I spent a good many years hiding in books—whether writing them or reading them. Basically, I hid. Like a little coward. I recognize how afraid of everything and everyone I have been. I’m still working on some of that. Yet. Now I see the need to explore and experience, for I know discovery will improve my writing, and my life.
Though I was born in the mountains, I spent a good many years in South Louisiana. My Virginia Kate Sagas hold South Louisiana (and West Virginia—where I was born) at the heart of them.
I recently visited South Louisiana and was reminded of the unique nature of Place, and how important a role it plays in our work. How the sensory details we add to our work enrich it in so many important ways. A reader will feel and see and taste. I have my own need to feel and see and taste.
If you go to South Louisiana you will be fed, and you will be fed often, and you will be fed cheerfully. Residents of South Louisiana think that if you are not living in South Louisiana, well then, you are starving! You are lacking in what is known as “good eatin’!” Go to South Louisiana and be prepared for the onslaught of sights and sounds and aromas (and odors) assaulting your senses. Taste the spice, which is not just pepper and cayenne and Tabasco as some restaurants outside of South Louisiana seem to think, but the eclectic mix of seasoning.
I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of Louisiana food, though some of the food I mention here is not for me, no matter how well prepared and seasoned; there are some things I just will not no way no how put in my mouth—nope.
The gulf shrimp, the oysters, the catfish, the boudin, the boiling frying grilling blackening, couchon de lait, fried raccoon leg (with the lower leg fur and foot still attached—I saw this at a street fair, ugh), powder-sugar-dusted beignets, jambalaya, turtle soup, frog’s legs, gumbo, etouffee, cracklins, crawfish, community coffee, bread pudding, George’s under the interstate, Diguilio’s, Gino’s, Don’s, Hymel’s—which is part grocery, part bar, part gas station—the bait stores that are also groceries with cheeses and wines and Stage Plank gingerbread, French bread, King’s Cake, unidentified stuff on a stick. At Roux 61 where I forced myself to taste a tiny bite of fried alligator (it’s weirdly stereotypical-chickeny but also chewy and it freaks me out) they offer hamburger poboys loaded up with batter-fried bacon of which I absolutely did not eat no matter how much my friends cajoled and urged and laughed at my look of horrified wonder.
You can’t throw a tiny bitty rock a block without hitting a place that offers food. Even the smallest most awkward looking eatery knows how to cook with those spices, and knows how to fry up anything you hand them. Anything. Oh, and your friends or their friends or someone somewhere will cook for you too.
Gary Carden, a local favorite Storyteller here in our mountains, wrote some really great things about my Tender Graces book, and in that review he said the novel had so much food in it, he had a bit of heartburn by time he finished reading it. Made me laugh so much, even now I’m laughing as I type this. Food is such a huge part of all of our cultures, and in South Louisiana—well, I don’t know, it is just somehow different and just so much … more. You have to be there. Go see for yourself.
If you try to tell people in the Deep South that you don’t eat much meat, they will not understand. Might as well get over yourself. You will find meat on your plate. And everyone who is from or has lived in the Deep South knows you must eat what is put on your plate or you are rude and unruly, and you might get a “Well, bless your heart!” and that ain’t a blessin’ y’all.
Step into a restaurant in South Louisiana and you may not find a vegetable on the menu, unless it is fried or cooked with fatback or saltpork or some other hunk of poor little Petal Puss the pig.
There is a lot of fried food there.
After you are so full you can only pat your distended tummy and plead, “Please, no more!” (I actually was tired of eating! I was sick of food! Imagine!) they then will take you around and show you their Place. Place, as important a sensory device as food. So go on down there with your empty belly and your curious eye.
Don’t go in June, July, August, September unless you are used to 98% humidity and near-or-at-100 degree heat, a combination that leaves one wilted and a bit sick at one’s awfully full stomach. You only THINK you know how hot it is; you only THINK you know what heat and humidity is; you will KNOW it once you spend a summer’s day in South Louisiana. So, when you go, go in the spring and they will proudly take you around—a caveat: it’s often hot as hell even in the spring, or fall, or sometimes even in the winter. Yeah.
They will feed you. They will show you around. They will say—
See our grandfather oaks? Their branches touch the ground; the moss blows a mystery. See our cypress trees and cypress knees? See Louisiana State University and the Fighting LSU Tigers? Do you see the unique architecture? The swamps? The gator? The white croaked-calling egrets? The stately blue heron? The Mardi Gras beads still hanging from the trees and wires from a million parades?
Go to South Louisiana and they will feed you–not just food, but feed your soul and your eyes and your spirit and you will come back home and think, “What the hell just happened to me?”
I was overwhelmed and exhausted, and exhilarated. I saw things. I ate things. I talked to people behind counters and in parking lots and in bars and restaurants and grocery stores. I walked the streets of New Orleans—which is an entirely different post altogether. Oh the sensory details of place and food and people that swam around in my head!
It is not that there isn’t plenty to experience and write about here in my beloved beautiful mountains, it is the Different of it all. The Experience that takes you outside of your own world and plunks you right in the middle of so very much, so very very much. South Louisiana is really awfully almost too much!
I’m ready for my next adventure. And when I sit down to write, I will have a feast of sensory detail to slather on my pages.
Where will you go? What will you see? Who will you talk to? What will you eat?