My friend Sabine, French and unflappable, introduced me to the phrase. “Plus ça change,” she’d murmur with a wave of her hand, “plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Sometimes that’s true. My great-aunt Fannie, who just happened to be in the Louisiana State Capitol the day Carl Weiss put a bullet into Huey Long, never tired of telling the story. He wasn’t the first or the worst of the politicians she’d known, she liked to say, but he certainly set a standard of some sort for those who followed. Rolling her eyes heavenward as she ticked off the names of politicians who’d ticked her off, she’d heave a great sigh and remind us: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
More recently, several of us were sitting in a restaurant when another friend began fussing at the sight of some scantily-clad young lovelies lounging at the bar. “Who let them out of the house looking like that?” she said. “I don’t know,” said another. “Who let us out of the house with our skirt waistbands rolled up and our bobby sox rolled down?” We grinned at one another, and it occurred to me to think again, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Unfortunately, when Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr introduced the now-familiar epigram into his satirical journal Les Guêpes in 1849, he neglected to include its natural corollary. Sometimes, the more things change, the more things change. There’s nothing we can do about it, and nothing ever will be the same again. Nowhere is that reality more visible than at holiday-time.
During this first Christmas season since my mother’s death, I was tempted by three common options available to anyone faced with radical and irreversible change. I could pretend nothing had changed. I could try to re-create the past, or I could denigrate the life we’d shared, asserting against all reason it had no value and wasn’t worth remembering.
None of those options seemed desirable – or even feasible – as another friend and I talked over our situation. With no family of her own, Carolyn had spent many years at our holiday table and her own Christmas celebrations had been equally disrupted by Mom’s death.
We needed a fourth option.
In the week before Christmas, I discovered that fourth option. Browsing online for information about piñon, one thing led to another until I found myself reading about traditional bonfires in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Since the 1800s, huge Christmas Eve bonfires have burned along the Mississippi River levee in towns like Lutcher, Vacherie and Gramercy, guiding Papa Noël to the bayous – sometimes a hundred fires, sometimes more.
Bonfires? I thought. On Christmas Eve? On the levees? I’d never heard of such a thing. I looked at a map. I browsed some articles. I picked up the phone and called Carolyn. “Listen,” I said. “we can sit home this Christmas and stare at each other, or we can head over to Cajun country and enjoy the bonfires.” “What bonfires?”, she asked. “Never mind,” I said. “I’ll explain later.”
Within an hour, plans were made. I called Breaux Bridge, to see if a room might be available at my favorite old City Hotel, now Bayou Teche bed and breakfast. Mary Lynn’s laughter rippled all the way back to Texas. “What kind of question is that? Of course there’s room at the inn. Even if there weren’t, you could stay in the shed with the pirogue!”
At that point, I would have settled for a shed with a pirogue. Sometimes the only good answer for too much change is a little more change, and a Cajun Christmas sounded exactly right. We left early, on the morning of the 23rd.
One of the joys of traveling light – without much luggage and with no expectations – is that you can turn on a dime, and retrace your steps.
Just as we pulled into the driveway at Bayou Teche, my cell phone rang. It was Mary Lynn, our weekend hostess and social planner extraordinaire. She came straight to the point. “What are you doing tonight? Surely you don’t have plans?” “No,” I said. “We don’t have plans. We’re barely out of the car.” “Good,” she said. “Get unpacked, freshen up and be ready to leave at 4:30. You’ll follow me to the bank, and then I’ll lead you over to Lafayette – we’ll take the back way, so you miss the shopping center.”
“That sounds fine,” I said, “but we just came through Lafayette. Why are we going back?” The woman with an answer for everything had an answer. “This is the last night for Noël Acadien,” she said, “and I’ve got tickets for you.”
I’d not heard of Noël Acadien any more than I’d heard of the bonfires, but one thing I’ve learned is never to question Mary Lynn. She arrived to explain that Lafayette’s Acadian Village decorates every Christmas with a half-million Christmas lights and everyone goes to see them. She gave us a map so we could find our way home after we’d enjoyed the attraction, and a suggested itinerary for the rest of the evening: we should come back, dine at Café Des Amis and then head straight to La Pousierre, where Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys were holding court.
Galveston’s Moody Gardens may have a million lights, three pyramids and a full-sized paddle-wheeler in their holiday display, but Noël Acadien had bon temps, and they were rouler-ing.The bayou-and-swamp emphasis was everywhere, with lighted alligators, frogs, woodpeckers and pelicans – not to mention a farmer chasing a rabbit from his garden with a hoe and Santa in a pirogue pulled by a set of truly fine gators.
After an hour or so of looking, we headed back to Breaux Bridge, ready for dinner. Main street shops were staying open late; the smell of gumbo and sounds of Zydeco filled the air. Ironically, we couldn’t find anyone at Café Des Amis able to tell us what a pousse café might be, even though we assured them it was Cajun enough for the iconic Clifton Chenier to have composed a waltz about the drink some call the apex of the bartender’s art.
Chagrined by their lack of drink knowledge, our servers shared a little information about one of our best discoveries of the trip: Gâteau de Sirop, or Syrup Cake. While they wouldn’t turn loose of the actual recipe used at Café Des Amis, they agreed with what seems to be a consensus that Steen’s Syrup, and Steen’s alone, should be used in a proper cake.
Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup, first produced in Abbeville, Louisiana in 1910, is the only U.S. cane syrup still manufactured today and is recognized by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste as an endangered regional food product. Use a different syrup and you may have a fine cake, but you’ll not have Cajun Gâteau de Sirop. (As luck would have it, in 2009 “Marcelle” managed to twist the arm of Dickie Breaux, owner of Café Des Amis, who gave up the recipe. It was published in the Times-Picayune, and as soon as I lay my hands on some Steen’s Syrup, I’ll be busy in the kitchen.)
Friday evening, as we dallied over our Gâteau de Sirop and coffee, a fellow diner mentioned we should be sure to watch for cane wagons and mills on our next day’s drive. The sugar cane harvest is winding down, but there’s still activity in the area, and a working sugar mill is hard to miss. Great, rising clouds of steam can be seen for miles, and trucks piled high with raw cane are everywhere.
This year, there are smiles, too. Kenneth Gravois, a sugar-cane specialist with the LSU AgCenter says while the total tonnage of cane harvested per acre will be somewhat average, weather conditions combined to produce a high-quality crop. He estimates an increase to 230 pounds of sugar per ton of cane in 2011, compared with last year’s production of 226 pounds per ton.
Just as we were finishing our second cup of coffee, Mary Lynn breezed in and proceeded to give us a tutorial in Zydeco Breakfast 101. The staff already was moving back tables to create a dance floor – in only hours, Café Des Amis would be filled again with patrons, eating, dancing and celebrating life in a weekly ritual that pulls folks from Houston and New Orleans just for the pleasure of it all.
As we left the café, Mary Lynn made sure we understood the cardinal rules – Be there very early, start with beignets and don’t order until the music starts so you can keep your table! – and then left us to our own devices.
Not quite willing to take on La Poussiere at such a late hour, we headed home, and burst into giggles when we found our first gift from Tee Jules’ Cajun Twelve Days of Christmas. True, it wasn’t snuggled into a fig tree, but there it was – a crawfish in a Christmas tree.
Little did we know the next day would bring shrimp, poule d’eau , cypress knees, Fleurs de lis, oysters and crabs, a clue to a marvelous pirogue story (if not the paddles), a few decorative duck decoys and some (presumed) shotgun shells in the back of a hunter’s truck.
And we still hadn’t gotten to the bonfires.
(to be continued…)