Friday, November 25, 2011

Feeling Racy

A good holiday is one spent among people whose notion of time is vaguer than yours.

--J.B. Priestly

Thirty-four years of life on this planet has given me but one single pearl of wisdom: Do not, if at all possible, spend Thanksgiving weekend flying across the country to spend it with your biological family. If you choose to do so, your flight(s) will in fact be delayed. You will lose luggage. You will be yelled at by at least two strangers. And, before you know it, you will do the same thing all over again on the way back a few days later. In end, you will have spent just as much time in airports, waiting rooms, and taxi lines as you have with your family.

My preferred alternative, I promise you, is not as lonely as it sounds: if in New Orleans, head to the racetrack. Erase from your mind images of lonely down-and-outers, single men in cheap jackets and caps, huddled over a bottle in a paper bag, clutching their gambling tickets in their hands as if waiting for the second coming.

Thanksgiving in New Orleans is opening day for the live horse racing season at the Fairgrounds Races and Slots, a tradition dating back to 1898. The Fairgrounds is the third oldest racetrack in the country and celebrates its 140th season this year. Admission for ground level viewing is free, and despite beer and liquor vendors present, BYOB is an acceptable practice. So, for those of us with no predilection to spend a penny on a pony, it's an afternoon of visual stimulation free of charge. It is less about gambling and more about, well, hats.

I call on the usual suspects of local friends, and donning our best retro-hats, we ride our bikes to the Fairgrounds. We aren't the only ones with a time machine image of horse racing in mind; scanning the crowd, one could easily mistake this to be a movie set for Seabiscuit.

In many cases, the hats are vintage, scoured from second-hand stores and stashed away in closets, waiting for this very occasion.

In other cases, one can glimpse a flavor of multi-generational wealth with an old South flair.

We pass the day running into friends and acquaintances, all of us admiring outfits and costumes, or staring at little men on large horses.

With the fine nuances of gambling and horse-racing culture lost one me, I opt out on actually gambling, but a companion has won $11.00. Myself, I am perfectly content to stay bug-eyed watching people, animals, and things pass me by for the next three hours.

Eventually, we are back at the ranch, deep frying a turkey, heating up merliton and crawfish stuffing, and blending the last stick of butter into the giant pot of mashed potatoes. There are about nine of us Thanksgiving orphans, most of us single and unencumbered with obligatory in-law visits, most of in our thirties, and all of us smart enough to know better than to be stuck in an airport. Together we have spent the day doing the most basic of life's activities; eating, drinking, spending time with friends, roaming amongst strangers and watching odd, pretty things in our sight.

Later in the day I return a phone call from my mother who has finished a 10k Turkey walk with my sister and nieces in California. I am glad to hear her voice and to know that my family is well. I check in with longtime friends in Alaska who went skiing earlier in the day but now are staying indoors from a snowstorm. I am thankful that my family is safe and sound out west where I grew up, and that my friends in Arctic north are warm and toasty.

I am also thankful to have lovely friends old and new in New Orleans where I now live, and with whom I have whiled the hours away on a beautiful sunny Thanksgiving Day at a racetrack and now at a friend's house. I guess home is where you wear your best horse races hat...with friends, and lots and lots of food; and I am thankful to be home be home for the holidays.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Black Pot

If it is possible to fall in love with a place, I have already done so. Physically, Lafayette is not a beautiful city, but I mean it when I say that it is the personality that counts. The capital of Cajun country in Louisiana, it is where you can find traditional Cajun food and music on a regular basis, as if time has not passed since the arrival of French Acadians in the 18th century. It is a place where people still cook with a black pot.

So it only makes sense that there would be a Blackpot Festival, every year, at Acadian Village, a folk life museum situated on 10 acres of farmland just at the edge of Lafayette proper. Created and organized in large part by the Red Stick Ramblers band six years ago, of the half dozen or so Cajun festivals in the area I've attended, I consider Blackpot Festival the premiere. With an outdoor dance pavilion and a small church serving as simultaneous music venues, one can see not only Cajun legends old and new, but also blues, bluegrass, country, and Appalachian music; and that isn't counting the scores of musicians who jam around campfires after hours.

But here Cajun prevails. In this part of the country where conversation in French was banned in schools just a few decades ago in order to induce the assimilation of Acadians into Anglo-American life, on this weekend I watch and listen to twenty-something-year-old Cajuns croon in ancient French, equipped with accordions and fiddles, while dancers take the field. It is as if Britney Spears never happened.

The weekend, however, truly culminates around the cooking contest, where local contestants cook their wares on-site in their own cast iron black pots. Only a handful will earn titles, but it is really the spectators who win during the free tastings. Gumbo, rabbit stew, jambalaya, soups involving frogs...the Cajuns really figured it out when they first threw the nearest swamp animal in a black pot for dinner. It doesn't take much suspension of disbelief to buy that the morsels being served up at the contest are true to the spirit of Cajun swamp life in the early days.

To me Blackpot Festival is the perfect marriage between food and music. And, in this environment, it is impossible not to enjoy the company of friends, some I brought with me from New Orleans, some I reconnected with from my old home of Alaska, and some I've met only a handful of times previously in Lafayette who treat me as they've known me forever. Food, music, and possibly a little booze, the kindness of strangers and sounds simple enough but why is it that you can't find that combination just anywhere? Maybe it takes culture, or in Lafayette's case, a couple hundred years of culture.

There is a Cajun saying, "Lache pas la patate," which means, literally, don't drop the potato. In modern times, the slogan has become an Acadian call to arms to hold on to a culture from a time far past--Don't let go, so to speak, of those things that make one Cajun. In the same way I love New Orleans for its continual blending of cultures throughout its existence and still so today, I fawn over Lafayette for precisely the opposite reason; because the Acadians are and have been determined to preserve and celebrate a culture created long ago in a distinct moment in history, and one that could have become extinct without such stubbornness. Born in the countryside of France, driven through the snows of North America, finally to flourish in the swamps of Louisiana, Cajun culture is at once French in its roots but also truly American in its resourcefulness which shaped it into something utterly unique. In their own way, Cajuns are evidence that America truly is a melting pot, in this case, a black cast iron one with a gumbo in it.

Photos by William Clancy used with permission.