Writer’s Note: I don’t know about you, but I grow weary of the seemingly endless media (traditional and social) posts that exclaim (almost gleefully, it seems) that Louisiana is near or at the top of the “bad” lists (those you DON’T want to score high on) and near or at the bottom of the “good” lists (those that you DO want to score high on). I haven’t counted, but it seems as though there is a new “list” at least once a month that makes Louisiana look bad.
Louisiana ranked #46 on a recent “worst states to retire in” list because of low scores for culture, crime, and healthcare quality. Crime is too high everywhere, and healthcare is a growing challenge with our aging population a contributing factor. But low scores for culture? Come on, folks. If Louisiana has anything, it has culture!
Frankly, I have never been all that persuaded by such lists. I am told that some are generated by advertising revenue (the more you spend, the higher you go up on the good lists) while others are based on polls. I have no comment on commercial enterprises where advertising sales seem to make a difference. However, I do question the validity of polls. I cannot remember a single time that I have been asked to participate in a poll. I can’t think of any one of my friends who has, either. Where do the pollsters get their base group to question?
But, I digress. Lists and polls in particular are not my subject today. Louisiana is. It seems to me, our state is too often criticized. Full disclosure: I was born here. I have lived in Louisiana all but three months of my entire life. Because of that tenure, I have a pretty good idea about what this state is really like. If I’m not a native, then there isn’t one . . .
It’s February -- the month dedicated to celebrating love. Valentine’s Day is here, and this column is written in that spirit –it’s a very personal love letter to Louisiana. She may not be perfect, but she is mine. — GP
A Love Letter
I have always considered myself to be one of the fortunate ones. I was born, reared, and have lived almost my entire life in Louisiana. She is my state.
When I was a child, my favorite things centered on my whole world: Louisiana and my family. I first got an idea of the diversity of my state at a young age. I was born in Alexandria and lived in central Louisiana until I entered fourth grade. From that geographical center point (referred to as Louisiana’s “belt buckle” when I was growing up), I learned through travel and family stories that there was much more to be seen and experienced.
Made of Many Parts . . .
From my Cajun uncle (an amazing “foreigner” who one of my dad’s sisters brought into the family through marriage), I learned that not all Louisianans speak the same language — or at least the words don’t sound the same. When I was very young, I loved just to sit and listen to him talk. He was always joyful, had a wonderful laugh, and seemed rather exotic to this little girl.
He spoke with a dialect I had never heard before that was frequently “seasoned” with some Cajun French terms, and told of things that I could only imagine. I remember that Cochon de Lait was one of his favorite expressions. I understood at the time that it was something to eat, but it was some years later before I learned it was a roasted suckling pig (I found his French term far more intriguing than the English version). It was decades later before I tasted one — not in Louisiana, but in Madrid.
From my mother’s twin sister and her family, I learned of the mysterious “land’s end” of Louisiana – that portion that ends literally in the Gulf of Mexico. She married young and moved to Buras, Louisiana, where she spent most of the rest of her life.
I didn’t see the Gulf myself until I was a teenager, but I learned from my cousins who lived there that it was a place of mystery. For one thing, boats were their primary modes of transportation. When the family would come “up north” to visit Daddy Moore at Kenilworth, the cousins would sit in the cars marveling at this “equipment” that they so rarely saw where they lived.
They told stories about their life — watching the great shrimp boats that would go out onto the Gulf early every morning and then return, nets laden with shrimp and other sea creatures. For me in the time before flash-freezing and safe shipping for seafood, shrimp was only an occasional treat. My cousins could buy them from the boats, freshly caught that day! They also told about going crabbing for their dinner just beyond the sand dunes. Somehow that sounded more fun than trying to catch crawfish out of a ditch!
When my family moved to Tensas Parish to live with my grandfather, I learned about north Louisiana. Here the great fields spread across the land to the horizon, growing crops and gardens that I had never seen before. I saw the beauty and majesty of the Mississippi River, and spent many hours on her banks with close friends. I learned the rhythms of this agricultural world by watching the workers on the farm go through the steps necessary for crop production. I learned something else from watching them — the importance of teamwork.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned something about northwest Louisiana. A date for State Fair weekend introduced me to this lovely area, an area that my brother would grow to love and make his home for most of his life. This part of Louisiana felt like Louisiana with a dash of Texas stirred in.
and Traditions . . .
My first classroom education about Louisiana occurred in the 9th grade (I think) when our football coach at Newellton High School taught “Louisiana History” (a half year class that was paired with “Civics”). I learned the amazing journey that the land that I now loved and called “home” had taken to become the Louisiana of my youth.
It was in that class that I first became more aware of the different cultures that are represented in the different parts of Louisiana.
Some years later, after I had completed my master’s degree, I joined the university faculty. Over the next several years, I developed and taught a course (English 309: “Louisiana Life and Literature”) that explored the cultures and traditions of Louisiana as illustrated through Louisiana authors. Even after I no longer taught that class, I continued that research. Even today, some 36 years later, I still enjoy doing this research.
There is So Much
to Learn . . .
What is the secret of spider lilies? What culture uses fish caught in the bayou and fried as part of their baptismal service communion? What is the “connection” between pirate Jean LaFitte and the beads and doubloons thrown at Mardi Gras? What do youth in the Middle Ages who sought out roosters in early morning to stomp to death have in common with the Courier de Mardi Gras? What does shooting a gun toward the skies at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Louisiana have in common with Italy’s beloved La Bofana, the kitchen witch? What heritage does the Creole plantation “Laura” in St. James Parish in south Louisiana share with the people who settled on Cane River near Natchez, Louisiana, in Natchitoches Parish?
of Louisiana’s Worth . . .
The more I have gathered stories and the more I have traveled both in this country and in others, the more I have learned about Louisiana’s people and the reasons why they embrace certain ideas. So many of the customs and traditions that we follow throughout our lifetimes without even thinking about them have wonderfully interesting origins that, when learned, help reconfirm a love for Louisiana.
Louisiana is at the top of the “good” lists in my book. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. The late Louisiana author, Ernest J. Gaines, put it this way: “In all my stories and novels, no one ever escapes Louisiana. Maybe that is because my soul never left Louisiana, although my body did go to California.”
My soul has never left her, either.