture alive.

Local brews from Mudbug Brewery. Photo by Fyllis Hockman
Local brews from Mudbug Brewery. Photo by Fyllis Hockman

Mudbug Brewery

A de rigueur stop at the Mudbug Brewery encapsulates Cajun Country. Those previously mentioned white shrimpin’ boots are so much a part of the culture that the Brewery even has an ale named after them — White Boots Ale.

My favorite, the coffee-tinged Cafe Au Lait beer recalls the famous beverage accompanying the even more-famous beignets at the Café du Monde. And during Mardi Gras, their King Cake Ale is an especially big seller. How can you not love Cajun Country when a brewery alone epitomizes its culture?

If You Go to Cajun Country

For more information about Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou, visit www.lacajunbayou.com or call 877-537-5800.

Author Bio: Fyllis Hockman is a multi-award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 30 years — and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles appear in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet.