I’m in Killer Poboys to meet with Charles Chamberlain, a Ph.D. in American history and local History Man. Ten years a historian at the Louisiana State Museum before setting up his own company, Historia, to provide outsiders with insights into the Pelican State, Chamberlain knows Louisiana. He’s just the guy, I figure, to explain why Louisiana is so different, even a little cray cray—and I don’t mean the fish.
“Louisiana couldn’t be anything but,” he declares as we share a bag of Zapp’s Voodoo Potato Chips, a favorite Louisiana foodstuff. By the time Thomas Jefferson bought the land from Napoleon in that 1803 geopolitical fire sale, he explains, this French colony was well populated with French and Spanish immigrants, refugees from Haiti, and Congolese slaves, all of whom had seeded the land with their cultures, foods, and traditions.
“If you’re looking for different,” he tells me, laying out an itinerary, “start here in New Orleans. You can see how we turn our quirkiness into art by visiting one of the recently formed New Orleans krewes that parade at the start of Carnival’s two-week celebration. Tourists wait for Mardi Gras, which is at the end; almost no one comes for the beginning, but that’s when you see something really crazy. Then follow the French settlements up to the Cane River. That’s where Creoles of color built their own world. On your way back to New Orleans, explore the Atchafalaya, America’s biggest swamp, by getting out on the water with the local Cajuns. You’ll be glad you did.”
As we emerge from Killer Poboys, blinking, into the French Quarter’s afternoon light, Chamberlain adds, “Louisiana is another country. But you better see it soon; who knows how long it’s going to last.”
The reality is that Creoles and Cajuns, cowboys and costumers, shrimpers and planters—really, all who make life and art out of this watery land—are threatened as their world is digitized, outsourced … and submerged. Literally. Low-lying Louisiana loses a football field an hour to, among other things, rising seas.
Cane River National Heritage Area: Where Creole culture holds sway
The river town of Natchitoches (NA-ka-tesh) dates to 1714, when French traders paddling up the Red River from the Mississippi put down roots here, making it the oldest permanent settlement in the entire 828,000-square-mile Louisiana Purchase.
It immediately impresses me as a downsize version of New Orleans’ Royal Street, with its filigreed iron balconies, antiques stores, and art galleries. Natchitoches even has its own mini-Mississippi River: the Cane River, a 36-mile-long band of shimmering silver water that defines the surrounding Cane River National Heritage Area.
Great plantations—Magnolia, Oakland, Melrose—front either side of this twisting waterway, like base molecules attracted to a strand of antebellum DNA. But here, a seemingly upside-down world evolved, where plantation owners had African ancestry—and owned slaves.
Among them was Marie Thérèse Coincoin, slave and mistress of Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who would free her and their children, then deed her land. Their son Louis established Melrose, modest by plantation standards but extraordinary for the change it represented. It was another African-American woman, cook and self-taught artist Clementine Hunter, who would bring Melrose renown with folk paintings that she began crafting in the 1930s, when she was in her 50s.
Wandering the plantation’s grounds, with its African- and French-influenced outbuildings built by slaves, I feel dislodged from the present day.
“Natchitoches and the Cane River? We’re in a time of our own,” asserts Tom Whitehead, the area’s unofficial ambassador who, if you’re lucky like me, will ask you to his house for shrimp and grits—overseen by Clementine Hunter artworks, depicting daily plantation scenes, on his wall. “We appreciate differences.”
Different this region is. Take the line of cars idling to buy frozen daiquiris at Maggio’s, a drive-through liquor store. Or the farmers in muddy boots and Wrangler jeans sipping $15 glasses of Cab at Janohn’s, a restaurant in a renovated cotton gin in nearby Boyce.
The past is very present in Natchitoches. I encounter Lisa and Michael Prud’homme at Mama’s Oyster House, on Front Street, where the zydeco music is loud enough to ripple your beer. Born along the Cane, Michael Prud’homme returned home with Lisa after a big-city career.
“We’ve moved around a lot, but we’re done. We’re in our ‘dying house’ now,” Prud’homme says.
Our dying house. Prud’homme’s ancestors arrived here in the 1720s. He and his siblings, heirs to Oakland, one of the major Cane plantations, sold it to the National Park Service so it could be preserved for a nation forgetful of its rural roots and ways.
“To connect with that time,” Prud’homme’s sister, Kathy, tells me, “visit St. Augustine’s, a Catholic church and the center of local Creole life, in nearby Isle Brevelle. It’s having a birthday celebration for Grandpère Augustin Metoyer tonight. Go.”
The fact that Grandpère Augustin—son of Marie Thérèse—died in 1856 isn’t affecting the party. Metoyer is revered along the Cane River as the founder of the Creole community and as the builder, with his brother Louis, of the original St. Augustine church. It burned down in the 1800s and was replaced by today’s white wooden structure. St. Augustine’s parking lot, when I arrive at 6 p.m., is as packed as its cemetery grounds with generations of Metoyers, Balthazars, Roques.
Creole identity is complex. In this part of Louisiana it describes a person descended from some mix of French and Spanish settlers, Africans, and Native Americans. Tonight, Charles Roque will play the role of gray-haired Grandpère Augustin. He’s the mirror image of the patriarch, who stands tall in a portrait painted more than a century ago and now hanging on one of the church walls. That’s no surprise. Roque grew up on the Cane. His wife, Betty, is a Metoyer.
“Charles is an old-school river man,” Roque’s son-in-law Larry Atteridge whispers to me as I navigate the hall. “They don’t get deeper than that, and that’s a fact.”
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As night descends, the party gets going. Out back, men fry the last of 49 white perch, or sacalait, fished from the Cane River that morning as they listen to the New Orleans Saints game on the radio. Inside, deviled eggs, mac ’n’ cheese, black-eyed peas, and 50 gallons of steaming gumbo are placed on the table.
I’m introduced to Miss Nazy Metoyer LaCour, who baked Grandpère’s huge vanilla birthday cake, slathering it with blue icing and layering it with pineapple slices and locally grown pecans. At a table behind the cake sit “the elders,” 12 men and women over 80 who are being honored. The bar is serving beer, shots of Old Crow, and Long Island iced teas, dispensed by a cheerful woman who warns that her generous pours will soon have me “acting single and seeing double.”
When the amplified music revs up, young and old Cane River natives start a line dance. It soon strikes me that no one here wants to be anywhere else. Everyone is in this moment—a moment of its own along the Cane River. Just as Tom Whitehead had predicted.
> Read It, Do It:
- Melrose Plantation, founded by freed slaves two centuries ago, brings the area’s unusual multicultural legacy to life at its nine historic buildings. A highlight here: the primitive-style artworks painted by onetime Melrose cook Clementine Hunter.
- Head to Lasyone’s, in downtown Natchitoches, for the city’s signature meat pie, a turnover stuffed with ground beef, pork, and onion. For oysters, crawfish, catfish, even alligator, score a table in the whimsically decorated Mama’s Oyster House.
- Guests at Violet Hill B&B, a Victorian along the Cane River, awake to river views. Area lore fills exhibits at Natchitoches’s new Northwest Louisiana History Museum.
National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Nelson (on Twitter @andrewnelson) teaches at Loyola University in New Orleans. The city is also a home base for photographer Kris Davidson. This feature first appeared in the magazine’s October 2014 issue.