It’s Saturday morning at Café des Amis in Breaux Bridges, Louisiana. Steaming hot beignets, reminiscent of funnel cakes, are served up on the tables. Zydeco music is blaring, tapped out by a Cajun band strumming a tin frottoir. The dance floor is jammed with people two-stepping. Twirling and whirling, the couples dance the morning away. The closest big city is Lafayette.
Zydeco means snapped beans. It comes from the French word “haricot” or “green bean.” The rhythms are infectious.
Men are wearing cowboy hats, berets and ball caps pointed backwards. Graffiti covers the posts on the walls. This is Louisiana, recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The Big Easy is bouncing back. The Louisiana Superdome is scheduled to reopen on September 25 for Monday Night Football. Nearly all major attractions in the city, including the Harrah’s Casino, the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium and IMAX theatre, nightclubs and music venues are open.
With 700,000 revelers, the 150th Mardi Gras, held in February, was a success.
Yet, sobering signs of the devastation remain. In my five-day trip through Louisiana, I traveled from Shreveport to New Orleans, sampling what the state has to offer. The aftershock of the hurricane is seen in places like St. Bernard’s parish on the outskirts of New Orleans where 25,000 homes were lost. Rows of abandoned houses remain boarded-up, with caved-in roofs and uprooted trees in the front yard. Real estate agents are selling pre-fab homes called “Katrina cottages.”
Local elected officials showed us videos of swirling roof-high water. The stories are shocking. Two tidal waves converged, creating a whirlpool. Water was running 50-feet high down the roads. Many flooded homes were abandoned, because of deadly black mold.
Shreveport and Its Gambling Scene
We started our trip at the gaming tables in Shreveport, at the glamorous and glitzy Eldorado Casino. Unscathed by Katrina, the gambling goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They don’t shut down for nothing,” says the bartender. The Eldorado is one of five casinos in Shreveport-Bossier. At 10 a.m., bow tied croupiers stand ready at the blackjack table. Gamblers, smoking cigarettes, are glued to the computerized slot machines, the new version of the one-armed bandits. Armed guards patrol the floor. Live bands play every night. This riverfront casino looks like Las Vegas. The hotel rooms have a panoramic view of the river.
Just across town in the West Edge district, the Eveready Gospel Singers are belting out a four-part harmony a capella at Artspace
The quartet is singing Little David Play on Your Harp. Back in the 1950s, the group recorded on the OK and Peacock labels, when they still had 45s. Opened two years ago in an old Montgomery Ward department store, Artspace is Shreveport’s first arts center dedicated to the all the art disciplines for multigenerational audiences.
During Hurricane Katrina and Rita, Artspace staff went into the shelters to work with homeless children. Their August 25 art exhibit is entitled Faces of Katrina, with photographs of hurricane evacuees and volunteers.
On the multicultural tour of Shreveport, another important stop is the Southern University Museum of African American Art, featuring more than 300 original pieces. Not far away, the Multicultural Center of the South, open only one year, explores the history and heritage of the residents of Shreveport, Bossier City and the surrounding area. With four floors of rooms dedicated to 26 different cultures, the federally-funded $2 million museum is worth about an hour’s visit, including the demonstration of Japanese hand dancing. Admission is $3.
Everyone in Shreveport is anxious to point out that the city is becoming a moviemaking center. Star Kevin Costner recently had a concert here. Shreveport is also the cradle of country music and several stars got their start here.
In that vein, don’t miss the tour of the Stage of Stars Museum, capturing the history and era of the famous Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast from the 1950s. Led by Johnny Wessler, the fast-talking director of the museum, it’s one of the off-the-beaten-path places you might normally skip, but shouldn’t. Young Elvis Presley started his career here at age 18, performing for 18 months straight. George Jones, Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash also began here.
You can see Presley’s original dressing room, with a great display of Elvis paraphernalia. Rumor has it that the performer’s ghosts still haunt the place, as evidence of the paranormal pops up occasionally. Five movies were also filmed here. The little gift shop is cute. At only $2 per tour, it’s a bargain.
We ended our Shreveport day at the down-home Pete Harris Restaurant, only the second African-American restaurant in town. Many political and African-American luminaries have dined here, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson (who ordered red beans and sausage) and 2004 Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards (red beans and ham hocks!).
Cane River National Historic Park
Traveling south on U.S. Route 49 from Shreveport, we hit Natchitoches, the oldest city in Louisiana. The major attraction in the area is the 116,000-acre Cane River National Heritage Area. Established by an act of the United States Congress in 1994, it is a large rural agricultural landscape known for its historic plantations, Creole architecture and multi-cultural legacy.
“We have become the national voice for Creole culture,” explained Jeannette Colson, assistant director of Cane River. The campus seeks to preserve the living culture of the region, with displays about plantation agriculture. Set aside an entire day to sightsee here. The complex includes the national park, three state parks and seven National Historic Landmarks.
Originally called Yucca Plantation, the landscape is picturesque. The houses are constructed of bossiage (mud, deer hair and Spanish moss). Mattresses are stuffed with Spanish moss. Cane River was originally settled by French and Spanish colonial traders.
The original owner of the Heritage area was Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme, who began farming the area in 1785 and received a Spanish land grant in 1789. Eight generations of his French Creole family lived and worked on this land. The plantation’s first crops were tobacco and indigo, followed by cotton. There are more than 19 separate buildings on the plantation tour.
Audubon Zoo and Voodoo Museum
Entering New Orleans, the Audubon Zoo is an attraction which rivals the National Zoo in Washington, DC.
The reptile exhibit is particularly original and fun. With more than 1,800 animals, Audubon is a top-ranked zoo. There are kangaroos from Australia, llamas from South America and zebras from Africa. We visited on the day of Soul Fest, a celebration of African-American food, music, crafts and culture.
For a lesser-known attraction, check out the Back Street Cultural Museum, near the St. Augustine Catholic Church. This is an eccentric little museum, with only three rooms of exhibits celebrating Mardi Gras and voodoo. The masks are wonderful, as are the exhibits of carnival costumes, dating back 150 years.
New Orleans Restaurants Shine
In the French Quarter, nightlife is hopping. We checked into the Chateau Sonesta Hotel, a sleek boutique hotel with tasteful décor and excellent service. The rooms have 12-foot ceilings and views of the French Quarter.
Our first restaurant stop was Brennan’s at 417 Royal Street, a New Orleans legend. This third-generation family restaurant was closed until June, because of hurricane damage. The building has a rich history as it was the former secret hangout of Pirate Jean Lafitte.
In 1943, Owen Edward Brennan, the “Happy Irishman of the French Quarter,” bought the building and transformed it. Hollywood stars like Vivian Leigh, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell and Gary Cooper frequented Brennan’s.
Well known for its French and Creole dishes, Brennan’s invented two New Orleans delicacies – Eggs Hussard and Bananas Foster. (Flamed at tableside, Bananas Foster makes a dramatic display. The dish was named after Brennan’s friend, Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. Brennan’s goes through 35,000 pounds of bananas every year.)
The building features 12 dining rooms. Diners look out onto an elegant patio with magnolia trees and a fountain. We started our meal with a Brandy Milk Punch. The service was flawless. Brennan’s is an elegant choice for brunch. It is not unusual for the restaurant to have 1,500 guests at breakfast.
On our second evening we dined at the Upperline Restaurant in the Garden Quarter. Modern dining critics would probably describe its cuisine as “fusion.” The menu features Southern items like Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Remoulade and Upperline Pecan Pie. You can also feel the Creole influence with items like Spicy Crisp Oysters St. Claude and Duck and Andouille Gumbo. My favorite was the Cane River Country Shrimp (sautéed shrimp, mushroom, bacon and garlic over crispy grits).
“Like Proust, you can remember the past through a dish which evokes the aromas and tastes of your past,” explains owner JoAnn Clevenger.
Clevenger has decorated the space with local original art. Seating about 25 people, it’s a good place for an intimate evening. The Upperline has a $38.50 three-course tasting menu, which gives you a chance to sample all the courses.
While three Downtown hotels remain closed for hurricane renovation, the overall word on New Orleans and Louisiana is encouraging. New Orleans and its French Quarter have all the charm they always did. And Mardi Gras is set for February 20, 2007.
After recovery from Katrina, the state is once again welcoming visitors with open arms. Laissez les bon temps rouler.
If You’re Going
Eldorado Casino Resort Shreveport
Café des Amis
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
Artspace at the West Edge
Chateau Sonesta New Orleans
800 Iberville Street
New Orleans, LA
504-586-0800 or www.sonesta.com
The Upperline Restaurant
1413 Upperline Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
504-891-9822 or www.upperline.com
417 Royal Street
New Orleans, Lousiana
504-525-9711 or www.brennansneworleans.com
New Orleans, Lousiana
Arnaudville Arts Community
337-754-9898 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cane River Creole National Historic Park
Stage of Stars Museum
A Cajun/Creole Heritage and Folklife Park
Editor’s Note: Images by Susan Scott Schmidt and Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau.
By Susan Scott Schmidt