Thursday, November 18, 2010

Embracing Culture

When I arrived in Louisiana in 1999 as a summer missionary, I knew it was a different place. The culture, the food, the atmosphere, the accent (not that lazy southern drawl I was used to) . . . have I mentioned the FOOD?!? For nine weeks, I pretty much immersed myself in the lives of folks living along the Atchafalaya (pronounced a-chaf-a-LIE-uh) Basin. I struggled hard to pronounce their last names and, at times, understand their language. I also ate their food. I'll never forget a comment my Uncle Charles made to me after I returned home to Georgia. I went to visit him and Aunt Gail to tell them about my trip. He said, "Well, you look good. You finally put some meat on those bones." I did gain several pounds that summer. The thing about these people and food is that they have a very personal relationship with it. They live to eat! I was used to eating to live, especially as a college student in a dorm room with a tiny frig and electric pot that I could boil water in for a quick pasta topped with Prego. We'd be eating one meal, and they'd be discussing what we were going to have in the next meal!

I'll be honest though. Although I did fall in love with the people, I did not fall in love with Louisiana. As a matter of fact, in one of my letters home to a friend, I told her that I just didn't understand how anyone could live here! I also said I'd never live here . . . imagine that. I also didn't plan on falling in love with my then future husband either.

So when we married in 2000, I moved to Louisiana. It was more out of necessity though. I had just finished college, but Seth had two years left. So it made sense to move here so he could continue classes and graduate. I just figured we'd then move to Georgia. Well, of course, we did not.

During those early years, I really didn't like living here. At all. I hated my job. I missed my friends, my family. And at first, I didn't even try to make the best of it. Right around the time Seth graduated, I did Beth Moore's Believing God Bible study, and that began to change everything for me. I started looking at Louisiana as my promised land instead of my wilderness. Speaking of which, if you feel like you're wandering around in the wilderness of this life, I encourage you to spend some time with Beth's Believing God.

My husband is a Louisiana boy through and through. I'll not tell you what they call them around here. In Georgia, we'd call them a redneck. But here . . . well, it begins with coon and then ends with a dirty little three-letter word. And, being a new wife and in love, I wanted to make my husband happy. You know what they say . . . the way to a man's heart is through his stomach . . . or something like that, I think. I can remember growing up . . . my Mama put a home cooked meal on the table for us EVERY NIGHT. And I intended to do the same. My culinary skills were a bit rusty and quite untested at the time I married. So imagine throwing a roux (pronounced roo), gumbo, jambalaya, etoufee (pronounced eh-too-FAY) and sauce picaunt (there's no way my pronounciation can do that one justice!) into the mix.

Growing up, we ate a lot of mashed potatoes and sometime rice. Well, I think my husband has probably eaten rice at least two days a week every week since he entered this world in 1976. And there was something quite peculiar about the rice that I'd never seen before. Everyone had a rice pot, and that's how they cooked their rice. Well, I'd never seen a rice pot before; I didn't even know there was such a thing. Mama always cooked the rice on the stove. So I knew I just had to have a rice pot. I was given a gift card from one of my friends as a wedding gift. I told her I was going to use it to by a rice pot. She asked me what that was, and I told her it was a special pot for cooking rice. She then asked me if I had ever seen the boil-in-a-bag rice on the shelf in the grocery store. I told her she didn't understand; if any of that was ever spied in my pantry, I just might be arrested and thrown into jail or something. I also have to mention here that I never could get that darn rice pot to work just right . . . the rice never fully cooked . . . so it was donated to the Goodwill shortly thereafter . . .

Anyway, the first week we were married, I planned a meal one night that included rice. I don't even remember now what the meat was or what else we had. But we had rice. Seth and I sat down at the table and served our plates. And then he looked at me and asked where the gravy was. What? Gravy? Again, I don't remember what meat I had cooked, but whatever it was, gravy didn't go with it. And that's when my husband lovingly, yet firmly, told me that he does not eat rice without gravy. Well, that was news to me! We'd just put a pat of butter on top of our rice when I was growing up, and we were good to go. To this day, that's still how I eat my rice. So . . . lesson number one . . . don't serve rice without gravy. Now, have I mentioned how hard it is to make gravy?!? Or at least I think so!

After we'd been married a year or so, I decided to try my hand at making a seafood gumbo. Seafood gumbo to me is crab and shrimp. A lot of folks put oysters in their gumbo, but I just can't stomach those nasty little things. And to my husband, gumbo is not okra. The first one I made was just . . . tasteless. It was a lot of work (you have to stand over the stove stirring the oil and flour together over low heat for as long as 45 minutes to get the roux the right color . . . because if the roux isn't the right color, it isn't gumbo!) and ended up as such a disappointment. Seth told me it was my stock . . . I needed to make my own stock out of fish heads or shrimp peels or something. So I very vividly remember the second time I made seafood gumbo. It was in the fall . . . football games were on TV . . . and it too me ALL DAY to make that gumbo. I bought fresh head-on shrimp and peeled them. I put all of the peels (or do you call them shells?) and the heads into a pot to make my stock. And then came the roux. And then the trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper). And do you know . . . after all that work . . . it was tasteless again?!? And not only that, but our little apartment smelled like seafood stock (really, it smelled more like rotten fish) for nearly two weeks after that! That was 2002, and I haven't made seafood gumbo again! I actually made chicken and sausage gumbo a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't stir the roux long enough so it wasn't the right color; it was too light. Yes, that's a big deal regardless of how it tastes!

Not only did I say I'd never live in Louisiana, but I also said I'd never come back if I ever got out of here. Then came our move to Mississippi. After that, I decided that perhaps living in Louisiana wasn't so bad after all. I even actually wanted to move back! And then I ended up living west of the Mississippi, which is yet something else I said I'd never do! I know. Never say never. I still haven't learned my lesson . . .

Anyway, during the almost two years we lived in Mississippi, I really began to appreciate the culture (and definitely the food!) of Louisiana. I still don't eat crawfish though. I also think the swamps and bayous are mysteriously beautiful. I've even come to love the Big Easy and her jazz music and wrought iron balconies. Louisiana has such a rich, intriguing history, culture and way of life.

Several weekends ago, the Atchafalaya Basin Program hosted a Swamp Life Expo at the Grosse Tete Visitors' Center. A Cajun band provided music; jambalaya, crawfish etoufee and pralines were served; and several local artisans crafting everything from oil paintings to crawfish traps to wood carvings and picture frames were on hand.I absolutely love this carving of one of Louisiana's famed plantations. It was carved out of wood completely by hand and then painted. But . . . the most exciting part of the festivities . . . were the Swamp People! I don't know about ya'll, but the Swamp People have taken us by storm. Just in case you've never heard of them, they are featured on the History Channel's new series about present-day Cajuns who hunt alligators in the Atchafalaya River Basin, the largest swamp in the United States. Two such swamp people are Junior and his son, Willie. They live in Bayou Sorrel, which is about 30 minutes down the bayou from where we live. Junior and Willie were at the Swamp Expo signing autographs and answering questions. I can assure you that everything you see on TV is the real deal. And, of course, we got an autograph that I'm planning to frame for Mason's room.
I can honestly say . . . drum roll, please . . . I love Louisiana!


Mama said...

And Louisiana loves you, sweet girl.
I'll always remember Bro. Alvin's comment when they came with the Bayhan entourage to Georgia for your and Seth's wedding.
He said, "Seth done picked a sweet Georgia peach!" And, he was so right! My sweet daughter, praise God for His perfect plan for your life in Louisiana....I love you, Mama

The Applings said...

I am impressed...not only did you say it, you wrote it. There were years that I prayed that you would just move back to GA, that God would make your home here, but even through the tears and the talks over the years, God knew that one day your heart would grow to love Louisiana!