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Down the Bayou

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Down the Bayou
Written by Rien Fertel | Photography by Denny Culbert

Two friends take on Louisiana’s Teche Scenic Byway

All South Louisiana road trips should begin with boudin. There’s something about taking a steering-wheel grip to a long, curved link of the Cajun delicacy; the promise of hot pork, rice, and spice pulsating in your hands; the snapping of the sausage in two, forcing the link’s thin casing to audibly crack like the starting pistol at a race.

Picnic on the Bayou; boudin, cracklins, and jalapeño sausage cheese bread.

And so it went with this day’s planned journey: a half-dozen starter links (and a brown paper bag full of cracklins) from Bourque’s Super Store in Port Barre, a nondescript speed trap of a town on the northeast frontier of Acadiana, the state’s Cajun epicenter. Directly behind Bourque’s flows the reason and route for this road trip. The Bayou Teche proceeds from Port Barre, where it branches from the Bayou Courtableau, in a south by southeasterly direction to Patterson, 125 meandering miles downstream. The Teche (pronounced ‘tesh’) is the aorta of the Cajun heartland, a navigable bayou with a culture and history as rich as its muddy tint.

My friend and frequent travel companion Denny Culbert at the wheel, we set off on a frigid December morning down the Bayou Teche Scenic Byway, a series of two-lane highways that follow the waterway’s every curve and contour. Though both of us have lived, at different points in our lives, in close proximity to the Teche, neither of us had taken this drive. We would discover by tour’s end that the bayou provides much more than a string of Cajun-centric highlights; it offers a scaled-down version of South Louisiana in total. Crossing shores at the town of Leonville, we followed Highway 31 south, steering our way around the bayou’s famed oxbows. In his recent Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou, an indispensable guide to understanding and navigating this route, Shane K. Bernard writes that the most common etymological explanation is that the name Teche derives from a local American aboriginal, or Chitimachan, word for snake. Following the bayou’s sinuous course, we passed horizon-stretching pastures of freshly baled hay, which, from afar, looked like slices of rolled cake fit for a giant. A man stooped to fill a bag with the fallen fruit of a scraggle of autumn-wasted pecan trees that lined the banks of the Teche. Tin-roofed homes and barns turned to rust. Here, the bayou looked narrow enough that you could throw a link of boudin to a friend on the opposite bank.

Bayou Teche in Port Barre

The remainder of the links, we decided, would make a warm gift to the good people at Bayou Teche Brewing, where brewmaster Karlos Knott greeted us with tasters of his latest brews, a rye-bitten dobbel and a tropical fruit-tinged ale. When paired, they provided the perfect yin and yang for holiday mood-setting. A leader in Louisiana’s craft beer boom, he opened his brewery along the bayou’s east bank with his two brothers seven years ago. It was a different scene then, Knott said, when dead animals, rusted automobiles, and other refuse filled the bayou. “Everybody grew trees [along its banks] so you couldn’t see the Teche.”

Fried shrimp po' boy

The bayou had been a dumping ground for nearly a century, beginning soon after the lumber mills ran out of lumber and the steamboats that once ferried timber and pleasure seekers up and down the waterway were gradually replaced by the railroad and, later, the highway. “The Teche is the Past in Louisiana,” Harnett T. Kane, an early bard of the state, proclaimed back in 1943. “It has seen and heard excitements. [But] has settled down to a period of serene rest.” And trash wasn’t the only problem: invasive species, most notably the water hyacinth, clogged the bayou (one local congressman suggested filling the Teche with hyacinth-hungry hippopotamuses to curb the problem). But over the past decade a trio of nonprofits—the TECHE Project, Cajuns for Bayou Teche, and the Tour du Teche—have endeavored to create a healthier, sustainable, and navigable watercourse, inspiring the Knotts, among others, to embrace the bayou. There’s a new taproom, dancehall, and floating dock with room for a half-dozen Bayou Teche paddlers to tie up ship. While inside the ever-expanding warehouse of a brewery, the tanks are named after each of the towns that dot the Teche. It looked like they were running out of names, which I took as a sign that business was good.

Crawfish Central

Bon Creole in New Iberia

Just across a nearby bridge, wedged into the gap where Bayou Fusilier pours into the Teche, sits Arnaudville. An otherwise undistinguished town of just over 1,000 residents, Arnaudville has recently reinvented itself as a culture and arts hub: a “Cajun Marfa,” in the words of Denny. New restaurants, like the Little Big Cup and the Silver Slipper Cajun Hibachi Grill, fuse, twist, and brunchify Cajun classics into knots. And there are enough private, short-term rentals to house every artist, writer, and big-city escapee roaming this side of the Mississippi.

Stuffed turkey wing and smothered shrimp and okra with sides at Glenda's Creole Kitchen

I was skeptical about the town’s aspirations until we pulled into the Nunu Collective, a full-time atelier and part-time supper club, yoga studio, music venue, bookstore, conscious-living exposition host, and French language and cultural immersion program. Each project is the waking dream of native son George Marks, who started Nunu a decade ago as a community gathering spot governed by three rules: no gossip, no politics, and no religion. I can’t say much about the last two subjects, but the quintet of women who sat around a quilt, stitching decorative loops into the blanket’s blue underlay, were most definitely sharing a bit of local chatter. They insisted we help ourselves to hot coffee and homemade shortbread while we perused the gallery’s collection of paintings and woodwork. I’d learn to take up needle and thread for the promise of more coffee, cookies, and gossipy company here.

We continued down the Teche’s west bank where crawfish ponds dot the landscape, an indication that we were nearing Breaux Bridge, the self-proclaimed “Crawfish Capital of the World,” as well as a popular destination for antique shoppers. On the northern outskirts, we pulled up to Glenda’s Creole Kitchen and its steam table buffet of lunch specials: catfish courtbouillon, smothered pork steak, crawfish étouffée. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off the smothered okra: gorgeously glutinous, bursting with crabmeat and shrimp, and served over a mound of Louisiana long-grain rice. For extra measure, we ordered a stuffed turkey wing—prodigious and peppery—thrown atop. It was the ultimate exercise in the region’s prowess for culinary excess.

We found the eternal flame dedicated to the exiled Acadians, extinguished. It was a vivid and heartbreaking reminder of the fragility of living contiguously to the Gulf coast.

Down we drove, stopping in the historic town of St. Martinville, where the bayou rolls at twice its original width and sugarcane is king. Home to the Acadiana’s oldest Catholic church—an imposing, gold-colored structure that nearly abuts the bayou— St. Martinville was once known as “Petit Paris” in the 1800s, back when there was an opera house and thriving hotel trade. Today, this small city (population 6,000) is home to the Evangeline Oak, the mythic meeting spot of Evangeline and Gabriel, star-crossed Acadian lovers separated during the French-Catholic exile from modern-day Nova Scotia by the British in 1755. Though the story is pure hogwash—invented by the romantic poet Longfellow, who never stepped foot in Louisiana—the majestic oak has long stood as an icon for the Cajun community, and was once popular enough to bill itself as the “Most Photographed Tree in the World.”

Rows of sugar cane

Adjacent to the old oak sits a pair of institutions dedicated to exploring the lives of the peoples who made the Teche so culturally vibrant: the Museum of the Acadian Memorial and the African American Museum. Both were closed for repair, victims of the historic flooding that struck the state this past August, when twenty-plus inches of rainfall caused area waterways, including the Bayou Teche, to overspill their banks. Behind the Acadian Museum, within steps of the bayou, we found the eternal flame dedicated to the exiled Acadians, extinguished. It was a vivid and heartbreaking reminder of the fragility of living contiguously to the Gulf coast. But carved into the flame’s granite pedestal, an inscription provided a glimmer of hope: “Un peuple sans passé est un peuple sans futur”—a people without a past are a people without a future.

Thankfully, the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia, nicknamed the “Queen City of the Teche,” was spared from flooding. The museum ably traces the region’s history from the pre-contact Chitimachas to Cajuns, Creoles, and beyond. A special exhibit featured the exotica-tinged paintings of bayous, birds, and bunnies by Hunt Slonem, who lives part-time in a plantation just down the bayou (in 2017 the museum will honor the life and career of local icon George Rodrigue, of Blue Dog fame). A pair of outstanding permanent exhibitions highlighted the trinity of industries that have kept the Bayou Teche afloat: seafood, salt, and sugar. The bayou’s midway point, New Iberia, is also a wonderful place for a second lunch. The thirty-five-year-old lunch spot Bon Creole offered up a seafood bounty, which we sprawled along the mirror-lined lunch counter: a dark-rouxed gumbo brimming with Gulf delights, and an overstuffed fried shrimp po’ boy.

Big Sugar

Buried beneath a series of domes—including the most famous, Avery Island, which gave the world Tabasco brand pepper sauce—the local salt trade is more difficult to experience than the fruit of Louisiana’s waters. But there is no escaping the gravitational orbit of big sugar, especially in the autumnal and winter months when the cane fields that line the Teche from top to bottom—in addition to corners of Acadiana further afield—are burned before harvesting, ridding the stalks of their sugarless leafy material and leaving local highways under a dense haze of mildly acidic, grassy-scented smoke. It’s a yearly signal that sugar ain’t always so sweet.

LeJeune's Bakery

Trailers haul the harvested stalks, twenty tons per load, to one of eleven area sugar mills that process stalk-squeezed saccharine juice into raw sugar and molasses. On the border of Franklin, the Teche’s third great historic town, we ran smack into the Sterling Sugars factory. Built in 1890 and capable of churning out 1.2 million tons of sugar annually, this behemoth of a mill, spitting tremendous

Crabs at Boiling Madd in Patterson

plumes from a chain of towering smokestacks, looked like an armored dragon risen from the murky depths to alight on the bayou’s right bank. Sterling and the other mills we stumbled upon that day were simultaneously frightening and fascinating. In an era when the only factories we frequent are converted condominiums and shopping malls, it was compelling to watch American industry darken a clear blue sky.

With the sun drooping fast, we rounded the contours of the Lower Teche, stopping only in Jeanerette, aka “Sugar City,” for a ginger cake from the 132-year-old LeJeune’s Bakery. (I returned the next day for a cappuccino from Cooper Street Coffee, the only place along the Bayou Byway to score a proper cup of coffee.) Except for a short detour to bypass the Cypress Bayou Casino complex, our path steadily traced a trail that kept the bayou, or its tree line, within sight.

It was dark by the time we reached the Teche’s terminus, where it merges with the Lower Atchafalaya River near Patterson. Near the bayou’s mouth, we found Boiling Madd, a simple seafood joint where we expected to dine on the first of the season’s crawfish catch. But the cold snap had driven the crustaceans back into the mud, and we had to settle for crabs. They arrived six to a platter, huge-to-bursting with sweet meat and spice. I was happy to have settled.

As I sucked the meat from the shells, I considered the alternative path from that breakfast boudin to these boiled crabs. A drive down four-lane Highway 90, rather than the serpentine route we took, would have brought us here in ninety minutes. But then I wouldn’t have spotted the charmingly-named Cornerstone Cowboy Church in New Iberia. I wouldn’t have caught the iconic, century-old lampposts that line Franklin’s Main Street pop awake as dusk settled over the town. I would have missed the way sunlight turns sugarcane into golden-tipped spears, and the hundreds of spider-armed oak trees swaying with a thousand ZZ Top beards made from Spanish moss, and the mystery of what lies beyond the next bend in the bayou.