Saturday, April 20, 2019

Arnaudville Guest Houses Are Lovingly Restored and Incredibly Inviting

Arnaudville is a small community in St. Landry and St. Martin parishes on historic Bayou Teche and some pretty cool things are happening there.

A favorite stop of ours when traveling through the southern part of our state is Bayou Teche Brewing on La. Hwy 31. Besides the fabulous beer and tasty wood-fired pizza, you meet the most interesting and friendly people there.  On our most recent trip we met a guy from Florida who was in town working for developer Tony Adrian at Les Deux Mondes guest houses.

It was an odd coincidence because we had spotted the colorful cottages a few days before and been curious about them, and now, here was this fellow ready to tell us all about them. A couple of days later we had the chance to meet Tony and tour three of the cottages and now we can't wait to return and stay for a few days. In fact, I'm rather obsessed with the idea.

Tony Adrian is an energetic and enterprising craftsman; a former nurse, he now is co-owner and developer in the renovation of seven formerly dilapidated homes on Front Street in Arnaudville. The houses all date prior to 1920s and he was eager to show them to us.

The pastel cottages actually face Bayou Teche and while all of them are not complete yet, the three we saw were ready for occupancy while another is the current residence for the ULL student who does the landscaping and gardening.

Just a few years ago the property was a trash dump and eyesore and neighbors were a little nervous when Tony started moving in more dilapidated houses, but after he removed several dump trucks full of trash, fixed up the houses, and planted some flowers, tensions eased.

The cottages we walked through had gorgeous cypress tables and red oak counter tops, fully updated kitchens and bathrooms, stunning pine plank flooring, and simple, tasteful decor.

The walls feature original art from Nunu Art Collective in Arnaudville. Tony pointed out that he used milk paint made on site on the walls, "no latex paint," he said, shaking his head.

He has built spacious porches facing the bayou for each one. 

"Houses used to front the bayou," he explained. "The street side was the back door, so that's what we did."

You can walk across the street to Russell's and pick up your groceries or a plate lunch; you can spend the afternoon in a hammock just watching the bayou, or you can go down to the brewery for pizza and conversation.  You can even put a kayak in the bayou and explore the historic Bayou Teche.

"Have you ever had loquat?" Tony asked me as we walked around to the street side of the houses; he pointed to a tree filled with pale orange fruit. He plucked one from the tree, bent forward, and bit in, juice dripping everywhere. "You might need a bath when you get through!" he laughed.   The gardens along the cottages are filled with lovingly tended blooming plants, natural grasses, fruit trees, and vegetable plants.  Amber was setting out tomato plants when we were there.

Tony is all about conservation and preservation so he uses natural and local materials when he can; the rooms are all inviting and filled with natural light. He has updated all of the plumbing and electricity.

Some of the cottages are single occupancy while others are duplexes with a shared porch.

The cottages are listed on Air BnB, if you're interested in a stay. I plan to try them all!  In fact, I'm hoping maybe I can talk Tony into selling me one someday, but I doubt he'd be game for that. I get the impression this is a project of love for him.

Further Reading:
Arnaudville Guest House Project Targets Tourists, Artists (Acadiana Advocate, 9/10/14)
Les Deux Mondes Project Grows in Arnaudville (Daily World, 8/23/14)
Waterfront Cajun Creole Cottage on Bayou Teche - 4 Guests (Air BnB)
Waterfront Cajun Creole Cottage on Bayou Teche - 7 Guests (Air BnB)

Friday, April 19, 2019

The People are the Best Part of the Books Along the Teche Festival

New Iberia oaks featured during the Live Oak Walk.
In my series on the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, I would be remiss if I didn't cover the best part of this festival.  Yes, the events are great, but what makes this festival so cool is the people you meet in New Iberia.

This festival draws people from all over the world, and that is not an exaggeration! James Lee Burke has quite a fan base, it seems.

Steve and I have made really good friends at this festival and have met people we stay in touch with.  Last year we met Wendy and Mike who simply insisted that we could not sit out the Cajun dancing, would not take no for an answer, and before you know it, had us up dancing with the locals. We stayed in touch and even made another trip to New Iberia over the summer to meet them for dinner and dancing. You won't meet better people anywhere.

This year we made new friends once again.

The first night, the Opening Reception event was moved from The Shadows to the Sliman Theater on Main Street due to rainy weather. We sat at long tables in the center of the room with the two buffet lines against the walls, and the Bunk Johnson Brazz Band played on stage.  We were joined at our table by Mary Ubinas who, with her husband David Dahlquist, is active in conservation and preservation of Bayou Teche through the Teche Project.

Mary is the lady who last year stood outside of The Shadows with us and told us that they could have retired anywhere in the world they wanted to and they wanted to come to New Iberia. They were from Iowa, where Steve is from, and we really enjoyed meeting them, so I was glad to see Mary again this year. She was accompanied by her friend Marsha, also from Iowa.

In the "It's a Small World" category, we found out that Marsha and Steve have one of those six-degrees-of-separation connections and we all hit it off immediately.

Marsha and Steve.

The Opening Reception could not have been more fun or spontaneous. Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser was in attendance and declared his love for New Iberia in his comments to the crowd. He said that he has the best job in the world and I tend to believe him. Who wouldn't love being able to attend all of Louisiana's great festivals and mingle with such wonderful people?

The organizers of the festival are talented, adaptable people who were totally unflappable about the location move for the event and when it came time to do the Second Line with the band, normally done through the gardens of The Shadows, Vicky Branton just led us all right out the front doors of the Sliman, down Main Street, stopped traffic, crossed over, and came back again!  It was delightful!

Cathy Indest and the Second Line (Photo used with permission from Lee Ball Photography)

I think the band was as surprised as anyone that we went outside.

The Bunk Johnson Brazz Band Second Line down Main St. (Photo used by permission from Lee Ball)

This was about the time I discovered my camera battery was dead and I had failed to bring my backup, so I ran alongside with my cell phone recording the Second Line. Cars were honking and people rolled down their windows and waved and cheered.

We kept on going until we returned to the Sliman.

Second Line down Main. (Photo used with permission from Lee Ball photography)

The evening concluded with a lively auction of a beautiful painting by Jerome Weber whose work was used as the image on the festival t-shirt and poster this year.

As we were leaving, Steve and I lingered, visiting, hating for the evening to end. That's when we met Stefan Kropelin who came to the festival from Cologne, Germany.

Anyone who knows my husband knows he loves the time he served in Germany while in the Air Force and so he was delighted to meet Stefan. They hit it off right away as they compared blood sugar readings, meters, and insulin pens, and then Stefan told us all about how he discovered Burke's books and how much he enjoyed them.

Steve and Stefan Kropelin.

He's read them in both German and English and when he learned about this festival he just had to come.

Stefan even rented Clete Purcell's room Number 4 at the Teche Motel!

Stefan in Room No. 4, Teche Motel. (Photo used with permission from Lee Ball)

Now that's a fan!

I just fell in love with Stefan; he was having a wonderful time. He took millions of photos, he gathered email addresses, and he talked to every single person there. Such a wonderful, joyful person!

The last night we all went to the Boogie On Down event at the Steamboat Warehouse Pavilion where we ate, danced with Rebecca Wells! (squeeeee!), and made more friendships.

Marsha, Wendy, Me, Steve. (Photo by Stefan Kropelin).

At the end of the night I think Stefan was as sad for it to all end as anyone; we were the last ones to leave long after the band had already packed up.

Stefan catching one more photo of the band.

I don't think there is enough space to capture all the great friendships I've made through this festival. Fran Thibodeaux from the Iberia Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau has my heart - she has made it possible for us to attend this festival and could not have been more generous and kind to Steve and me.

What I've found in New Iberia, and I've made at least half a dozen visits in the past twelve months, is a community of warm, welcoming people who are genuinely glad that you are there and happy to greet you and talk to you. They're proud of their community and happy to share it with you. I completely understand when Mary Ubinas says there is no place they would rather live.

There is so much happening at this festival, I still could not do it all this year, and I still have a list of posts to share with you about other events!

Honestly, in a state with over 400 festivals per year, the Books Along the Teche Festival is one not to be missed. It highlights all that is beautiful and special about Louisiana, about Iberia Parish, and about the people that comprise both. James Lee Burke sites and scenery is just a bonus!

Special thanks once again to Lee Ball Photography for the use of his photographs!

Further Reading:
Books Along the Teche Literary Festival: Great Southern Chefs (SIGIS, 4/13/19)
Author Rebecca Wells Charms the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival (SIGIS, 4/10/19)
Take a Trip to the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part 1 (SIGIS, 4/9/2018)
Take a Trip to the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part 2 (SIGIS, 4/14/2018)
Explore Chad: Basic Research and UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Books Along the Teche Literary Festival Features Great Southern Chefs Bonnie Breaux and Ryan Trahan

Chefs Bonnie Breaux and Ryan Trahan (used with permission from Lee Ball)
In Louisiana, good food is serious business. We prize our oyster beds, our redfish, catfish, and crawfish. We can batter and fry almost anything and when we aren't doing that we are making a roux and creating a delicious etouffee or gumbo.  From Natchitoches meat pies to crabmeat pizzas in Arnaudville, from crawfish in Breaux Bridge to oysters in New Orleans, we love good food.

That might be why the Great Southern Chefs Food Demo at the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival in April is always a popular event.

This year the cooking demo featured 2017 Louisiana Seafood Queen Bonnie Breaux of Cafe Sydnie Mae in Breaux Bridge and chef Ryan Trahan of Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette. Ryan is the 2018 King of American Seafood.

The event filled up quickly Friday morning at the Steamboat Warehouse Pavilion on Bayou Teche in New Iberia. I skipped breakfast that morning because I knew we would soon be sampling delicious bowls of crawfish etouffee and Louisiana shrimp and grits.

Before the chefs demos, we were treated to a discussion by author Ken Wells about his new book, Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou:

A seasoned journalist, Ken Wells sleuths out the answers. His obsession goes back to his childhood in the Cajun bastion of Bayou Black, where his French-speaking mother’s gumbo often began with a chicken chased down in the yard. Back then, gumbo was a humble soup little known beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. So when a homesick young Ken, at college in Missouri, realized there wasn’t a restaurant that could satisfy his gumbo cravings, he called his momma for the recipe. That phone-taught gumbo was a disaster. The second, cooked at his mother’s side, fueled a lifelong quest to explore gumbo’s roots and mysteries. 
In Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, Wells does just that. He spends time with octogenarian chefs who turn the lowly coot into gourmet gumbo; joins a team at a highly competitive gumbo contest; visits a factory that churns out gumbo by the ton; observes the gumbo-making rituals of an iconic New Orleans restaurant where high-end Creole cooking and Cajun cuisine first merged.

Mr. Wells's talk was peppered with funny stories and one point that interested me was his research into the earliest gumbos and his discovery that more than likely bear grease was used as the oil for the roux.

Author Ken Wells (photo used with permission from Lee Ball)

"New Orleans was awash in bear grease!" he told us.

This made perfect sense to me.  Elizabeth Shown Mills talks about this in her book The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color.  By 1792, Marie Therese Coincoin, a former slave given her freedom by Pierre Thomas Claude Metoyer, was successfully farming tobacco on land given to her by Metoyer. She shipped this tobacco on barges to New Orleans. She also "trapped wild bears in the Natchitoches wilderness and sent bear grease to market..." (Mills 39).  Mills reports that Coincoin sent, in one particular shipment, three hundred hides and two barrels of bear grease.  This was a fairly common practice at that time and so Ken Wells comments resonated with me.

During the course of his research, Mr. Wells even obtained a small container of bear grease from a supplier and tested the bear-grease-roux.

His book is a fascinating study in the history of our most beloved dish and after his talk, Mr. Wells signed copies of his book.

The first cooking demo of the morning was chef Bonnie Breaux. An animated, enthusiastic chef, Miss Breaux says she is self-taught and learned to cook at her mother's side and later out of necessity to feed her family. Most recently Breaux had been the chef at St. John restaurant in St. Martinville (one of our favorites!) and Cafe Sydnie Mae is a sort of sister restaurant in Breaux Bridge.

Breaux shared her crawfish etouffee secrets with the crowd at the Steamboat Warehouse Pavilion and stressed the importance of  using the crawfish fat in the etouffee.  "That's where all your flavor is," she said.  When asked what kind of rice she uses, Breaux said she just uses regular medium or long grain rice in her etouffee.  There's a time and place for jasmine rice and the other gourmet grains, but not in a Louisiana etouffee. She also shared that she never tastes her food while she's cooking it.

Chef Ryan Trahan followed and his dish was shrimp and grits.  Trahan grew up in a restaurant family
Trahan's Shrimp and Grits (photo used with permission from Lee Ball)
and is from Crowley, Louisiana. His rule in the kitchen: "Everyone stirs the grits," he said.  "If you walk by, you stir the grits. If I walk by, I stir the grits. Everyone stirs the grits."   The rule must work pretty well because his shrimp and grits were to die for; the grits were creamy and the dish was seasoned with Trahan's own Worcestershire sauce.

Breaux and Trahan were available and visible throughout the day, talking to festival participants and sharing cooking stories. They were both at the evening event at the Sliman theater as well.

There is no shortage of fabulous chefs in Louisiana but festival organizers were on top of the game when they scored these two "royal" chefs for the demo this year!

Coming next in my Festival recap: Taking the Second Line through Historic Main Street

Thank you to photographer Lee Ball for allowing me to use his photos!

Further Reading:
2018 Small Town Chefs: Bonnie Breaux (Country Roads Magazine, 6/22/18)
Gumbo Life, Tales from the Roux Bayou (Robert Davis, New York Journal of Books)
About the Chef: Ryan Trahan (Blue Dog Cafe)
Voter's Choice (Vicky Branton, The Daily Iberian, 10/24/18)
Author Rebecca Wells Charms the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival (SIGIS, 4/10/19)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Author Rebecca Wells Charms the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival

Rebecca Wells in her vintage 1930s dress.
In 1996, Louisiana author Rebecca Wells published Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in which Siddalee Walker from Thornton, Louisiana contemplates the past, the future, and the lifelong friendships between her mother Vivi and her fellow Ya-Yas.

The book was incredibly successful and sparked such an interest in the Walker clan that the author's earlier novel, Little Altars Everywhere (1992) also became a hit.

From there, anything Rebecca Wells wrote was gold.

As fate would have it, the sweet taste of success would be on the back burner for Miss Wells. As her books began to rise to the tops of the best seller lists, she would be diagnosed with Lyme disease and would spend the next few years battling the chronic illness that this diagnosis would bring.

At the fourth annual Books Along the Teche Literary Festival last weekend, Miss Wells did not talk a great deal about her battle with Lyme disease but the residual effects do linger; bright light is intolerable and she gets cold easily. She tires easily, but when you give as much as she does to a performance, that is easy to understand.

The stage at the Sliman Theater in New Iberia was set for the popular author: three bottles of Essentia water, reading glasses, a tall bar stool, a black shawl, a music stand with her notes.

Miss Wells entered from the back of the stage, did a "Loretta Young twirl" to show off her vintage 1930s dress, and took her place.  Beautiful, ageless, charming, she told the capacity crowd about her dress, her struggle to find shoulder pads for it, and she talked about returning to the South to live in Tennessee.

The highlight of her performance was her reading from her book-in-progress, Divine Daughter of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. In an interview with Deep South Magazine in 2016, Wells said, "I am never happier than when I am performing my work. It’s really all I want to do," and it shows. She is a performer and as she read her work it was pure poetry. The inflection, the quizzical tones, the humor, delivered in Miss Wells's sweet southern drawl all come through and bring her characters to life. It is mesmerizing to watch and to hear.

In the excerpt Wells shared with us, "No More Y'all," Siddalee Walker is in New York and takes a class to minimize her Southern accent in order to advance her acting career. Sidda struggles with this, of course, and as Miss Wells enunciated the difference between "ten" and "tin" and "four" and "fo-oour," I think everyone in the audience was silently saying those words to themselves. I know at the dinner event later that evening everyone at our table said them aloud!

"Say 'Ten'!" said one guest from Iowa.

"Tin," I said.

Whoops and good-natured laughter.

After her performance, Miss Wells took a brief break to recoup, and then signed copies of her books for everyone who wanted her signature. Some brought play programs from other performances, and some brought posters. Anything Rebecca-Wells-related that was there, got signed, and anyone who wanted to visit with her got their wish. She was the most gracious, kind person I could possibly imagine.

Later that evening, at the dinner and dancing event at the Steamboat Pavilion on Bayou Teche, as we practices saying "four" and "fo-ooor," as we ate fried shrimp and jambalaya, and as we danced to Terry Huval's Jambalaya Cajun Band, in waltzed Rebecca Wells, perfectly darling in black leggings, pink long sleeved top, and a black, gauze tunic.

She is, as my mama would say, "not as big as a minute," a tiny little thing, with her hair swooped up on top of her head and her lipstick perfect.

She spent the next hour eating, dancing, and taking photos with the crowd.

Posing for photos with the locals

She did the Cajun two-step, the Cajun Conga line, and she took the microphone and pronounced the festival to be "not a book festival but a book party!"  She expressed her love for Louisiana and her hometown roots and said how glad she was to be back.

Wells in the Conga line with your author right behind her.

She won every heart in the place.

It is so exciting to see this festival grow and to see the great talent that it attracts. Last year was Ernest Gaines and I couldn't imagine how they could top that. Now I can't imagine who could top the precious, talented Rebecca Wells!

Coming Next:  The Great Southern Chefs Cooking Demo and Ken Wells/Gumbo Life

Further Reading:
Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Louisiana Blood: An Interview With Rebecca Wells (Lafayette Daily Advertiser, 4/5/19)
Wells has Audience Thrilled with Tales of Life, Fiction (The Daily Iberian, 4/7/19)
Rebecca Wells Comes Home (Deep South Magazine, 10/14/16)
Take a Trip to the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part 1 (SIGIS, 4/9/18)
Take a Trip to the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part 2 (SIGIS, 4/14/18)