Thursday, October 22, 2009

Vermilion Ville, Lafayette, Louisiana

It takes 5 balls of homespun cotton yarn to make a single woven shirt. Armadillo tastes like pork. Older boys would climb a narrow outside staircase to reach attic sleeping quarters in a garconniere.

Visitors can learn this and more at the outdoor museum of Cajun and Creole heritage on the Bayou Vermilion, 2-1/2 hours drive west of New Orleans.

In the village visitors experience Acadiana culture dating from the 1760s. Spend the day wandering through the 18 historic buildings made of colombage (half-timber) and bousillage (mud and Spanish moss) in a park like setting. Once inside, meet costumed craftsmen and musicians.

There’s Daphne - quilter, basket weaver and storyteller. She sits by the open window welcoming guests, giving a glimpse of Cajun life and crafts.

In the next house, her mother Geraldine talks about her childhood memories growing up in bayou country. Seeing hogs butchered as a little girl, or bread wrapped in a flour sack, hanging from a nail in a roof beam to keep it out-of-reach of pests and small fry. She can tell you what a raccoon or armadillo tastes like. Geraldine has traveled the world as an ambassador of Cajun culture, demonstrating doll making and other crafts.

Hungry? Stop in or make a reservation at the Creole restaurant, La Cuisine de Maman (866-99-BAYOU). After lunch you can enjoy a nature walk, or a bateau ride on the Bayou Vermilion.

The French spoken in Louisiana is very old. Acadian refugees brought it to the region from Nova Scotia in the mid-1700’s. Add a sprinkling of words borrowed from Native Americans and Africans, and voila - the Cajun dialect. At various times in the early 20th century, speaking French was forbidden by Louisiana law, and you’ll see the words “I will not speak French in school” written on the blackboard inside the one room schoolhouse.

Today the Cajuns remain bilingual and the culture is thriving. On weekends there’s zydeco music and dancing in Le Jour de Fete.

Vermilion Ville is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am until 3 pm. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students (children under 5 are free) Visit their website at It’s written in English and French.

Ca c’est bon!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Frogmore Plantation, Ferriday, Louisiana

What do a pair of jeans; a dollar bill and a can of Crisco have in common? The answer can be found at the Frogmore Plantation in Louisiana.

This is a working farm, dating from the early 1800’s. Visitors can see first hand the evolution of a cotton plantation through the eyes of the Natchez planter and the slaves who worked the fields. A docent walks you through the 18 restored buildings, including furnished slave quarters, a steam gin and outbuildings. At each stop, she discusses plantation life and customs, its culture and secrets.

The plantation is an inter-active living museum. In the field, you feel connected to history picking your first handful of cotton. It’s surprising to learn how easily the fiber can be plucked from the boll. In a world of processed and packaged goods, it’s amazing to find that right out of a boll the wad of cotton feels – well – just like cotton. While it’s easy to pull fibers from the brown ripened boll, the seeds are buried deep inside. After several minutes of peeling and shredding a single handful of lint from the seed, the dramatic impact of the mechanized gin takes on a whole new meaning.

Even though machines in England first spun cotton in 1730, this 7,000-year-old industry really took off with the invention of the cotton gin (engine) some 63 years later. It could separate seeds from the lint 10 times faster than by hand.

But cotton fabric is only part of the story. Nothing goes to waste. Seeds are crushed and separated into 3 products. Oil is used in shortening, cooking oil and salad dressing. Meal and hulls feed livestock, poultry, fish and fertilizer. Stalks and plant leaves are plowed under to enrich the soil. Each planted acre yields about 1-1/3 bales of cotton. A single 500 # bale of cotton makes 215 jeans, 313,600-dollar bills and buckets of Crisco.

If you visit the ante-bellum treasures of Natchez, Mississippi where the planters built their fabulous mansions, be sure to cross the river into Louisiana. Frogmore is about a half-hour’s drive due west. Visit the actual fields in … the land of cotton, (where) old times there are not forgotten.

Frogmore is open year round although the hours vary by season. Admission starts at $5 for students, up to $12 for adults to take the complete tour of the historic and modern facilities.