Now that we’re entering our fifth month of the new normal under COVID-19, with its miserable but necessary restrictions on travel and hugging, I find myself wanting so much exactly what I cannot have: Louisiana. I grew up there, in Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, the grandchild of a pair of old Cajuns from Mamou or thereabouts. Although I now live upriver (as it were)—in Chicago—I write about almost nothing else.
This is the time of year (a little past it, actually—can’t miss crawfish season) when I usually make my annual visit home. Any other year, I’d be sitting by my aunt’s pool right about now, drinking muscadine wine and cadging her menthol cigarettes, or helping my daughter fish for bream off my uncle’s wharf, or catching up with my cousins under their breezeway, or sneaking off to KD’s Diner in Lake Charles to eavesdrop on the young and disaffected (my favorite denizens of my hometown) and be reminded, viscerally, what it felt like to live there and want desperately to leave.
Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is an evocative portrait of the last-chance towns of southwest Louisiana, where oil development, industrial pollution, dying wetlands, and the ever-present threat of devastating hurricanes have eroded their inhabitants' sense of home.
Now, I’d give anything to go back. Just for a week or two. Just long enough to reconnect with the place that made me, to squeeze my aunts and uncles and cousins, and to re-up my andouille supply for the Christmas gumbo. Where I’d go—the places I most want to visit—aren’t exactly tourist destinations. I was texting just this morning with my Cajun comrade-in-arms, the poet J. Bruce Fuller, fretting over what to recommend in this list when the things that “inspire” me most about my home, that get me thinking and writing and heartsick/homesick are the ugly things with accidental beauty, like the glittering lights of the petrochemical plants.
His answer? “Ain’t got to church it up. I saw the Grand Canyon once and was like, meh, but I weep on the I-210 and Atchafalaya bridges.” So here’s my view from the I-210 bridge:
Rabideaux’s Sausage Kitchen in Iowa
Never mind my daughter’s surly expression—it was hot, and she doesn’t like the idea of eating pigs. Rabideaux’s Sausage Kitchen is the first place I stop on my way into Lake Charles. It’s a family-owned butcher shop in Iowa (I-Oh-Way), Louisiana, that makes sausage so good I cry every time. My old Paw Paw would drive out there of a Sunday for cracklins (basically, Cajun chicharrónes) and boudin, the best breakfast I can think of. My Maw Maw used their andouille for her gumbo, and no gumbo I’ve ever made with a substitute has been the equal of hers. To be honest, even when I use Rabideaux’s andouille, my gumbo isn’t the equal of hers, but it’s closer. Every fall, my aunties pack me up a pound or two on dry ice and ship it to wherever I happen to be living, so I have it on hand for my Christmas gumbo.
Gulf Oysters, Wherever You Can Find Them
To be honest, I don’t remember where I ate these, but does it matter? Gulf Oysters are muddy and sloppy and enormous, and they taste like the muddy, sloppy waters they come from, a delicious little mouthful of local geography. Until recently, these beauties were a luxury accessible across class lines. In New Orleans, you could wander into Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Iberville Street and eat your fill (which, for me, was something on the order of two dozen—go big or go home!) without breaking the bank. Hurricanes, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Mississippi River flooding have wreaked havoc on the coastal ecosystem, though. Now, those beloved Gulf oysters are harder to come by, and all the more precious for that reason.
Crabbing in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge
It ain’t a trip home unless I get up at 4am with my aunt and uncle to go crabbing in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, just a short 30-minute drive from Lake Charles. With nothing more than a roll of twine, a net, and a sack of chicken necks, you can haul in dozens of gorgeous blue crabs to boil up in your backyard later that afternoon. But most of the pleasure of crabbing is sitting in lawn chairs on the dock, having Shiner Bock and Vienna Sausages for breakfast, and watching the egrets hunt in the shallows while you wait for your line to twitch. That time of morning, the marsh is a wide mirror for the rosy sky. Even the flood control structures (pictured above) are gut-wrenchingly beautiful.
And if the crabs don’t bite, you can always hit Seafood Palace in Lake Charles on the way home. Don’t let the utilitarian storefront fool you. Best seafood in town!
Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, Natchitoches
When I was one of those disaffected youth desperate to leave Lake Charles, this place swept me up and gave me a different kind of life altogether. Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts is a state-supported residential high school that serves as a magnet for high-achieving (often poor) students all over the state, taking them out of their sometimes shoddy local public schools and giving them a world-class college prep education. It sits on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, a tiny college town about three hours north of Lake Charles. Natchitoches (Nack-a-tish) itself is a tourist destination, the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, host of a charming annual Christmas Festival, setting of the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, and home of the famous Natchitoches meat pie. But when I visit, I rarely make it further than the grounds of my old high school and the homes of my favorite faculty from my days there. LSMSA was a game changer for me—a first-gen college student from a working-class family—as it has been for so many others.
These are some of the sublime and unlikely Grand Canyons of my Louisiana, and even if you never go out of your way to visit, maybe it will matter that they are loved, by someone, in some way that’s a little familiar to you.