Lake Charles: true Cajun country culture

By | Category: Travel destinations
beignets for breakfast -with eggs and carwfish au gratin

beignets for breakfast -with eggs and crawfish au gratin

At this rather rowdy (in a good way) café in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I asked a man at a neighboring table what he and his family were busily devouring with gusto. “It’s a plate of pistolettes” he said with a grin, “OR, you can just say they’re a little piece of heaven.” Naturally, I ordered some up for myself and yes, the warm round rolls stuffed with Louisana étoufée were the ultimate comfort  food  – oozing with rich sauce that dripped out with every bite, full of shrimp, tiny bits of vegetables and that unique Cajun spice mix found in this gastronomic paradise of southwestern Louisiana.

About three hours west of New Orleans, two hours east of Houston, the small, pretty city of Lake Charles hosts the second biggest Mardi Gras week in the state, only topped by the so-called “Big Easy,” (New Orleans) – but the Mardi Gras in Lake Charles is of a much more ‘family-friendly’ nature. If you’re seeking drunkenness and topless displays, better head on east. In Lake Charles, they have plenty of fun and frolicking, but without the tawdry elements.

In this land of evocative Spanish moss hanging from impossibly enormous live oaks, spreading their canopies across roads, oil rigs dip up and down in the distance, between rice fields and crawfish marshes. The strains of Cajun accordions and fiddles waft out from doorways and the ubiquitous independently-owned fried chicken cafes. Twangs, drawls, “y’alls” and “yes, ma’ams,” are heard everywhere, and outsiders might feel that good manners are so prevalent that it’s somewhat difficult to believe that anyone ever behaves badly here. You’ll also hear bits of pieces of a form of French, if you venture off the beaten track or listen to musicians speak among themselves during a break in their performance.

French-speaking settlers, including the Acadians, (or Cajuns) came to the region from Nova Scotia in Canada, from which they were expelled by the British in the mid 1700’s. The Cajuns here were once pushed to assimilate, specifically through laws discouraging them from speaking French in school – indeed, some older Cajuns recall being punished for speaking their language. But today, the Cajun culture and a dedication to French cultural roots thrive in this politically conservative area, where patriotism is as strong as regional pride.  Many folks, (both black and white) here refer to themselves as Creoles.

a cajun band during mardi gras

a cajun band during mardi gras

I visited Lake Charles during Mardi Gras week in early March, taking in both a Children’s Parade and the  Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) parade itself, but the city actually features several other parades that week, including the delightful Krewe of Barkus Parade, in which fantastically attired canines in full Mardi Gras regalia march, the Lighted Boat Parade (on the lake itself), and the Motor Gras Parade, in which hot rods, motorcycles and classic cars are displayed, all gussied up.

From the beginning of the Mardi Gras season (known as Carnival in other countries,) which begins on January 6 (Epiphany Day in the Catholic calendar,) Lake Charles becomes a place of nonstop revelry and parties, dances, balls, and cook-offs, all ending on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent, a 40-day period of penance and prayer, ending on Easter Sunday. Here, no event that is open to the public costs more than $6, even such treats as the “World Famous Cajun Extravanaganza/Gumbo Cook-off,” a food and Cajun music food fest.

some of the many costumes iin the Mardi Gras Museum

some of the many costumes iin the Mardi Gras Museum

But if you can’t make it during Mardi Gras, there are many other reasons to visit this region – including world-class casinos, that delectable Cajun/Creole cuisine, fascinating historical architecture tours and excellent bird and nature-watching sites, and a somewhat staggering 74 more festivals annually. The well-executed Mardi Gras Museum is open all year (Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m.,) with three floors of galleries of over 600 exquisitely ornate, hand-made costumes, dating from several decades, is a must-do. “You’ll see more sequins here than anywhere east of Las Vegas,” quipped local consulting historian Adley Cormier, who conducts tours on-site. You’ll see every costume you can imagine, from Egyptian pharaohs to Miss Piggy to Elvis, along massive amounts of marabou and ostrich feathers as well. I’m happy to share that I was told the feathers used for current costumes are recycled. Some 60,000-75,000 people visit this museum annually, and most try on a headdress – the one I donned weighed 33 pounds!

Casinos came to Lake Charles fairly recently, with the two poshest ones being L’Auberge Casino Resort and its neighbor, the Golden Nugget Lake Charles, just opened in the autumn of 2014. These Las Vegas-style casinos offer luxe accommodations, enormous full-service gambling, entertainment, many restaurants, shops, spas and glorious outdoor swimming pool areas. Even for a non-gambler like me, they are delightful places to stay and explore. Two other major casinos include the Isle of Capri and Delta Down Racetrack Casino and Hotel, offering thoroughbred horse racing.

a platter of boudin

a platter of boudin

Louisiana gastronomy is so unique that there are many cookbooks and even a regular magazine dedicated to its glories. While here, you’ll find many down-home spots to try such as gumbo, boudin, (a  sausage-type product made by hand from ground pork, rice and spices,) po’ boys (a large bread roll usually stuffed with fried crawfish, shrimp or fish,) or enormous platters of “peel-and-eat” boiled crawfish, blue crabs and/or shrimp (don’t wear your finest clothes to these meals – they’re messy!) A typical person orders about three pounds of crawfish, as only the tail is edible. You might be offered a “terducken,” which is a turkey stuffed with duck and chicken, covered in Cajun spices. The food is rather heavy, with many fried items, but you’ll be able to order cole slaw, and steamed vegetables if you ask nicely!

Lake Charles is on the National Register of Historic Places, for having Lake Charles-style architecture. If you saw the 1975 Paul Newman film, “The Drowning Pool,” you might recognize some of the sites which were filmed here. The lovely 40-block Charpentier Historic District’s broad streets are replete with well-preserved southern Victorian and other styles of mansions with intricate woodwork and unusual columns, adorned with towering palms, live oaks, wisteria and honeysuckle, hanging Spanish moss, willows, azaleas, camellias, magnolias, even ginger and banana trees. Several tours are offered of the district, including Ghost Tours, History and one focusing on the Great Fire of 1910. Lake Charles was at one time America’s rice industry epicenter, and the wealth it brought about is reflected in Charpentier and in the Margaret Place district nearby.

an historic mansion in the Charpentier district

an historic mansion in the Charpentier district

There was never a plantation economy or cotton industry here, and in fact, escaping slaves came to Lake Charles in the early 1800’s, when it was still a sort of “no man’s land.” The city was not part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Rice fields are still all over (there are more than 200,000 acres of rice in Louisiana) and when rice is not being grown or harvested, the fields become crawfish paddies. The region is diverse, with blissfully undeveloped Gulf Coast beaches, freshwater lakes and brackish bayous, and the peaceful 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, a scenic byway that meanders through marshes, prairies, beaches and shows off native wildlife – such as yes, alligators, nutria, porpoises, blue crabs and hundreds of bird species. In mid April, 2015, the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point visitors’ center will open (free of charge,) with a delightful array of interactive experiences – such as a touch and sniff Cajun spices center (try the so-called ‘Holy Trinity,’ a blend of onions, celery and bell peppers,) and a “play along” Cajun band – I tried my hand at a fiddle and thought I did pretty well (especially since the sound was pre-recorded!) There are many other nature refuges here – with astounding numbers of bird and wildlife sightings. In fact, Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge was found to have so many alligators that the animals were taken off the endangered list in the 1960’s.

and finally we have to show you Irene in a mardi gras headress!

and finally we have to show you Irene in a mardi gras headress!

Whether you are here for Mardi Gras week or not, you’ll be saying “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” (let the good times roll.) And just maybe, you’ll be the first in your set to visit this relatively undiscovered part of the United States.

www.visitlakecharles.org

 

 

 

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