LAKE CHARLES, La.
Water, seasoning, meat and roux are the basic building blocks of gumbo, but that's not what Harold Guillory is talking about. He is teaching us to zydeco dance. Gumbo is his metaphor. • "Ladies, left foot out and then back in. That's your water and your seasoning. Then it's right foot to the rear and then back in — you've got your meat and your roux. This is the zydeco two-step, the fundamentals. Then each individual adds their own spice," Guillory says. • At first I'm ruing my roux and my meat is off the beat. But bit by bit, I learn to dance. And two nights later when the band gets going on Fat Tuesday in Lake Charles, I'm two-stepping all over the place. Spicy, even.
Lake Charles, in historic Calcasieu Parish (that's KAL-ka-shoo), is the fifth-largest city in Louisiana, just a couple of hours east of Houston. Because of Louisiana's gaming policy ("We're all for it, but it's got to be on a riverboat"), Texans make the trek along Interstate 10 and end up at L'Auberge du Lac Casino Resort, 30,000 square feet of 24-hour games and slots arrayed on a barge anchored in the lake. But that's just a teeny part of the draw. Lake Charles is the festival capital of the state, with 75 festivals held annually and the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration outside New Orleans. (Calm down, Shreveport and Lafayette; this is based on number of "krewes," or clubs, that participate.)
We are here for four days of bead-catching and moderately bad behavior (It's a family kind of town after all — the closest it gets to boob-baring-for-beads is a T-shirt printed with the proper accoutrements), but we found that there's lots to love about Lake Charles long after Ash Wednesday has put an end to the high jinks.
Part Louisiana Cajun and a little rough-and-tumble Texas cowboy, Lake Charles also has a somewhat confounding refinement. One chilly afternoon we hop aboard a mule-drawn carriage tour of the Charpentier Historic District downtown. Thankfully, the mule declines to trot, preferring a nice, easy walk so that we can ogle the 40 blocks of turn-of-the-last-century homes, most meticulously restored in the past few years. There are turrets and carved gables, gingerbread filigrees and a common two-story paneled column called the Lake Charles column that appeared here around 1905. The district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's a vitally alive area with stately Colonial Revival manses right next to fixer-uppers festooned with rough hand-made crosses and other voodoo hex deflectors.
It's not plantation country: Dance instructor Guillory, in explaining the difference between Cajun and zydeco music, tells us that the Lake Charles area never had a tradition of slavery. According to him, the French people who settled in Acadia, Nova Scotia, and then moved down to the bayou brought their music and fiddles with them. These were the Cajuns. The Creoles, of African descent, took the basics and added to them, bringing more percussion and ergo, as Guillory says, spice. He plays washboard in a local zydeco band, so we forgive his understandable preference.
Local flavor, and color
It's the melding of these cultures that gives the Lake Charles area many of its treasures. One morning we head out on the Boudin Trail, a self-guided driving tour of Calcasieu Parish's top 17 boudin producers. Boudin is a meat and rice sausage with about as many variations as there are makers. Cajun, Creole and German heritage make for sausages that are spicy, or full of crawfish, or alligator meat or pork blood (an acquired taste, it's a riff on the French boudin noir). What distinguishes this parish's boudin is a lack of liver (yay!) and the incorporation of whole grains of rice to give texture. Recipes are passed down through generations, and primacy is hotly disputed.
The same kind of posturing and clannishness is what makes the time between Twelfth Night and Fat Tuesday so rich here. Even if you visit another time, all the pageantry of Mardi Gras is on display at the sweet Mardi Gras Museum. With the largest number of Mardi Gras costumes in the country, the museum has to rotate the display every six months. No small feat: These confections of feathers, glitter, sequins and jewels, affixed sandwich board-style to huge carriages worn via harnesses, can weigh as much as 50 pounds.
Metal tubing, PVC piping, wire framing and untold pounds of glue-gun goo are the building blocks of a new fantasy each year. Since 1979, every krewe (like the Greek system with more twang) picks a theme, designs costumes (which can cost between $200 and $5,000 to assemble) and then struts the stuff in a series of balls and parades — and unlike the Mardi Gras balls in New Orleans, Lake Charles' Royal Gala is open to the public. At the museum, animatronic figures in the likenesses of some of the area's krewe bigwigs tell the story of Mardi Gras past. The museum's close quarters make it hard to see the intricacy of the bigger costumes, but it's charmingly folksy and homespun.
Cousins of the museum's animatronic guys tell another story over at the Cameron Prairie Visitors Center, a brief stop for us one day after we drive the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. In a thick-as-jambalaya accent, these characters tell about the wildlife and history of Southwest Louisiana. They conjure raucous Cajun house parties called fais do-do (named for what Cajun mothers would tell their young-uns: Go to sleep!); Cajun wooden canoes called pirogues slicking through the marshy edges of Lake Calcasieu; gators, crawdads and crazy-pink spoonbills.
Outside, on the 180 miles of bayous, marshlands and beaches of the Creole Nature Trail, all this stuff comes to life. The lush landscape holds the secrets of the prehistoric Ishak and later Atakapa tribes as well as the intrepid Spanish and French settlers that followed.
But in the here and now, it's said to be one of the top 10 birding destinations in the country, with more than 300 species alighting, especially during the annual migration along the Central and the Mississippi flyways. You'll see gators basking. No big whoop for Floridians, but according to local luminary Capt. Sammy (described as the parish's Crocodile Dundee), gators outnumber people in these parts 10 to 1.
It's this contrast — the elegant Victorian houses of the Charpentier district versus the rugged and nearly untouched bayous — that gives Lake Charles its unique spice. As my dance instructor says, toss that in with a little water, seasoning, meat and roux and you've got a satisfying Southwest Louisiana gumbo.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.