The water in south Louisiana is always the color of a good roux: somewhere between milk and dark chocolate. And depending on where you are, whether the tide is in or out, and if a recent rainstorm has stirred up settled detritus -natural and manmade- from the bottom, it can resemble roux's thick consistency.
You can never see more than an inch deep, and the older I get, the less I trust what lies underneath. For as long as I can remember, mullets have flung themselves from the bayou over and over as they travel. It seems utterly exhausting and inefficient, but perhaps they too are suspicious of the murky depths. I mean, since the gators moved in, and ducks, geese and hunting dogs have gone missing, I'm sure uneasy. My mom sends pictures of the Louisiana Jaws she spots- sunning on the grass just across the bayou, in our boat slip, and so on. You couldn't pay me to jump in that water now.
Early on, Mom taught my sister and me to crab. We'd tie chicken necks with kitchen string, affix these lures to wharf cleats and slowly let them sink into the opaque abyss. Patiently and quietly, net at the ready, we'd wait, looking for subtle tugs or outright jerks. When something seemed to bite, one of us would pull the line up as slowly as possible, for crabs are skittish and quick (and definitely what you hope is on the other end of the fleshy neck).
When a claw or those beady eyes came into view, the one with the net would deftly scoop our catch and hurriedly toss it into a bucket or ice chest. Anything other than crabs got tossed back in, released from death's grip until another day.
Those poor crabs would skitter back and forth frantically, hard-shell legs clicking desperately against the prison. I felt so badly for them but I also knew just how delicious they'd taste later, freshly steamed. Gulf crabs are scrumptious. All Gulf seafood is, really, especially the shellfish.
I could never throw the crabs in the pot of boiling water. Still can't. But I appreciated Mom's fortitude and loved the aftermath. She would cover our kitchen table with newspaper, and we'd sit down with nutcrackers and picks to pry open the key on the crabs' bellies and crack open their claws. Peeling crabs is an onerous task and I always found the gills and other innards fascinating in a disgusting way, but each bite of that delicate meat made all the work well worth it.
Each time I take Jack and Ol to Lake Charles, I am seized by a yen for a cupcake from Jo's Party House and so we make a quick pilgrimage across town. Jo's white cake simply cannot be beat, and despite the insane cupcake fever that's overtaken the country in recent years, Jo's cupcakes are still just $1 each. They know they have a perfect, beloved product but have stayed true and humble, and honestly, I think that makes their cakes taste that much better.
Jo's has been in the same tiny building on the corner of Ethel and Sallier (pronounced Sal-yay) forever. There's an oak tree in the middle of the gravel parking lot, an AC unit is always humming from one window, and a large, three-tier, painted wooden cake serves as its sign.
Without fail, Jo's is busy. Freshly iced cakes decorated with John Deere tractors, Thomas trains and singing Elsas wait on shelves, ready to be picked up happily for parties later in the day.
In four bites, I'm done. Perfectly sated. I am an avid baker, and I've made many cakes in my life, but despite my efforts, I can never figure out just what makes Jo's cakes so airy, delicate and flavorful. The consistency of both the cake itself and the quality over time are impeccable, and I am grateful for that. Nothing changes except for the color of the flower buds piped on top the main sugary cloud (and even that is rare; traditionally the buds are pale pink, baby blue and yellow).
On the way to the airport, we pass a yard in which, for as long as I can remember, have stood two decorative deer. As with much else in Louisiana, these deer are utterly dilapidated and we can never understand why their owners haven't replaced or removed them. Of the deer's original four ears, only one remains, an entire shin is missing, and their chipped paint makes them look as if they are mottled in a diseased way.
But as with so much else, they are part of tradition of going and leaving home, and I love them for that.