Three Thanksgivings

During Thanksgiving week, Mike, Mattie and I spent a few days in Louisiana. We stayed in Lafayette, in the heart of the Cajun country, about 130 miles west of New Orleans. At this time of year, Louisiana, with its pine and cypress lined bayous, sports lovely fall colour.

A day or two before we departed for Louisiana, I had been walking in a local park and noted how unusually warm and humid it was for late November. I also noted the lack of birdsong. Then, all of a sudden, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, a great gust of wind came up and leaves, like golden snowflakes, began to fall. Within seconds, or so it seemed to me, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and a raindrop or two fell. Quickening my pace, two white-tailed deer scooted into the bushes and a red-shouldered hawk swooped past, its gingery-red plumage recalling maple trees in fall.

There is, as far as I am aware, only one spot in Texas where one can enjoy maple trees and the reds and russets of their fall colours. Lost Maples State Park is situated 80 miles, or 1½ hours’ drive west of San Antonio along almost empty roads, cypress lined rivers and soft green meadows (it has rained a fair amount recently). One day whilst Mike was working, I visited the park for the first time and delighted in its autumn colours, craggy limestone bluffs and a three-mile hilltop hike.

In contrast to Lost Maples, the fall colours in Louisiana are shades of orange and apricot, and just as lovely. As a school girl, I vaguely remember our history teacher, Dr Tucker, telling us about the European colonisation of the US, but I had forgotten that the word ‘Cajun’ is a derivation of ‘Arcadian’ and that the Arcadians had been expelled by the British in the 1750s, partly for being Catholic and partly for fear they would side against them in the French and Indian war. Several thousand Arcadians came to this part of Louisiana (others were forcibly resettled in New England, Maryland and Virginia) and today the names of the first settlers appear on many business and shop fronts in Lafayette. During this visit I quickly learned that French – both Cajun and Creole versions – are still spoken in Louisiana; we heard Cajun French in the French bakery, around the corner to our hotel, where delicious beignets (French doughnuts), croissants and strong coffee made a fitting start to our first day. And later, that afternoon, we much enjoyed Cajun musicians speaking Cajun and Creole French between ancient folk tunes performed on the accordion, fiddle and guitar.

South of Lafayette, along the Bayou Teche, we next visited several small towns whose main streets are lined with a mix of antebellum homes – including the odd splendid plantation manor house – Creole cottages and late 19th century dwellings in the Queen Anne style. Despite it being Thanksgiving Day the sugar cane was being harvested and an old sugar processing plant billowed plumes of white vapour into the blue sky. Earlier in the day, we had visited Avery Island, famous for the production of Mclhenny’s tabasco sauce. Sadly, the factory was closed but we were still delighted by the island (named after the aviary McIlhenny built to save the snowy egret from extinction). Louisiana bald cypress trees and huge southern live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, grow around the bayous and there are holly and blossoming camellia groves, too. During warmer months, alligators are active in the bayous and far more birds would have been in evidence – all I spotted were a few snowy egrets, a blue heron, waders with long orange beaks and a red-headed turkey vulture hogging the chimney of McIlhenny’s old house.

With most restaurants closed for Thanksgiving Day, Mike, Mattie and I had enjoyed our special meal the evening before, in a smart restaurant called Jolie. We savoured a fine potato soup, shrimp grits and redfish, followed by beignets (of course) topped with hot chocolate sauce; all was washed down with some excellent pinot noir, local beer and delicious coffee.

‘I’ve had three Thanksgivings in America, haven’t I?’ Mattie asked over dinner and we recalled that her first Thanksgiving had been in Galveston, the second in Port Aransas and now the third in Louisiana. Wearing a serious expression, she then said, ‘I think of all the places we’ve visited in America, San Antonio is the only place I want to live…At the age I am now.’

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