Friday, September 25, 2009

We Don't Need No Stinking Lobsters

Today is my last day in Lafayette, Louisiana, a comfortable, charming small town full of pleasant, courteous people and fantastic food. If I lived here, I’d weigh 600 pounds.

The city is pretty much the Cajun capital of Louisiana. Many of the people speak with a pronounced French accent. Public buildings are often labeled in French and English, and street signs alternate between English with a small French sub-label and French with a small English sub-label.

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Lots of interesting older buildings have been renovated, giving the older sections of the city a hip, funky appeal.

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Music is readily available, but it’s usually traditional Cajun or contemporary Zydeco, both of which make heavy use of the accordion. If you don’t like the accordion, it can wear on you.

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But the food is the real draw here, especially seafood (which includes freshwater delicacies such as catfish, crawfish and alligator). Unlike Florida, most of the restaurants are unique family establishments. Sure, they have chain restaurants like Olive Garden and fast-food franchises like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, but those are concentrated around the university area. Downtown, it’s a different story.

Cajuns take pride in their seafood dishes. One resident told me that Red Lobster tried to open a restaurant here, which quickly failed. “Who would eat that mess?” he asked.

Cajun food is simple, but delicious and always expertly prepared. Rich Gumbo soups, shrimp and crawfish etouffe, rice stuffing, fried oysters (my favorite), and much more.

Tonight is my last night here. It’s going to be difficult returning to Florida, where unique, interesting restaurants are almost extinct, and people willingly eat at Red Lobster.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Stuff

I drove down to Avery Island, Louisiana to tour the Tabasco plant. Technically, I suppose it is an island, because it’s surrounded on all sides by water. But it’s just slow-moving black-water bayous surrounding a large natural dome-shaped salt deposit.

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Avery Island started as a salt mine, which was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. The owners returned after the war and restored production, which they now lease to a salt mining company.

After the Civil War, oil was discovered; it’s often found near natural salt deposits. The oil is still being pumped from the island. But the salt and oil operations are concealed from public view. Everything is carefully managed to preserve its natural beauty, and the island functions as a wildlife sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds.

The island and its production facilities are owned by the McIlhenny family. In 1868, one of the family members invented Tabasco sauce and sold about 600 bottles. Today they produce over 700,000 bottles every day and ship them all over the world.

To enter the island, tourists cross the bayou over this small bridge to the gatehouse.

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Because the gatehouse is on the right side, the attendant extends a broom handle through the passenger window. On the end of the broom handle is a spring-loaded clothespin holding a parking permit. You take the permit and clip a dollar onto the clothespin, then drive up to the main factory building.

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I took a tour of the factory, which was a little disappointing because production was shut down on Sunday. There are a few dusty exhibits, then a brief film. Afterwards, we walked past a long window looking out onto the factory floor, ending in another dusty exhibit room. But I learned a lot.

Only two percent of the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce are grown on Avery Island. The rest are grown in Central and South America. They’re shipped to Avery Island, where all of the production takes place.

The peppers are crushed into a pulp and then poured into oak barrels. A hole is drilled in the lid, which is then covered with coarse salt mined on the island. The salt enables fermentation gases to escape, but prevents intrusion of bacteria. Fermentation takes three years, then the resulting glop is mixed with vinegar and other ingredients, stirred for about a month, and bottled. They re-use the barrels over and over. Some are a hundred years old.

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There’s a gift shop nearby, where you can buy t-shirts, key rings, china, Christmas ornaments and jewelry emblazoned with the Tabasco logo. You can also buy a wide variety of Tabasco sauce products, sold in all sizes from an eighth of an ounce to full gallon bottles. A freezer holds these massive bags of dried pepper pulp, which are used when boiling crawfish Cajun style.

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With the salt mine, the oil wells and the Tabasco factory, I think it’s safe to say that the McIlhenney family has money. I’m sure their kids have no trouble finding a date for the prom. I wonder if they carry pepper spray.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open Containers

Sandy and I decided to drive to New Orleans on Saturday. But Saturday was also the day of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette vs. Louisiana State University football game, a traditionally bitter contest that draws an enormous throng of football fans from all over the state. In fact, the stadium seats over 92,000 people, which is about 2% of the entire population of Louisiana. So we decided to avoid Baton Rouge, where the game was being played, and took the southern route along the coastal bayou region.

We passed lots of these little “truck stop casinos,” which are only permitted to offer slot machines. Large casinos can offer table games, but we only saw a couple of those.


Another peculiar thing we saw were these little drive-through Daiquiri stands. Yes, you heard me correctly.

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In Louisiana, you’re permitted to drive with an alcoholic drink that has a cover, which is considered to be a sealed container. If there’s a straw in the drink, it’s considered to be an open container. So these Daiquiri stands sell you a drink in a plastic cup that has a plastic lid with a straw poking through a hole in the lid. If you get pulled over, all you have to do is remove the straw and you’re legal. If you leave the straw in the drink, you’re busted.

You can also walk almost anywhere with a drink in your hand in Louisiana, as long as it’s not in a glass bottle. It’s technically illegal, but the police don’t enforce it, particularly in New Orleans. If you’re drinking from a bottle in a bar and you want to leave, the bartender will give you a “to go” cup and pour your beer into it.

Another strange thing you see here is the bartenders. The drinking age is 21, but you can tend bar at the age of 18. So lots of bartenders are too young to drink the products they sell.

When we arrived in New Orleans, we didn’t travel through the areas that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But you do see some houses that are in rough shape, possibly as the result of neglect. Others are just old.

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We took a walk though Jackson Square, chuckling at the fortune tellers and street performers. But it was a brutally hot day, and cold beer started to seem like a good idea. Bourbon Street is only a couple of blocks away. We found a place called Huge Ass Beers with a guy holding a sign out front. I gave him a couple of bucks to let me have this picture taken.

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The beers are served in huge, tub-like plastic cups. Here’s the bartender, standing by a tip jar labeled “Huge Ass Tips.” Sandy and I wondered why she didn’t have a huge ass, which would make perfect sense.

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I used the bathroom, which I’m sure has been the site of some awful events. The walls were covered with the usual obscene graffiti and crude anatomical drawings, but also bore this testament to the success of the bar.

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Just down the street is another bar that hasn’t managed to think big enough.


It occurred to me that there’s a business opportunity for someone to open “Ginormous Ass Beers.”

When we left New Orleans, we drove north across the Lake Ponchartrain bridge, which is 24 miles long. It’s a marvelous feat of brute force engineering.

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In our efforts to avoid Baton Rouge, we circled north around the city, eventually arriving in the tiny city of St. Francisville. An automobile ferry crosses the Mississippi River at this point, which costs one dollar. The ferry runs every half hour. Here’s the ferry landing. You can just barely see the ferry approaching from the other side in the twilight.

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The ferry is a wide boat with a wheelhouse in the center. Cars drive on from the side of the boat, circle around the wheelhouse, and exit from the other side.

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The view of the mighty river during the crossing was breathtaking.

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Unfortunately, the oncoming darkness proved to be too much for our navigation skills, and we got lost in the rural back roads of Louisiana for a couple of hours before finally finding our way home. Worse, the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns lost to LSU. They’ve never beaten LSU. In fact, they haven’t scored a touchdown against LSU since 1924, a streak of bad luck that they were unable to break that night. I’m not a football fan, but it seems as though everyone else in Louisiana is. That means our customers, who live in Lafayette, will be unhappy about the loss on Monday. The good news is that Bernie is doing the training, so they’ll take it out on him.

The Bad Penny

Due to the limited number of flights available from Lafayette, Louisiana, it was more sensible for me to stay over the weekend between our two-week training program. However, three of our five-person team were scheduled to return home on Friday night. Two of them aren’t coming back for the second week, but Bernie is coming back.

He checked out of the hotel where we were all staying that morning. After our last class, he drove the other two to the airport. I returned to the hotel with visions of frosty mugs of beer dancing in my head. Two days without Bernie. It’s almost hard to imagine. It’s like looking in the mirror before surgery, trying to guess how you’ll look once they remove a big tumor from your face.

I changed to comfortable clothes, finished a couple of tasks on the computer, and relaxed. It was 5:30. Normally, Bernie would be hassling us to go out to dinner, because like many people his age, he goes to bed early, so he has to eat early. Tonight I could eat as late as I wanted. The stress of work and dealing with Bernie slid from my shoulders like a great weight, and then the phone rang. It was Bernie.

The airline had oversold the flight, so they asked the passengers if anyone would give up a seat for a free travel voucher, and Bernie, displaying the reflexes of a mongoose, pounced on the deal. He figured he could use his frequent guest points to stay overnight for free in a hotel near the airport and fly out the next morning. But he no longer had his rental car, so he called me because he needed a ride to the hotel. Plus it was 5:30, so he needed to eat.

Depressed, I drove to the airport. I called Bernie as I approached the terminal to let him know I was pulling up. “Oh, I guess I should have called you,” he said. “I decided to take a cab to the hotel. Can you pick me up for dinner?”

Now I was pretty upset, but Bernie’s hotel was on the way back to my hotel, so it wasn’t out of my way. I stopped out in front of the lobby entrance and he got in the car. It seems that this particular hotel consists of several buildings, and his room was about a hundred yards away. I drove him to his building so that he could drop off his bag.

A few minutes later, he emerged and told me that his room key card didn’t work. Seething with irritation, I drove him back to the lobby. He went inside and came right back out, chuckling to himself. “Can you believe it?” he asked. “I was using the key card from the first hotel!” Idiot.

I’d had enough of Bernie for that day, so I denied his demands that we go out to eat immediately. Instead, we drove downtown where a local music festival was being held. Beer was flowing like water, and I drank deeply. Bernie sat glumly on a bench, trying to look pitiful and hungry.

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Meanwhile, I had a long conversation with Sandy (the other employee who is staying for the weekend), in which she revealed that Bernie has some personality qualities that make young women uncomfortable.

After we had deadened our sensitivity to Bernie with alcohol, we decided to take pity on him and get some dinner. We walked to a nearby neighborhood and found the Girls Gone Wild bus parked outside of a club. God only knows what they were doing in there. I had Bernie take this picture. It took him five minutes to figure out how the camera worked.

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Sandy asked me to take this picture – I swear it wasn’t my idea.

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As soon as we finished, two giggly young women walked up with a camera and asked if I would take their picture in front of the bus. Bernie once again displayed his mongoose reflexes and sprang forward, grabbing the camera out of their hands. We then spent an uncomfortable five minutes watching Bernie fumbling with the camera and trying to make conversation with the girls, who went from giggly amusement to frozen smiles.

Next week is going to suck. Bernie won’t have a rental car, so I’m going to have to drive him anywhere he wants to go.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Scarlet Avenger and the Unstable Table

While waiting for the plane to take off in Atlanta, I struck up a conversation with one of the other passengers about our destination city, Lafayette, Louisiana. I asked her if there were any good restuarants in the area. I had forgotten that we were flying on a small, regional jet. This meant that most of the people on the plane were locals, returning from business trips or vacations. Within a few seconds, everybody on the aircraft was shouting out suggestions for places to get etouffe, gumbo, fresh seafood, creole cooking, etc.

So far I have not been disappointed by a single meal. Even the smallest lunch counter establishments have fantastic food. However, eating with Bernie has been an issue, because he has some bizarre habits. At dinner on the first night, Bernie had a baked potato. He opened it up flat like a butterfly, and mushed it up with a fork. Then he proceeded to cover it with an enormous quantity of salt and pepper, and eight patties of butter. We questioned him about his cholesterol and blood pressure, which he proudly claims are in the “normal” range.

At breakfast the next morning, he had a small bowl of Raisin Bran with six packages of sugar.

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The guy is pretty old, so I wonder how much longer he can continue eating like this. I’m hoping he makes it the full two weeks. We’re trying to concoct strategies to avoid eating with him, but it’s hard to get away.

The training classes we’ve been presenting thus far have been a mixed bag, some going well, some going very poorly. The training room is very small, with seating for 8 trainees. Sometimes we have 16 people in there. If someone has to leave to go to the bathroom, it’s like a Chinese puzzle. One person moves into an empty space, and three others shift over to open a space somewhere else. Then the person who needs to leave moves into that space, and so on until we work them to the door.

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A projector sits on a small, wobbly table, and that’s where we put our laptop that we hook up to the projector. If you have to type anything on the laptop, the whole table shakes and shimmies and the image projected on the screen jitters around. When I’m training, I put the laptop on my lap to prevent this problem, but Bernie is oblivious and just bangs away on the keyboard, giving everyone nausea or migraine headaches.

When I picked up my rental car, I was given this “arrest-me red” Dodge Avenger.

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It’s a fairly large, powerful car, but because Lafayette, Louisiana is such a small town, I haven’t had occasion to drive it faster than 35 miles an hour between the hotel and our customer’s offices. I can tell you that it rattles and bounces like a VW microbus when I cross railroad tracks, so I wouldn’t say it was a comfortable car to drive. Maybe this weekend I’ll take it out on the highway and see if I can avoid the State Police. It should be easier than avoiding Bernie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Day One

I’m in Lafayette, Louisiana for two weeks, training customers on the use of our software product. Training isn’t my job, I’m just being used in this capacity because my company doesn’t have a training department. So they grab whoever they can to perform the task, qualified or not.

Ordinarily, I would relish a challenge like this, but I’ve been saddled with a co-trainer, and so far, that’s not going very well. We’ll call him Bernie. He’s an older gentleman who likes to stand too close when he talks, greets female co-workers with an unwelcome too-long hug, and believes he knows more on every subject than anyone else on the planet.

My colleagues who know him all too well snorted with amusement when I told them that I would be travelling with him, then switched to horror and pity when I told them it would be for two weeks.

I flew to Atlanta and met him at the airport. We flew from there to Lafayette on a small regional jet with small regional seats. I had the window, Bernie had the aisle. He sprawled across his seat, his elbow digging into my vital organs. He seemed unaware that I was squashed uncomfortably against the curved bulkhead, straining to maintain some kind of personal space.

When we arrived, we checked into the hotel (I’m not rooming with him, thank God), and agreed to meet in the lobby to go out for dinner. He has this annoying habit of asking others for suggestions, then vetoing them in favor of his own preference. He seems to believe that as the senior member of the team (there are five us here), he gets to make all of our decisions, even those involving meals.

The first training session went very well, but it lasted all day and I was exhausted when it was over. We returned to the hotel by 5:15 and I went to my room to decompress. Ten minutes later, Bernie was banging on my door, insisting that we all go out for drinks before dinner.

We discussed possible places to go, finally convincing Bernie to drive with us to a trendy area of town. Unfortunately, it’s Monday night, and most of the trendy bars and clubs don’t even open on Mondays. Those that do don’t open until late on Mondays. Eventually we found a perect, shabby little dive, although Bernie seemed perturbed that he hadn’t made the decision. I was looking around for a waitress, when I saw Bernie leave the bar with a determined look on his face. None of the others knew where he had gone, or why.

Just as we were getting comfortable, Bernie entered the bar and triumphantly announced that he had found a better place, which had comfy sofas for us to sit on instead of the perfectly suitable barstools we had already warmed up. So we reluctanly finished our drinks and followed him out of the dive, half a block up the road, and into a gay bar. That’s right, a gay bar. Here’s Bernie, blissfully ignorant of the photgraphs of naked men over his head:


We spent a couple of hours there, listening to diva music on the jukebox, and howling with laughter at Bernie’s attempts to find the men’s room (there wasn’t one – it’s unisex). Despite the humorous moments, it’s going to be a long two weeks.