Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, May 23, 2005

In Lafayette, Avery Island

After spending most of the morning trying to catch up this travelogue and taking care of a little family business over the phone, we hopped in the Hornet and drove toward New Iberia. On the way, we stopped at Lebouf's restaurant because of its recommendation found on the internet. This was a very Spartan place that looked like it had been converted from a grocery market. The large front windows were covered up, the sign was faded, and it looked for the world like anything but a restaurant. We had no idea what to expect inside, as the internet reference contained no information other than a recommendation.

Once inside, we still had trouble ascertaining whether we were in a restaurant, because the front door opened into an almost empty room with a corridor to the side that led to a much larger room. As our eyes refocused from the outside brightness, we were able to discern, looking through a latticework that separated the entry room from the larger room, that there were indeed a couple dozen standard restaurant tables and chairs, some of them filled with customers. We proceeded down the corridor toward a steam table that had been set up at the very back of the large room, manned by a bearded gentleman in his fifties who was wearing an apron and a younger unsmiling woman, wearing a plain dress with no makeup and her hair put up in the fashion of women of certain Pentecostal sects. While the steam table contained a dozen or so food items, it looked disproportionately small for the size of the eating area. Over our shoulder, we could see the open food preparation area and large refrigerated locker, all of which appeared to be left over from, perhaps, a commercial meat market. There was far too much space and equipment than would have been needed to prepare the food in the steam table. We noticed there were no plates, so I asked the bearded gentleman about the procedure. Without much in the way of pleasantries, he said that lunch, including our drinks, would be $6.43, and that once we voiced our selection of one meat and two sides, he would scoop them into a covered and divided Styrofoam box to take to our table. That sounded simple enough, so I decided on smothered steak, mustard greens and potato salad. Sandy ordered fried chicken, beets and fried okra. All entrees were served over a bed of fluffy rice and brown gravy. After we helped ourselves to the tea and soft drinks, we got some eating utensils and took our seats at one of the empty tables.

The food was divine. Everything was fresh, prepared with all the skill and tastiness that one of our mothers would have done back in their heyday. We were so stuffed afterward that we didn't even have room for some of the strawberry cake that was offered as a dessert. Since Sandy and I were the last of the lunch rush, the bearded chef selected a Styrofoam box and dipped up some of the goodies from the steam table for his own lunch. As he sat and began eating, we struck up a conversation and found that he, too, was about to purchase a diesel pickup to pull his fifth wheel camper. He asked how we liked the Hornet, and we could tell pretty quickly that he was already sold on a Ford. We complimented his choice and bragged on his cooking, which brought forth the first hint of a smile from behind the beard. This was a really good restaurant find; we would certainly eat here again. The good food, along with the possibilities of meeting interesting people reinforced our wisdom of avoiding at all costs the practice of eating where the masses eat. Sometimes we almost feel sympathetic toward the majority of folks, who are seduced by the chain restaurants' massive ad budgets and familiar signs out front. We recoil from these now, like vampires fear the coming of daylight.

We headed south on highway 90 toward New Iberia, where the Edward J. McIlhenny company is located, to take a tour of the Tabasco factory on Avery Island. SANDY was game for the adventure, although I'm sure she doesn't share my enthusiasm for visiting factories of any kind. I haven't figured out my fascination my assembly lines—I guess it's a guy thing. Perhaps we didn't get enough play time with Legos or Tinker toys when we were kids.

Tabasco--It's a Good Thing

Due to the wealth created by McIlhenny's fabulously successful hot sauce, his descendants own most of Avery Island, which was also the site of one of the largest salt domes in the U. S. Salt has been mined from the location for over 150 years, and even so, hardly a dent has been made the vast reserves known to be just below the surface. Most of Avery Island has been turned into a wildlife sanctuary. Through his efforts, McIlhenny is credited with saving from extinction the great white egret, which had been hunted mercilessly in the early 20th century for its showy white plume of headfeathers, prized for decorating women's hats during that period. Some 25,000 of the birds now nest on Avery Island on hand-built platforms in a small lake that was dug especially for them. We were able to see this and other wildlife, including alligators, in a driving tour ($6 per person) that was offered at the entrance to the refuge, located a short distance from the Tabasco factory building. Fortunately for Sandy, only one alligator—a small one—had crawled out of its pond and was fully visible, sunning himself. As we entered the jungle-like setting of the refuge, I heard the door lock switch being repeatedly actuated from her side of the Hornet and, when we got in the vicinity of the alligator she had scrunched herself in the far corner of the cab area opposite the reptile, which was on my side. To pester her further, I rolled down my window and took some photos. She hissed and said, sotto voce, that I should not do that, as this was obviously a baby alligator and the mother was probably nearby.

Sandy's Gator!</>

McIlhenny Headquarters on Avery Island

The Tabasco factory is a fairly large red brick building with an entrance to a reception area where visitors wait for the tours, which occur every 20 minutes or so. While waiting, we viewed some exhibits they had set up and watched a continuously repeating video of dozens of TV show excerpts that mentioned Tabasco or showed people cooking recipes with it. I was surprised how many clips there were of every kind of show imaginable. Even the "Little Rascals," from back in the 1930s, had an episode wherein Spanky unwittingly was served the hot sauce and had to run to the water fountain to cool off his tongue!

Once the tour started, led by a young woman with a thick but charming Cajun accent, we were ushered into a small theater, where a video presentation told the Tabasco story and described the picking, processing and aging of the peppers in oak barrels for three years. This was quite interesting, and the process apparently has not changed much in the last five generations of McIlhennys, who still control the private company today. After seeing the video, we left the room via a side door that led to a walkway beside a long window, where the tour participants could look out onto the factory floor. The entire assembly-line area consisted of one huge room, where several lines of products were being bottled at once. At one end of the room, the bottles were being packaged and rolled into the warehouse. Some 700,000 bottles of Tabasco are produced here daily and shipped to 135 countries. Almost all the special peppers used for Tabasco, however, are now grown and harvested in South America. Before the pepper production was moved there, a high of 700 acres of Avery Island were devoted to the production of these peppers.

After visiting the factory, we made our way over to the nearby Tabasco retail store, where they had for sale every product imaginable that had been licensed by Tabasco. They also had a tasting table set up, where visitors could sample their many food products. The place was very busy with tourists, and we bought several items to take home, including a Tabasco t-shirt and shorts for Mindy. I'm sure she had a more expensive souvenir in mind, but hey, I feel obligated to spend her inheritance, and I don't have all that much time left!

Shopping! Sandy's in Heaven.

After leaving Avery Island, we drove through St. Martinville and Beaux Bridge, again along the Teche Bayou. This was a very picturesque drive, and we vowed to return to spend more time in these quaint towns when the weather is cooler. Sandy and I have a real aversion to hot weather, and when she gets the least bit overheated, it triggers a migraine for her. The Lafayette area, unfortunately, was experiencing a heat wave. The 95-degree temperature broke all records on this date!

All of this activity made us hungry, so we stopped at a little hamburger joint in Lafayette named the Judice Inn. It has been run by the same family since 1947 and seemed to qualify handily for the type of local food dive that we like to try. The burgers were very good, but we were put off by the inflexibility shown to customers. The only choices offered were mayo or mustard or both on one side of the bun. The other side of the bun came with a hot Cajun sauce, and there was no pickle or tomato available. On the top of the bun was placed a single slice of onion, then all was wrapped in tissue paper. They also didn't serve French fries or onion rings, just potato chips or Fritos. Since I have a great appreciation for these traditions unchanged for 60 years, I didn't grouse about this too much, especially since they made a really good burger overall. I did occur to me, however, that they might be missing a significant source of revenue by limiting their menu so drastically.

By this time, Sandy was getting nervous because she hadn't done any shopping in a while. I dropped her off at a shopping center and went to Best Buy to lust over a GPS system for the Hornet. I've got to do a little more research before I take the plunge on this, but the prices have come way down. If they drop much further, I think I'll be forced to buy one.

During Sandy's shopping orgy, she came across a couple of ottomans for use in Homer. We had discovered we needed these when we're sitting on the couch watching TV. The problem is that the lower cushions of the sofa are not long enough for our legs, so we need to prop them up on something to be fully comfortable. The ottomans were perfect for this, so we loaded them up in the Hornet to take back to Homer. Before we headed back from town, however, we decided we were hungry again. (The burgers had been small, mind you, and we didn't get any fries, so lighten up!)

We stopped at the Pimon Thai restaurant and ordered fresh spring rolls and larb gai—a salad of chopped chicken, onion, mint, parsley, lemon juice and spices. These were light, fresh and especially good, topping off the evening just right. We love Thai food, and this was certainly a talented chef.

We tried out the ottomans when we got back to Homer, and they worked fine. We have decided, however, that recliners will be a necessity when we upgrade to a larger RV.

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