Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Southern Louisiana and So Forth

I seem to have lost track of space and time. Where was I?

Oh, yeah, I was getting ready for bed at the Hampton Inn in Natchitoches, Louisiana. It was December 28, a Sunday. The next morning, Monday the 29th, we opted to forego the "free" breakfast at the Hampton Inn and, instead, pay good money for a breakfast at the Huddle House, right across the parking lot. My wife asked for a pecan waffle, "extra crispy," which I gather is waffle house lingo for "completely cooked and toasted around the edges." The cook apparently was unfamiliar with the lingo, as he sent her a disk of batter cooked barely long enough for the waffle iron to leave its imprint. My "over medium" eggs were watery, but tolerable. I noticed something about the place that surprised me, but has since got me thinking there is a deeper reason than I initially believed: they had no Tabasco Sauce, not even any in back. "We have Cajun Chef hot sauce, sir," the waitress said. OK. So I ate my eggs with Cajun Chef.

Back to Huddle House. When I was a mere child, I remember eating at a place called Dobbs House, which could have been a twin of Huddle House. It was a diner style place, the entire exterior wall of which was glass. Formica counter, formica booths with formica-covered bench seats, stainless steel cooking utensils, etc. in plain view. Even their menu had its own special lingo, like the Waffle House of today. Somewhere along the line, I got the impression that Dobbs House and Huddle House were one in the same, or had been, or should have been. Somehow, I'm convinced they are related, in some way. Enough of my aside about the breakfast joint.

After breakfast, we went looking for the aquarium and fish hatchery, which we found in short order. We were among the only guests in days, judging from the guest book. There was no one there to greet guests, only a book and some photos and plaques about the fish hatchery (which is behind the aquarium but not available for a casual tour, it appeared). The aquarium had about 13-15 tanks with an assortment of interesting fish and a few reptiles, including an albino turtle that was doing its best to impregnate a snapping turtle as we walked by.

Next, we went wandering along the Cane River, taking note of some very nice homes right on the water, on both sides of the river. We noted that, on one side of the river, a growing subdivision looked like it could have been a lower middle class subdivision near Dallas. It was ugly and depressing to see a nice little town like Natchitoches sink into the suburban swill of Dallas and like cities. Those monstrous little brick cancers notwithstanding, the river area was very pretty, with enormous oak trees forming massive canopies above the roads.

Then, we went to a little scenic lookout on the river, a place complete with its own national park building (though I'll be damned if I remember the name of the park), made of sturdy logs and tastefully decorated to appear like an HGTV log home. The place was gorgeous and the scenery looking down on the river was just as attractive. There, we saw some courmorants and ducks and other such creatures. Nice viewing.

Before I forget, the only way we could fiew the birds was through our nice new binoculars (one pair for each of us) that we bought at the neighborhood WalMart.

By the time we got back to Natchitoches, it was time for lunch. We made our way to Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant on 2nd street, where we had a nice lunch. I had a nice sausage and chicken gumbo over rice, with a side of cornbread. My wife had an interesting Cajun chicken enchilada. We shared a single meat pie. The meat pie was interesting and tasty, but I cannot quite understand how it was successfully made into a local celebrity in terms of foodstuff. Good, but not great, I'd say. Success, though, trumps my personal opinion.

After lunch, we headed out of town, taking Highway 1 south toward New Iberia. Our plan had been to get to Avery Island that day, but we had dawdled a good bit and did so again on the drive, so we got only as far as New Iberia, where we spent the night in a Comfort Inn and Suites, which did not compare (in my opinion) to the beds of the previous two nights. We ended up having dinner at the Ruby Tuesday's next to the hotel and made a relatively early night of it.

This morning, we got up, had breakfast at the hotel (I had build-your-own waffles; my wife nibbled). We set out for Avery Island, only 5 miles or so away. We were looking forward to going to the place I had heard and read so much about. I was ansxious to see how Tabasco sauce was made and was looking forward to seeing the grounds around the factory.

We were greeted by a woman in her mid-forties who apologized several times for her hoarse voice; she things she is allergic to, of all things, Tabasco peppers. At any rate, she said, she was glad we (the group of 12-15 on the first tour) were there. She talked a bit, showed us an 8-minute movie about the history of the Tabasco brand and McIlhenny family, then directed us to walk down a corridor with glass on one side, looking into the factory area. Incidentally, this woman claimed to be a sugar cane producer; she said she had been in the sugar cane business for 21 years and, my later consideration would suggest, she was not very happy about serving the multibillionaire family down the road.

Watching the factory in operation was briefly interesting. The remaning museum-style information wasn't so exciting. So, off we went to the "country store" to see what they had for sale. Our guide earlier mentioned that there were several samples to taste, including chili, and advised us not to "double dip.'" We saw our guide in the store, where she continued to be pleasant. The other two women, not so much. Not at all. When our guide saw someone waiting at the counter to be checked out, she asked in a loud voice, "Are you waiting to be checked out?" The response was affirmative; "Someone will be with you in just a moment," she said. Neither of the other two staff bothered to look up. Our guide then say, very loudly, "Counter help needed up font!" One of the others, an older woman with a very sour face, said just as loudly, "I'm right here!. I'll be there in a second."

The experience continued. When we wanted to taste the chili, we waited around the area where the tasting materials were. The staff looked at us, walked on by, and continued to do stock the shelves. Finally, instead of spending $100 or so on Tabasco-related products, I opted instead to leave without spending a cent and, instead, recommend to anyone considering Tabasco brand think twice.

Remember earlier I mentioned that Huddle House didn't stock Tabasco? Well, our Tabasco guide commented a couple of times about how much (or little) the pepper pickers made when picking tabasco peppers; 50 cents a pound. She also commented in an odd way about how much money the McIlhennys have and how they recently closed the local school because not enough kids were attending.

I started wondering if there is a considerable dislike for the McIlhennys and their brand amoung Lousianans in general and people from around New Iberia and environs, in particular. Maybe there's nothing to it, but it seemed apparent to me that the company's brand would fairly SING at its own corporate store if they treated their people well and paid them a fair wage. The people at the store gave me just the opposite impression. So, until I learn differently, I say SCREW TABASCO BRAND PRODUCTS.

The rest of the day was spent driving west through hurricane-ravaged areas that still show open wounds from Rita and Ike. All along the coast we saw hundreds of abandoned buildings...businesses, homes, trailers, etc. We saw hundreds of demolished vehicles. It was an ugly sight. But we saw signs that recovery is on its way, though not quickly.

For lunch, we stopped at Abbeville, on the Vermillion River, and had lunch at a place called The Riverfront. We both had fried oysters, which were exceptionally good. For sides, my wife had fried sweet potatoes and cabbage & tasso, a very nicely flavored spiced cabbage with tiny but very flavorful chunks of sausage. My sides consisted of plain French fries and Macque Choux (pronounced mach shoo), which is kernels of corn, peppers, a little milk, and I'm not sure what else. It was not terribly good, but not bad. There are two other restaurants nearby that I would love to go to one day...I read a lot about them: Black's oyster bar and Shucks! oyster bar. We drove by them after we had lunch and they, too, were packed with people.

Today, I saw disconcerting signs that the business people who depend on customers for their livelihoods have learned their customer service skills from the McIlhennys. I really don't care whether, as the sign I saw today read, "Darly K's was the first store to reopen after Rita." What matters to me is that the counter help suggests the best thing for customers would be for Darly K to close forever and be replaced by a decent store.

As it was getting dark, we decided not to go all the way into Houston (my night vision is miserable), so we stopped for the night in Baytown, at the Hampton Inn. We didn't want to drive far, so we opted for dinner at El Toro, a local chain that, as it turns out, has excellent food. And here we are.

Tomorrow, we're going into Houston and wandering the city, then we'll get together with my sister the following day...New Year's Day. A brother will also be in town, so we'll see him, too, and if we're lucky my other brother who stopped communicating with me for no apparent reason may be there, too.

No comments: