This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

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Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Basin Food

It does seem to be a common thing among humans that food satisfies more than a physical need. In some people food is mostly something that delays hunger for a while, in others it is appreciated for its quality of flavor, or texture. And in still others food is part of a larger ritual that encompasses the enjoyment of chewing and swallowing and feeling full. But there is a larger grouping that can be described that includes all of these, perhaps, and most people. These are people who combine all of these features of eating into the larger ritual of the meal, and all that that implies. For those who experience meals like this, the ritual of eating can be an exercise that sets up the environment for sharing ideas, emotions, the warmth of closeness with others and even with the natural world we live in. The fact that everyone in a family could contribute to the providing of a meal, from the small (with expected reluctance) to the oldest, was a significant feature in the eventual closeness of the gathering around food. Some would say there can be an areligious spiritual component to this also. Today we barely adhere to this practice during holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, but the observance still has meaning even when taking place so infrequently.

This bonding with other people and the natural environment while sharing food and space at the table (even when there isn’t one) is one of the prominent characteristics of the Myette Point community as it lived its time in the Atchafalaya Basin. No doubt this was partly due to the necessity of combining chores as much as possible. No mother wanted to string out feeding kids over half the day when there were so many other things that had claim on her time, so eating together had practical as well as other less tangible advantages. One of the best examples of this might come from an actual experience during the interviews that were done to collect information from the Myette Point families. I was sitting down in their kitchen with Agnes and Myon Bailey. They lived in a three-room houseboat that had been pulled over the top of the levee from the Basin to where it then resided outside of the levee. The rooms were small, about 10 feet by 10, with the kitchen in one of the end rooms. The kitchen table sat in the middle, surrounded by the other furniture – a stove, sink, refrigerator and several chairs. Overall it was a warm-feeling place - Myon and Agnes had been married at that time almost 50 years. We were starting to have a meal to which I had been invited. The presence of the food brings about easy conversation, and I had a tape recorder and was talking to them about why I wanted to tape our conversations. This was 1989. Just the three of us, sitting at the table, passing food around, eating and talking - it went like this.

JD: ….. the main reason I want to do that is there’s a lot of stuff that yall know that nobody knows anymore. Nobody is trying to remember anymore. And one of these days, if I ever get to it, I would like to be able to put all that down in one place.

AB: You gone write a book?

JD: Well, it may be. It m
ay be. But I figure I come over here and we talk, and I forget half of what I hear. So I figured while I’m here, why not just get it on tape, just while we’re talking, and uh, if I can use it, good, if I don’t, well, I don’t, but at least that way I won’t forget it all.

JD: You want some hot sauce Myon?

MB: Yeah, I guess so Jim.

JD: White beans, boy that’s nice.

AB: Good ole white beans Jim. Myon and his onions, him.

JD: You like raw onions Myon?

MB: Mmmhm. They go with beans. … squirrels.

JD: Boy, that’s special. I didn’t expect squirrel!

AB: They might have one in there kind of tough.

[more sounds of passing food around and utensils on plates]

JD: So, Frank doesn’t hunt squirrels anymore, eh? Or he’s not bringing….

MB: Yeah, he hunts.

AB: He hunts all day, he’s been g
ivin em away.

JD: Where’s he been getting the squirrels?

AB: Across the bayou there, Pearly told me.

MB: He ain’t been bring me none, but that don’t matter though. When he bring me some I give him shells. I buy him some shells.

JD: He hunt with a shotgun?

MB: Umhm.

JD: Twelve gauge?

MB: I believe he got a 20 gauge that Putt lend him. He had a 12 gauge pump, sold it to Putt last year. [after that] He didn’t have no gun, I believe Putt let him have his 20 gauge, this year.

JD: Boy, that squirrel is good Agnes!

AB: Yeah, it’s good. Been cookin it a long time to get it tender.

JD: You got some ice in the freezer?

AB: Yeah, umhm.

MB: Overloaded my plate today. You don’t like milk?

JD: Uh?

MB: You don’t like milk?

JD: Yeah I do, I like ice in it though.

MB: Yeah? Edward too, got to have ice.

JD: Yall don’t want some ice?

MB: Not me.

AB: I like water just as good, me.

JD: Well, I’ll tell you what I would like to do, if yall don’t mind, is, I would really like to hear the story about your family. We could start with one of you, and, if you could start as far back as you can remember in your family. And I imagine that’s your grandparents, you both remember your grandparents?

And the tape recorder kept rolling and they began to talk about their lives, and their parents and grandparents lives too. It is this feeling of closeness and trust, with or without blood ties, that makes sharing food so important.

There is a thought that food derived from close to its source is somehow not “pure” enough. That it hasn’t been through the sanitation procedures that FDA would require and therefore it isn’t quite trustworthy or clean enough. Some would say the meal above, featuring squirrel, would be such food. Hmph.

There is a story told by a friend (deceased) about a thing that happened in his childhood that deals with the idea of country food versus city food. The boy in the story is the son of one of the fishboat operators. He was born and raised in the Basin near Bayou Chene, where he went to the school there, but then his family moved to Morgan City (the big city) and he was put in school. His mother prepared his lunches as she had for a long time in the Basin, and as he ate with the city kids he noticed the difference between his lunch sandwiches and theirs. The city kid's name was Virgil Santos. My friend told it like this.

But anyways, we came to Morgan City and I went to Klingsville (school?), I was in the second grade. And, they had a Santos, lived on the corner and his dad owned a couple shrimp boats. And when he came to school, he always had a couple bologna sandwiches. You had to carry your own lunch... Well, I had catfish fried sandwich, I had duck breast sandwiches, I had chicken sandwiches, I had oyster sandwiches, but I always wanted a bologna sandwich.

So, Dad got to doin' pretty good, mother always made her bread, so when we got to doin' pretty good I said, "Mom?" I said, "Do you think we could get a loaf of store bought bread and maybe, uh, four, five slices of bologna?" She said, "Oh yeah son, we can do that." And so she went to the store and bought that -- next morning she made me two sandwiches. And I was so proud of them two sandwiches.

I got to school -- I couldn't hardly wait for the lunch time. We'd go out and sit on the side the school on a bench, we eat, and ol' Virgil -- he'd come up there, sit down, and you know what I said? "I don't want your sandwiches, I got my own!" I took two bites of that sandwich and throwed 'em both away and I haven't eaten bologna since! (big laugh) Yeah-- I hadn't eaten any more bologna -- that stuff is terrible!

JD: You went back to the trash like duck breast, and uh, squirrel and stuff like that....

Oh yeah. Oyster poboys, you know, shrimp poboys, homemade bread Yea I said no, no I don't need more of that bologna.

And that pretty well sums up the quality of the homemade foods that people were forced to eat on houseboats in the Basin. Even today, people will be attracted to more sophisticated foods and try them. After a while, most of them come back to the basic beans and rice, and squirrel, if they can.

The river is at 12.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 14.3 in a few days. Nice rise for the crawfishermen. The Ohio and Mississippi are rising a good bit too.

Rise and Shine, Jim


Blogger elise mestayer said...

Myon and Agnes Bailey are my grandmother, Carol Ann's parents. I love to hear stories about this like this!

December 04, 2013 10:55 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Elise, I am very happy that you find stories about, and by, your great grandparents to be interesting. It was my privelege to know tham and be able to share a squirrel dinner with them from time to time. I wish you could have done the same, they were very fine people!

December 06, 2013 9:21 AM  

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