I have always felt that I live in the wrong time and place. I was meant to live on a large plantation in the South where I could wear hoop skirts and sip Mint Juleps. Of course, that lifestyle lives largely in imagination and not reality. When I stop to think it through I don't believe I would give up the conveniences of today to wear the hoop skirt of yesterday.
If, like me, you have always been intrigued by this period in our history, this would be an excellent year to visit the state of Louisiana.
December 20, 2002 marked the beginning of a year-long celebration of the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the state is pulling out all the stops to commemorate this important event in the history of the United States. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson saw the need for the United States to control the port of New Orleans and so he sent representatives to France to negotiate with Napoleon Bonaparte for the purchase of this busy trade center. The trip resulted in much more than Jefferson had hoped for and became the biggest real estate deal in the history of civilization. The agreement was for 828,000 square miles of North America at a cost of about four cents an acre. The Purchase secured the future state of Louisiana in addition to all or parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado and Montana.
The opening festivities were held at Kent House, described by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco as a 202-year-old house that once stood on a Spanish land grant and a perfect place to open such a great event. Costumed re-enactors mingled with the crowd enjoying gumbo dishes, etoufee, and other regional treats.
The central Louisiana parishes of Lafayette, Alexandria/Pineville and Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish) offer some of the best insights into southern living, as it was and as it is now.
Cajun and Creole cooking is as wonderfully tasty as it is unique. Although there are many great restaurants in the area, two that I can personally recommend are Randol's Restaurant and Dance Hall and The Original Don's Seafood & Steakhouse, both located in Lafayette.
At Randol's you can enjoy an appetizer such as the Mixed Sausage Grill (alligator, crawfish and duck), choose from several kinds of Gumbo, then decide on a special entrée; perhaps Crabmeat Florentine or Shrimp Etouffee, and either watch, or join, local residents as they dance to live Cajun music.
Don's began in 1934 as a simple French-Acadian restaurant and through family, time and tradition has become a legend. Don's is known for the various Gumbos that are served as well as other seafood favorites. One House Specialty is the Seafood Platter that includes a stuffed crab, stuffed shrimp, fried fish, frog leg, fried shrimp, fried oyster, fried crab fingers, jambalaya, French fries, cole slaw and tartar sauce. Anyone who is still hungry can end their meal with Don's cheesecake or homemade bread pudding.
Indulge your fantasy by visiting, or lodging in, some of the plantations of the area. While in Lafayette stop and tour the Alexandre Mouton House. This structure was built around 1800 by Jean Mouton, the Acadian land-owner who is acknowledged as the founder of Vermilionville, which became Lafayette in 1884. He built it as a "Sunday House" to be used by his family when they came in from the plantation to attend Mass. In 1825 his son, Alexandre, moved into the Sunday House, married, and added rooms to the right of the hall. He later became the first Democratic governor of Louisiana and was a United States Senator. In 1849 a new owner added more rooms to the house. In 1954 Les Vingt Quatre Club purchased the home from heirs and established the present Alexandre Mouton House Museum.
Melrose, in the Cane River Country, is located 16 miles south of Natchitoches and has a colorful early history. The later years also were noteworthy when, at the turn of the century, Melrose became the home of John Hampton and Cammie Garrett Henry. She was affectionately known as "Miss Cammie". Miss Cammie, a patron of the arts, invited artists and writers to stay at Melrose as long as they wished, provided they were working on some creative project. Erskine Caldwell, Alexander Woollcott, Alberta Kinsey, and Caroline Dormon were among those who availed themselves of Miss Cammie's hospitality. The famous primitive artist, Clementine Hunter, worked for most of her life on the plantation, first in the fields, then as a cook at the Big House, before devoting her time to painting. Her work is displayed in the African House of Melrose.
The Prudhomme-Rouquier House built in 1806 and restored in 1978 is noted as one of the few two story bousillage structures in the United States. Bousillage walls are a mixture of clay-type mud, animal hair - usually deer, and Spanish moss that is then packed between a cypress framework. When this has dried, two or three layers of smooth mud were applied to form a 'mud plaster'. Bousillage was used as insulation material and combined with high ceilings helped to provide cool interiors.
Natchitoches is known as the Bed and Breakfast capitol of Northern Louisiana and a stay at Beau Fort Plantation will expose you to the graciousness, culture and hospitality of antebellum south. You enter this 265 acre working cotton plantation through an avenue of live oaks. The one and one-half story cottage-type home represents the best of original Creole architecture. The home is owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. Jack O. Brittain and they are anxious to demonstrate to all the elegant living of a bygone era.
There are many other Bed and Breakfast places either in the historic area or are historic plantations. More information on accommodations can be obtained at www.natchitoches.net.
The main street of Natchitoches is heaven for those who delight in shopping in unusual, small establishments and discovering hidden treasures to take back home. Many interesting restaurants are there to entice shoppers to stop and sample some of the good food of the area. Shops such as Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen & Restaurant, or Mama's Oyster House located right next door to Papa's Bar & Grill.
This section of Louisiana has so much to offer that the visitor will find it difficult to decide. You can take a Streetcar Tour where the guide points out national landmarks, the historic district and Steel Magnolia filming sites, tour an authentic Acadian Village, or stroll through the American Cemetery, believed to be the oldest in the Louisiana Purchase and the first burial ground of the early French colonists.
No matter how you spend your time in Louisiana, it will be a trip that will remain in your memory forever.
The official Closing Ceremonies for the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Celebration will be held December 20, 2003 at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The Cabildo is a Louisiana State Museum property located in Jackson Square and was the site of the December 20, 1803 Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremony. The President of the United States, the President of France, and the King of Spain have been invited to attend the closing ceremony.
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