Monday, May 30, 2011

Ode to the Crawfish Boil

I can't put my finger on precisely what it is. Is it their pint-size cuteness? Their buttery-sweet flesh guarded within mini-lobster-like tails? Or the recklessness of it all, tearing heads from tails, throwing shells askew... In Louisiana, the crawfish boil is one of the many signals of spring turning over to summer.

Picture a sweltering weekend afternoon in Louisiana. Muggy, hot, heavy air. And then picture a backyard, of any size, large folding tables set up banquet style, wrapped in plastic with butcher paper thrown on top. Beers are served generously as people meet and greet, their eyes distracted, wandering frequently over to the corner of the yard, where there sits a large multi-gallon pot being heated by a propane tank with a giant colander fitted inside. Hosts are throwing in ears of corn, potatoes, sausage, lemon halves and spices, on top of heaping piles of boiling, bubbling crawfish. When will it be ready is the question burning on everyone's brain.

The contents of the cauldron are finally removed from the heat by the colander-like apparatus, and poured generously down the length of the tables. Beers are immediately set down, and like ravenous beasts, humans begin tearing crawdad heads off, pinching tails, and sucking down the sweet and spicy flesh of the elusive crustaceon. If done properly, guests are sweating like pigs, their mouths on fire from the heat of both the spices and the flesh.

I love a good crawfish boil.

Like most of the culinary traditions of New Orleans with any merit, the crawfish boil has its roots in Cajun country, where refugees of the British expulsion from Canada eventually settled. When first granted asylum by the King of Spain in the 1700's in Louisiana, the Acadians first passed through the big easy, where they were treated with disdain by the French aristocracy who already called New Orleans their home. They made their way westward, deeper within the sleepy swamps of Southern Louisiana along the Mississippi, settling in what is now ubiquitously known as Acadiana, or Cajun Country. Acadians, eventually referred to as Cajuns, thrived in the fertile swamp, taking advantage of everything native including the crustaceons. At the heart of Acadiana is the one million acres of the Atchafalaya Basin, which is today the largest crawfish reserve, and as I write these words, its multi-generational human inhabitants have relocated due to the opening of the floodgates of the Mississippi River by the federal government.

As a people with an agrarian heritage, the Cajuns also learned to farm crawfish in rice fields left to fallow. A drive through Acadiana is notable for the flat plains filled with rice, which alternatively serve as crawfish hatcheries, enabling a longer season for crawfish by two months. Farm-raised crawfish harvest can begin in December and end in July.

The music, food and culture of the Acadian people remains resilient, and a source of pride for many Louisianans, not only in Cajun strongholds like Beaux Bridge and Lafayette, but also back into New Orleans. Typically a weekend family tradition, it has also been adopted as the perfect summer kick-off, battling the barbecue for 1st place in the hearts of Louisianans.

So, while you can pick up a batch of crawfish in plenty of bars and restaurants, the traditional crawfish boils are the privilege of those who've stayed in town long enough to have some roots with the denizens of this fine town. Having moved here last June, it wasn't until April 2011 that I experienced my first, and haven't stopped since then, counting five already this season.

The Almighty Crawfish Boil is a visceral experience. Standing in the swampy heat, all you can breathe are the fragrances of the mudbug and the spice bath. You perch yourself in a spot amongst friends old and new, all of whom, like you, are focusing all energies on the task at hand: how to extract that tail from the shell with ease and efficiency. There is invariably music in the background, dipping sauces, chunks of potatoes and sausage. You eat with your hands and blow your nose on paper towels to cool down. And if you're like me, you suck the spicy juices from the crawfish heads like a character in a science fiction movie, or just a normal Asian. There is nothing but hollow shells left on the butcher paper, empty beer cans are askew, rinds of lemons.

So trust me on this one: If you find that even after a thorough washing, your hands hold a crawfish fragrance, your mouth is on fire, and sinuses are cleared, consider yourself lucky because these are all signs of a good day at a crawfish boil.

Backyard boils. The ultimate crawfish boil occurs in the backyard. If you can, get yourself invited to one; If you're especially lucky, go to a hipster crawfish boil, so that you can elbow hip vegetarians out of the way and have more goods for yourself.

Restaurant if you must. If you find yourself anywhere near Lafayette, try Hawk's, a family establishment nestled in the middle of a family-owned rice farm and crawfish field. It's about a half hour drive out of Lafayette, but these giant mudbugs are worth the distance.

Local bars. Any bar with seafood in New Orleans should be able to throw a crawdad your way, but local corner bars will have a traditional boil once a week in any of the less polished neighborhoods (think Central City, Mid-City, Seventh Ward, etc.).

Bonne chance and bon apetit!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Love at the Lakeview

"It is always in the midst, in the epicenter, of your troubles that you find serenity."
--Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

All these years of love found and love lost, yet the secret to getting over heartache in an expeditious manner still eludes me. In my childhood I once had a dog, Brandy, intelligent in many ways, yet with a pathological habit of running full-speed into a sliding glass door, even after we put stickers on it. Stunned, surprisingly surprised, a little dizzy. That was Brandy and that's me after a heartbreak.

It's that frustrating feeling after a 20 minute conversation in which decisions are made and all of a sudden, a person who has made you feel incredibly special for a couple months, will probably never make you feel special ever again, despite well-intentioned but unrealistic promises to keep in touch and remain friends. It was an amicable separation of ways for the most logical and foreseeable of reasons, yet still I am left feeling a bit bruised up and gloomy. It's that kind of gloom that a hundred sit-ups, biking 10 miles, and running three miles every day for a week in 90 degree heat can't do much for. That kind of gloom you don't feel like talking about, except for once, with a good friend, for barely half an hour, your eyes brimming with tears. That kind of gloom that really is not curable by anything but time. That was my fate this last week.

So I decided to do what I do best; I decided to go traveling. Survival instincts dictated that I get out of my house this weekend to fill my time with music, people, food, beer--anything but my own thoughts. Recruiting Milo-dog and my friend Clancy, we load a small truck and head to Lafayette to reconnect with a couple friends, a couple acquaintances, and a cousin. Once there, I manage to book a schedule full of social engagements, doing everything I can to mask my poor spirits, with some amount of nominal success. I even manage a little laughter, but still the risk of debilitating gloom pervades.

Eventually it is the Lakeview that rescues me from myself. A tent and RV site with a handful of simple cabins tucked away in the outskirts of the sleepy town of Eunice, the Lakeview Park and Beach is set against a small lake and a swarth of canopy-forming trees, somewhere deep within the rice and crawfish fields of Louisiana. At the campground there is a primitive pole barn, and an old dance hall moved to the site in the 1970's, but dating decades earlier. While the dance hall itself stands impossibly and lovingly in disrepair, the family-proprietors have transformed the pole barn to host live zydeco and cajun bands on the weekends.

I had been there but once before, about nine months earlier, the day after the Blackpot Festival. I was with a gaggle of old musician friends from Alaska, and had fond memories that spanned many hours into the morning. With safety in numbers, we were a strangely compatible mix with the local high-caliber Cajun musicians who played that night. I had not been back since then, and this time around I am equipped with only my New Orleans Clancy, who knows nothing of the place or the people. With some amount of trepidation but little to lose, I decide to return for a Pine Leaf Boys performance.

The barn is small but spacious, with plywood floors and high ceilings, fans strapped to joists next to the windows. Like a portal into another era, the thin barn walls seemed almost bursting at the seams with music of a time far past. Accordion, fiddle, bass, and drums, vocals of an oldtime French filled the air. The Pine Leaf Boys dutifully are churning out high-energy Cajun tunes and couples are dancing the Cajun two-step in a circular conformation. At one point, the twenty-something-year-old band members bring up a 92 year-old Cajun gentlemen who croons with a volume and vivacity giving no indication of his age. There is no mistake that I am in Cajun country.

Nothing had changed at the Lakeview Barn since last I was there, or probably since it was built. I grab a couple $1 dollar beers and recognize some familiar faces, the first of which was Toby, one of the family owner-operators. Back in October Toby had concocted an enormous pot of steaming, freshly made Cajun-style gumbo at 4 am that saved my life. Unsure if he would remember me, I felt an urge to say hello and thank him for that fond memory. Toby greets me as if I were an old friend, recalling details of our conversation of over half a year ago. He shares with me and Clancy his new theory that the affinity between Cajuns and Alaskans is derived in the comparable hostility of the respective terrains, and with peels of laughter, we all concur.

I dance the Cajun two-step. I chat with a banjo-playing woman I had met through work. I greet Grammy-nominated acquaintance musicians who receive me with a type of warmth that can only be sincere. Outside I look for Clancy who also is heavily engrossed in friendly conversation with more Grammy-nominated Cajun musicians who had enthusiastically initiated conversation with this newcomer into their close-knit musician circle. Without a hint of snobbery or irony, they tell me that their names are Philippe, Jacques, Cedric...We all talk about music, learning new instruments, learning new genres, Lafayette, New Orleans, Alaska, anything and everything.

Eventually Clancy and I are driven out by a torrent of mosquitoes that I am convinced have racially profiled me for a concerted attack. After a warm parting of ways from all the kind folk with whom we have exchanged conversation, Clancy and I drive back to my cousin's air-conditioned apartment. The past three hours have provided me the much deserved respite from my mind's current state, and for once this week, I fall asleep easily, with only Milo-dog by my side.

After enjoying a traditional Sunday crawfish boil with my cousin's gregarious and welcoming Cajun in-laws, we head back to New Orleans. In the car I remember that I have one less person to tell about my weekend. I am saddened by this still, but now I am also grateful. There is always love at the Lakeview for just about anyone, and I can go back for more whenever I please.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mississippi Rising

Finally, the water covered even the highest mountains on the earth, standing more than twenty-two feet above the highest peaks. All the living things on earth died – birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all kinds of small animals, and all the people. Everything died that breathed and lived on dry land. Every living thing on the earth was wiped out – people, animals both large and small, and birds. They were all destroyed, and only Noah was left alive, along with those who were with him in the boat.

-- Genesis 7:19-23

The thought of flood terrifies me. But given its prominent role in the Bible, I don't think I'm the only one. Perhaps it is the image of homes and pets and people people brushed away in one fell swoop like a bread crumbs being dusted off a table. Perhaps it is the thought of death by drowning. The images of flood by tsunami, that which was recently faced by the Japanese just months ago, a tiny island of a country, with little room for refuge from the waters. The images of the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, with 100 feet waves, and the death of 170,000 people. Villagers, running to the tops of mountains, to no avail. And, New Orleans, after Katrina broke, stragglers fighting for dear life to break a hole through their roofs as the water closed in on their homes, filling them like fish tanks with lids sealed on. Of those who didn't evacuate either to the Superdome or out of New Orleans, the lucky ones waited on their roofs for days in the blistering sun and sweltering heat, leaving the corpses elderly and the weak inside.

So, yes, you can say I find floods terrifying.

One can live a life in New Orleans and never see the Mississippi unless you want to. You can see the beautiful, oak-lined trees of St. Charles, the charming buildings of the French Quarter, the street car buzzing by your house, without seeing a riverbank. So it wasn't until I took the Milo-dog for a run on the levee did I see the water that has been rising for the past week. Where it normally is at least a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River Trail, it was now less than twenty feet from our paws.

There are spectators today. There are also fishermen casting their lines from the bike path, hundreds of feet closer to the city than usual. College students are wearing sun hats, sipping their daiquiris as if they are sitting on an oceanside boardwalk. There is no indication on their faces that this is abnormal. There is no visible concern that the Morganza spillway floodgates have been opened up the second time in decades to relieve the water pressure of the mighty Missippi, yet still the Mississippi climbs higher and higher up the levee. There is no visible concern that there are levee police driving by constantly, inspecting for sand boils along the natural land levee where water may be surging through.

I on the other hand, calmly head back to the apartment and immediately make an evacuation plan, a list of provisions, and send out inquiries to friends who might house me and my pets on my flight away from disaster. I pick up gallons of bottled water and dozens of protein bars. In the past 15 years I've lived in Budapest, Hanoi, New York City, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Anchorage. But this is the first time I've ever prepared to evacuate my home as an adult. While I love the laid-back culture of the Big Easy, I am not so easy about this flooding issue. Maybe it's the Vietnamese deep within me bubbling to the surface, preparing for the worst. I like to think that this is a healthy instinct. Either way, there's nothing wrong with planning for what mother earth has in store for us.

The proximity to nature can be a frightening one if you forget about it. I recall an incident in my childhood in Orange County, when it was still filled with orange groves, decades before it became the overpriced tract-home spectacle, subject of cheesy melodramas on network television. As a child my sister, our neighborhood friends, and I would run wild through orchards of oranges, down into empty stone quarries, throw stones in the water, harass chickens and roosters cooped up in pens. And every fall, came the hot winds from the desert, the Santa Ana winds, rolling into town with dust and dryness, sparking wildfires amongst the suburban homes cusping the border of nature in the foothills of brush-covered hills. One of those autumns my parents calmly kept the radio on for an entire two days. My father hosed down our wooden shingle roof, and my mother packed a small suitcase for each child with only the bare necessities. They made reservations for a hotel, and my father stayed up all night, awaiting city order to evacuate.

I also recall the sound of night, sometimes filled with shrieking howling of bands of coyotes, not far in the distance, taking with them a small poodle or other pet into the untouched quarry. Tales of attacks of small children proliferated the neighborhood. It was a time when we still knew our neighbors because there weren't many of them, but enough to call it a true suburb, as if we were no longer part of nature, but instead, part of Los Angeles. And it was a time where the suburban culture Orange County is known for today had not yet accounted for wildfires, landslides, earthquakes, and wildlife that California once was.

Since then I've lived in towns tucked much further into the wilderness than Orange County, California, but for some reason, guarding against bears on a hike or shooing away moose in Anchorage seemed much less daunting then the thought of dodging coyotes in California. Perhaps it was because Anchorage was so apparently wild in comparison. In Anchorage, enormous state parks, hundreds of square miles large, are ubiquitous even within city limits and people occasionally got attacked by both bear and moose. But we knew it. We saw it, from our cabins and apartments and highways. And we knew how to deal with it because we had to everyday. Nature is in your face up in Alaska.

It is only when I forget about the presence of mother earth that I find her the most frightening. When I forget that Orange County was created not long after chaparral wilderness, mountains, and coyotes ruled the roost. When I forget that most of present-day New Orleans was a wild swamp not even 100 years ago. Or when we forget that Japan is not just a forerunner of technological and automotive advancement, but also a tiny island anchored within a powerful, daunting Pacific Ocean. It seems only then, when we forget how little we and all our things are, does the water creep towards us, threatening to put us in our places.

But the power of nature also forces us to take tally of those things most precious to us. My apartment is best described as cheap and cheerful, walls donned with paintings picked up all over the globe, a table I made myself, and various sundry items which are great for conversation but have little extrinsic value. Of my evacuation list, the only things of value that will be packed are a computer, a fiddle, and of course, my pets. In my last three out-of-state moves, these were the same items that held the most value to me in my tangible possession. The rest of my worldly goods, were and are not actually goods. Rather, my family, and my friends were there seeing me off or welcoming me back. Though I'm not thrilled at the thought of evacuation, it's a relief to know that those things I care about the most aren't large pieces of expensive furniture or unwieldy flatscreen tv's--those things of real valuable to me have legs and arms and brains and either need not be saved because they are elsewhere, or can be saved from the impending water with good planning.

My parents' home never burned down from the Santa Ana winds, but long after all the children had moved out and finished college, it was eventually taken from them by a fire caused by old electrical wiring . All told, I think they handled it reasonably well. A Buddhist monk told my mother, "You are so lucky to have those things destroyed. You now have a new beginning, with the weight of all those little things off your back." It was a bit shocking to hear at the time, but I think those well-intentioned words helped my parents get through the gauntlet of rebuilding their lives with less stuff.

Me, well for an ark I have a 1987 Toyota pickup, and for a menagerie I have two cats and a dog. So, if and when Mayor Landrieu makes the call, I shall load the furry beasts, a computer, my fiddle, some clothes, and drive towards those people who care about me and have already told me that they will provide me shelter from the storm.

My appreciation and affection goes out to all those who have called and emailed me in the past few days with concern of my well-being in these water-filled times. I will be fine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alone on a Mountain

I was invited to stay at a house in the mountains, by a man I do not know well, but I like him. And, because I am in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of my New Orleans life, I accepted the offer.

The timing was perfect. Barely a year ago I left behind in Alaska a legal career, replete with hostile colleagues and bosses, for a softer, gentler nonprofit sector in the South, with kinder, less adversarial colleagues and bosses. Yet not even a year in my new job and already I am falling into old habits of overcommitment, unreasonable expectations of myself and others, and working on weekends, ultimately setting myself up for disappointment.

And though I gladly moved to New Orleans from Alaska, I missed the mountains and all the wisdom it has to offer in times of distress.

Six years in Alaska has endowed me with a respect of vastness, the breadth of the mountains, and the clarity that can result from challenging myself with an expanse of primordial rock. The sublime that is experienced at altitude was something I had learned to cherish in those years living in the great land. So, while I was hesitant to strand myself in a new place, relying on the kindness of a virtual stranger, I was confident that the elevation would do me some good and accepted the invitation to stay in the Appalachians.

But I know that the sublime is not always kind. The last time I slept in the woods, I was also with a man, M, my boyfriend at the time. It was in Alaska in November. We had hiked for an hour and a half with 30 lbs packs on our backs and a sled full of firewood which would serve as our only source of heat in the yurt, which was little more than a walled tent we had rented from the state parks recreation system. It was about 10 degrees F, and with every footstep, we collapsed one foot deep into partially packed snow. I was cold and tired and M was restless and impatient as was his modus operandi. As a pretense to go on ahead of me, he told me he would build a fire at the yurt so that I could warm up immediately. I was left alone on the trail, the light fading fast into the dark Alaskan sky. Guided by my piss-poor sense of direction, I missed the fork in the trail. My heart was pounding, the dark and merciless Alaskan cold weighing heavily on my mind. Every muscle in my body ached with pain, yet somehow still operational, running on fumes of fear-laden adrenaline. By the time I finally found the yurt, I added 40 minutes onto my hike and I was exhausted. Upon explaining my misdirection, M laughs at my stupidity. Tears stream down my face and I end the night shivering under three layers of clothing and wrapped in a sleeping bag, curled up on the plywood floor, my head inches away from the wood-burning stove. M is holding me tightly that evening, finally realizing just how far away I was at that moment, after all the countless hikes of being left behind by him. Barely a month later, it was I who left him.

Comparatively, the risks of this Appalachian mountain excursion were minimal. Neither hypothermia nor eternal darkness would be accompanying this late-Spring sojourn to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Instead of a primitive yurt in the woods, I would be staying in the family vacation getaway of a doctor, a librarian and their three over-educated adult sons. And instead of being addled with a dysfunctional relationship that had long exhausted its formerly convenient nature, for a male companion I had A, a quirky academic with urban sensibilities who lived in a different city from me.

When I asked in half-jest whether I would need iodine pills, a sleeping bag, or an emergency camping stove, my companion's email read, "Dear former Alaskan, meet Jewish vacationer." We spent most of the first 24 hours cooking in a kitchen with two sinks and corian countertops, listening to LP's on the record player, or watching movies on the flatscreen, with our feet propped on a glass coffee table as we sipped wine. Instead of the jagged, harsh beauty of the empty Alaskan wilderness, we had a stunning view of rolling hills, blue in color, dotted every so often with homes such as the one we were sitting in.

But by day two, the itch for a good blood-pumping hike finally called. I was flexible, grateful for any amount of elevation after almost of year of living in New Orleans. But it was A who set the agenda for Calloway Peak on Grandfather Mountain, the tallest of the Blue Ridge at almost 6000 feet elevation. From trailhead to peak, we were looking at 2000 feet elevation gain over the span of 4 miles. I knew I would be fine, as would A, with his wide set shoulders, muscular pecs, and tree-trunk legs. But Calloway Peak would be a first for both of us.

I found the hills beautiful. Our stepping stone-laden trail was shaded in conifers and rhodedendrons almost the entire way, and in the air was the unmistakable fragrance of lush foliage, the kind I have only experienced on a mountain. As a surprise to both of us, I was setting the pace, steadily soaking in as much of the perfumed air as my lungs could absorb. There is a smile on my face and after an hour, I stop to enjoy the vista, expecting to find the same smile on my companion.

But his wide-set chest is panting and his face is drenched in sweat. Knowing that he suffered from an aneurism at the age of 27 just months earlier, I silently chastise myself for such a frivolous excursion. I assure A that I have no qualms about turning around, but by now, peak-induced stubbornness has set in and he grumpily refuses.

For another hour and a half, we continue, him in quiet determination, our lungs pulling us to the top. I move no further ahead of him than the sound of his panting. At one point he touches my arm gently and I slow down. We stop for water and snacks, and I place a kiss on his forehead, slippery with perspiration. I know he is frustrated with his body and the situation at hand. I know that if I could, I would carry him to the top of the hill. I know I won't be able to convince him to turn around. And I know, personally, that there's nothing quite as lonely as climbing a mountain when you're not sure if your body will allow you to get to the top. At the end of the day, I know that all I can do to make the journey easier is what M never really could: be kind, be patient, stay close by. But ultimately, it is up to A to get to the yurt.

At the top, we eat our lunch of homemade pizza and cookie leftovers, drink our well-deserved water, and split a can of light beer. By now we are joking around and he is laughing at himself. We take pictures and eventually head back, relieved that it would be all downhill from there. We reach the car in less than half the time it took to get to the top.

Two days later, I am back in New Orleans, doing laundry, cleaning my apartment, preparing my headspace to go back to work. I think about issue 1 and issue 2 and the familiar swell of work-induced anxiety wells up inside of me, so I make plans with a friend to have a drink of wine, and look at my pictures of the blue hills of North Carolina. My calves are a little sore, as are my quads. The pain reminds me that all we can do to help us finish the journey is surround ourselves with people who are patient, kind, and close by, but that ultimately, it is our own calves and our own quads that get us where we need to go.