Mention Louisiana and people usually think of New Orleans, but for those with a more discerning palate—or palette!—the smaller and infinitely more intimate Lafayette, just two hours west, will surely bring a smile to your face. For to experience Lafayette is to love Lafayette and to embrace it's deep, sultry, and rich culture.
Art is a living, breathing entity in Lafayette, Louisiana, not to be mistaken for Lafayette, Indiana or even Lafayette, California. Southwest Louisiana is steeped in Cajun and Creole traditions, streaming out as Zydeco and Cajun music, the Cajun two-step, colorful folk-art paintings, red beans and rice plate lunches on Mondays, and fried catfish platters on Fridays. Art in our area is founded on a Francophone heritage, carried down the Mississippi by Acadian French ex-pats who were kicked out of Nova Scotia and who eventually settled in the steamy bayou area now known as Acadiana.
It's a town where our heritage is celebrated with French immersion programs in our public schools and blocks of street signs written in French. It's tasted in Sunday morning breakfasts at the local café where you can join French-only conversations between young and old natives, or at Sunday rice and gravy dinner (aka lunch). Traditions are rich; multiple generations still gather to eat and be with family on weekends. It's not uncommon to have three or four generations gathered at one dinner table, or to have 100 first cousins living in the area. At some point, everyone knows someone, which is helpful during hurricane season—or for a good parade spot at Mardi Gras.
If you're unfamiliar with Lafayette, not to worry—the locals are the warmest, friendliest, most out-going population in an industrialized nation. Local pride runs strong, and anyone can steer you to the best Cajun-Mexican, best dancehall, best king cake, best crawfish shack, or best drive-thru daiquiri. Many shops are still locally owned, with both casual and upscale restaurants alike beloved and supported by the community. Southern Living recently deemed Lafayette—not NOLA—as one of the South's Tastiest Towns, a fact that the locals already knew in their hearts. Food and drink flow freely, and anyone is considered a friend, even if it's your first time visiting the heart of Cajun country and don't know the meaning of "lagniappe," or have never before tried the savory, smoky complexity of a good gumbo. Cajuns are religious about their gumbo, heralding the onset of chilly days as the start of 'gumbo season.' Who else would refer to their variation of a traditional mirepoix: mix of bell peppers, celery, and onion as the "Holy Trinity?"
Joie de vivre is part of our cultural heritage, whether the weather is a frigid 30 degrees in the winter, or 90 degrees for a "cool" summer day. The humidity and level of joy Acadians exude hovers around 99 percent. It might also be the number of festivals that pepper the Acadiana region. From the Rice Festival, to the , we are always ready to gather with family and friends for great music, delicious food and long, cool drinks. Some of our more popular events include: the Zydeco Festival in September, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in October, gumbo cook-offs during the fall/winter months, Mardi Gras in February and of course the wildly popular, Festival International in April. Come visit at any time; there's always something fun going on. Cajuns are legendary for their celebratory stamina. I refer to the five days of parties and parades and more parties that happen both spontaneously and as lavish productions for Festival International AND Mardi Gras, respectively.
Like most adolescents, I grew up longing to move away from Lafayette, hit the west coast or mingle with the anonymity of larger urban populations. Having traveled around, I've come to conclude, as most natives who move to the big Apple or San Francisco and eventually wander back home, Lafayette is an amazing secret of the South. Once you've discovered her, she's simply impossible to forget.
Thanks to friend and photographer Denny Culbert, for helping me show you Lafayette through his photography. All photos @2012 Denny Culbert.