Monday, February 27, 2012

Pirogue

I spent a lot of time in Louisiana working for the company I was tied to for several years.  I had to visit stores in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lake Charles enough that the hotels I frequented not only knew me on a first name basis, but they also let me keep some clothing in a suitcase in their offices so I would have clean clothes available when I arrived after already spending a week or two on the road.

The Louisiana stores weren’t any more or less important than any of the other stores I visited throughout the United States and Canada, but I simply enjoyed the people, the lifestyle, and the food a bit more than some of the other places.  Especially the food.  The Creole/Cajun flavors are almost impossible to duplicate outside of Creole/Cajun country.

I never cease to be amazed at how people find ways to put food on the table.  Admittedly some methods are more difficult than others, but few are more interesting than in Louisiana.  I traveled on a shrimp boat for a few days just to see how it was done.  I won’t do that again.  They made me work, and it wasn’t much fun.  I also went out on an oyster trawler (at least that’s what I think they called it), and again they made me work.  I quit going out on the boats after that.

Crawfish farms were found in some areas where rice was raised part of the year.  After the rice was harvested crawfish were turned loose in the flooded fields to eat the stubble and multiply, which they seem to do with great efficiency.  Once I participated in a boucherie where a number of pigs and hogs were transformed into hams, ribs, pork chops, and sausages.  What an experience.

I grew up in rural Fort Worth where farming and all that goes with it had been in my family for generations.  When we prepared an animal for the table, it was just preparing an animal for the table.  But in Louisiana such occurrences were not just for the purpose of eating.  It was an excuse for a party; however, in Louisiana just getting up in the morning was an excuse for a party.  And invariably someone would bring an accordion.

By the time I arrived at the boucherie at the designated hour of 6:00am, the party had already been underway for hours.  The pigs, hogs, a few chickens, a steer, a few thousand crawfish, and several beaver like critters (I think they were called Nutria) were all in cages, pens, boxes, or buckets.  Water was boiling in big pots, and portable cook stoves were everywhere.  Pies were already coming out of the oven in the house, and breakfast was almost over.  At least I got there in time for breakfast.

The details of the day aren’t important, but it was a party that had happened on this very weekend for more than a hundred years, and no one in town missed it.  The music was non-stop, the dancing was spontaneous, and the beer was flowing.  Barbeques were filled with every animal named above, and smoke houses were filled with hams and sausages.  By the end of the day, little of the cooked food was left, but everyone went home with a supply of meat that would be further processed to individual preferences.  And that was just the first of two days.

On one trip to Lake Charles, I had some down time available from my job, and I was invited to go fishing.  Great!  I like to fish.  I went to purchase a license, but I was told that no license was needed where we were going.  Hmm.  So I grabbed my ever-present fishing pole from my car, but I was told to put it back.  Where we were going no fishing pole was needed.  Hmm.  Well, I was ready to go, but I was told that where we were going we needed to wait until after dark.  Hmmm…

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about going on this adventure.  Something about this smelled a bit, well, fishy.  I was, however, caught in a situation I did not wish to exacerbate.  The people that invited me were the store manager and his assistant whose help I needed to promote a new store policy among the employees.  Not that it was a bad change, but in some stores any change was usually unwelcome even if it made life a bit easier.  So I waited until the store closed that evening, and I went fishing.

We got into an ancient battered pickup truck with a bunch of old junk piled in the bed and drove out of the small town toward some destination in the distance.  I know we left the road at some point and drove into the trees, and after a few twists and turns with the lights off, the truck stopped and we got out.

I was handed a flashlight with a red plastic covering over the lens, and I followed one of the two men into the swamp.  It was so dark I couldn’t tell which one I was following and which one was following me.  And the red light flashlight didn’t provide any help.

After some thirty hours (it was probably about five minutes, but the bugs…) we came to the edge of some water.  One of the men shuffled aside some brush, or maybe it was an old piece of carpet, and pulled out a hollowed out log and pushed it into the water.  I was told to get in.

One of the men (the assistant manager) walked to the front of the log, I crawled to the center, and the manager stepped onto the back end of it.  And they pushed off into the water with a long pole.  I was not happy.  I have a rather poor sense of balance, and I’m kneeling in a hollow log with the water level just an inch or two from coming over the edge, and there is a man bouncing around on each end of this thing.

We poled around for a short while (to me it was an eternity) and finally stopped while the man in front hooked a big chunk of meat on a giant treble hook tied to a rope.  He threw this out into the swamp and slowly dragged it back.  He did this a few times, then we moved on another seventy-five feet or so, and he tossed it out again.  After we had moved several times, we had a strike.

I didn’t know at first what had taken the bait, but I assumed it was an alligator since I could see quite a few eyes glowing in the very marginal moonlight.  But after a wild sleigh ride—more accurately a wild pirogue ride—a very large catfish was brought up beside the small boat.  Suddenly I saw just how we were going to deal with this big fish.  The assistant manager pulled out a pistol and fired a few shots into it.  Then we poled our way back to the edge of the swamp.  We pulled the fish up on the ground, stowed away the pirogue, cut the fish into three pieces and carried them back to the truck.

The next day nothing was said at the store about the fishing trip, but behind the store, a large grill was set up, and the employees were having catfish for lunch.  And someone brought along an accordion.

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