Friday, June 17, 2016

Hot, then warm

I'd like points for being brave today, please. With sweaty palms, breathing deeply, unaided by a satnav and with only a rudimentary map, I drove out of Lafayette along Highway 90 to Avery Island, my peace of mind not aided by signs reading 'Prison area. Do not pick up hitchhikers' and 'Hurricane Escape Route'; and billboards picturing grinning lawyers asking 'Car wreck? 18-wheeler wreck?' It was a tense 40 minutes of muttering "Keep right, keep right".
But I got there without incident and, crossing a bridge patrolled by turkey vultures, entered the neat grounds of the Tabasco factory. This is the only place in the world where Tabasco is made and bottled, so that (inevitably) long-lived bottle in your pantry came from this sprawling brick building. The Queen's a fan of the hot sauce - her By Appointment crest is beside the door, looking somewhat out of place. It's a self-guided tour from pepper plants in the greenhouse through the process to the end product, very informative, if a little repetitive. It's a simple recipe: chilli pulp, salt, three years in the barrel, add vinegar and there you have it: Tabasco sauce, "Defending the world against bland food". I was pleasantly surprised to discover in the inevitable gift shop - Tabasco dog collar, anyone? Umbrella? - that jalapeno-flavoured icecream is actually rather delicious. I had seconds of samples (not such a fan of the raspberry chipotle though).
The nearby Jungle Gardens are lush and neat - a bit too neat, since it was probably the grass-mowing team that scared away the resident alligators I was hoping to see. There were plenty of birds, though - herons and egrets - enjoying the nesting facilities provided for them by one of the McIlhenney family.
Not too far away in New Iberia is what Coerte on my swamp tour was adamant is the most authentic ante-bellum plantation house in the country: Shadows-on-the-Teche. Four generations of the Weeks family lived here, the remaining member dying the day after the estate was accepted by the Historic Buildings Trust. I say estate: it was once 138 acres, part of a much larger plantation; but now it's just the house and garden beside the sliding brown waters of the bayou, the land sold off, the town having grown around it.
Inside (no photos allowed, sadly) it's really attractive and full of beautiful antiques: I would love to have Mary's elegant bedroom and sunny study; maybe not the mahogany commode imported from France, though. These mansions were built so that you have to go outside to move between rooms and to use the stairs, giving each room doors to stand open for ventilation. The pillared porch is wide, the big live oak trees nearby are hung with Spanish moss, and it's easy to get a sense of the comfortably cultured life that was lived here. It was a salutary reminder, though, to find on Mary's tombstone in the garden (she was widowed early and ran the plantation efficiently for years before re-marrying) that she was described as the 'relict' of her first husband. Apparently it's the usual legal term of the day - doesn't excuse it, in my view.
Getting lost - a frequent occurrence during my self-navigated stay in the area - I found myself driving along an avenue in the town lined by what I overheard someone later describe, dismissively, as "big ol' mansions with wraparound porches". They were so lovely and stately, neat and colourful and well-maintained, that I was very taken with them. Then I crossed the railway tracks and everything instantly changed: on the other side, ratty little shacks, the paint peeling, small gardens overgrown by rampant weeds, battered cars parked outside, residents sprawled on the steps. It was the cliché come to life.
I was looking for the Conrad Rice Mill - simply because it was there, and I had the time - which, it turned out, was similarly tatty-looking. That's because it's a Historic Place too and exists in a 1912 time-warp. The corrugated iron factory, which five of us were shown over by a painfully slow-moving woman, is still in operation, the oldest in the US: dark and wooden with clunky-looking belt-driven machinery (the rice bags are sewn closed by hand) and in residence the ugliest and most hostile cat I've ever seen. Curiously, this antique place has been given a huge boost by the recent demand for gluten-free products, and in the Konrico shop next door you can buy rice-based pancake mix and other oddities. I wasn't a fan of the raspingly dry sample cracker I was given.
Back in Lafayette, the car to my huge relief returned intact to the hire place (was I right to be flattered that the petrol station cashier trusted me to fill the tank before paying, because my card wouldn't work in the pump zapper?) I had a late lunch at the Filling Station. This is a converted 1950s actual filling station, now filling stomachs, ha ha. It's really quite cute and novel, and I enjoyed my chicken-stuffed avocado. It was only when I emerged that I realised I recognised it from my night rambles around the town, confused by the dark and the curving streets and invariably getting lost.
That's what I liked about my stay in Lafayette. Yes, it's a pretty little place, with lots of interesting places to poke into, and people greet you on the street, which is nice. There's a lively music culture there and I ate very well - but just as pleasing was having the leisure simply to get familiar with it, so that it was reassuring to find myself on Pinhook Street again, or cruising along University Avenue with its magnificent oaks, or using the Cathedral as a reference point.
And then it was back to Amtrak's Sunset Limited, after waiting in the bus station (it was emptier) facing a bronze statue of Rosa Parks (someone leaves flowers on her lap every day, I was told). The train was late, of course, but it felt familiar now too, and the journey ended on a stroke of brilliance as we pulled into New Orleans with my phone playing Bob Dylan rasping 'Duquesne Whistle' as our own engine wailed long and mournfully in the warm darkness.

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