December 3, 2010
Expedition to Eunice, Louisiana, “The Gateway to the Great Southwest Prairie”
Take the narrow back roads from Lafayette to Eunice in southwest Louisiana and you’re in a deep trough of Americana. On this December day, flat prairie lands roll out as far as the eye can see. Mile after mile of fields bordered by stands of deciduous trees in the distance, are plowed and ready for the next season. Fields with barren stalks of what was a rice crop stick up in orderly rows six inches above water that cover huge swaths of land. Every so often I pass sprawling shallow ponds, the clouds mirrored on their placid surfaces, and assume a rice crop is in its infancy below the surface.
Wrong. As I was soon to find out.
I park the car. I get out. I listen. A low, mechanical rumble comes from the combine barely visible on the horizon. And the sound of my own breath at peace in this rolling expanse of agriculture. Look. An enormous canopy of blue, fleecy cloud-studded sky offers benediction to the fields. A white dot of house or two is in the distance. You can drive for miles up two-lane Route 367 and count the houses you see on two hands.
Rice arrived in Louisiana along with Acadians (Cajuns) who migrated here after passing through the Carolinas in the 1700s. They pitched rice seeds into the wetlands near bayous and called what they grew “providence rice,” just enough for a season of food. By the mid 1800s, rice production became commercially viable when railroads were built and New Orleans became one of the first customers for Louisiana long grain rice. I don’t have to remind you what this did to the popularity of rice in the Louisiana diet after that.
Rice is the state’s second largest agricultural export. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you wont be surprised that there’s a festival down here that celebrates rice. Crowley, a few miles south of Eunice, established the annual International Rice Festival in 1936 that now attracts over 150,000 people a year.
It took a stop into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame and Museum for me to find out that these same fields were growing crawfish, and that crawfish and rice are partners in a seasonal dance in 26 parishes (counties) in Louisiana.
Irene Reed and Dale Matt (pronounce ‘Mott’ in Cajun style) set me straight. Located in a town whose footprint might fit into one of the larger fields I’ve passed en route, the museum is filled with artifacts, photos, instruments, videos and tapes of Cajun music. As far as I’m concerned the real attraction is these two septuagenarians who are sitting at the desk. I’m about to get a history lesson.
“They’re raising crawfish in those ponds and fields!” Dale says, grinning when she sees the expression on my face.
I am mystified. A grossly uninformed Yankee, I thought that the crustaceans were salt-water creatures related to shrimp. Half correct. Crustaceans yes, but fresh water crustaceans that are grown in fields I’ve been driving by for miles.
“I was raised in those fields, it’s a big industry here,” Dale tells me, and gets ready to educate this tourist from New England.
Flooding the fields, preparing for crawfish season.
While visitors filter in and out of the museum, Dale, her Cajun accent in full bloom, explains the rice field, crawfish pond cycle.
“We start growing the rice crop in water from March to July. When the rice has greened up in June, we add seed crawfish to the water. The crawfish burrow into the ground to stay cool. We drain the rice fields in late July and August. When the rice browns up, we harvest it with a combine. Some farmers try to get two rice crops in during a season.”
During the rice harvest the crawfish are safe from the combines in their underground burrows. “In September and October, when it gets cooler, we flood the fields to make crawfish ponds and the crawfish come out of their burrows and feed on the rice chaff that the combine left in the fields.”
The chaff from the rice harvest (above right) will become food for the crawfish.
“By around November, we catch the crawfish in mesh traps that we put bait in. I remember going out with my daddy and hauling crawfish out of his traps and dumping them into a special hold in his shallow bottom crawfish boat. We like crawfish farming because it’s a cash crop. We bring ‘em in to the buyer and get paid then and there. We don’t get paid for the rice until it’s sold. That takes time because the rice in the hull goes to a rice mill to be processed then sits in silos to dry before it’s sold.”
Dale tells me they can harvest crawfish until June when the water warms up and the crawfish burrow into the ground to stay cool. The fields are drained, plowed, leveled, and ready to start the rice/crawfish dance again.
This being early December, what I first thought were rice fields turned out to be crawfish fields in various stages of development.
I’ve been so fascinated by my tutorial, I’ve barely looked at the great collection of instruments, photos, artifacts, displays and memorabilia. But all of that will be here for years, and I’ll come back to see it.
During the past hour, I’ve learned from Irene and Dale how their parents and grandparents cut the mature rice plants down with scythes, laid the sheafs in mound-like haystacks to dry, then thrashed and hulled them. And I learned how country people around Eunice gathered in homes to listen to music and dance. I learned how, as children, they were punished for speaking their native French language in school.
"My mother was from Breaux Bridge and my father from Ville Platte. They couldn't read or write but they taught me our language. It hurt me that speaking the language my parents taught me was outlawed in Louisiana. "
This kind of history has a shelf life that ends with them. That’s what really belongs in a museum. Someone needs to get out a video camera and get busy recording stories from people like these two women. The “History Channel” is sitting right inside the door of the Cajun Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.