TABASCO – On the Bayou
Around the 12BB household, we try to adhere to the belief that experiences are inherently worth more than possessions, and that the ultimate measure of “winning” is not collecting the most toys but rather having played with the most toys. From that perspective, launching this site has proven to be more successful than we ever could have hoped. Case in point: my trip to Avery Island, Louisiana this past spring. There are countless reasons I could give (and will give over subsequent posts) — the food, the drink, the scenery, and certainly the bent-over-backwards hospitality — but I’m going to lead with one simple, magic, life-changing word: airboat.
While I was born a few years too late to catch “Flipper” and, more importantly, “Gentle Ben” during their original runs, I was fortunate enough (depending on how you look at it), to be a child of UHF syndication. Unlike the helicopter-parenting of today, these shows preach a doctrine of absentee patriarchs who magically appeared, cavalry-style, only when most needed, as well as, above all else, high adventure for young boys. As it feeds into today’s story, I feel less compelled to explain the plot of “Gentle Ben” than I do to share a screen cap of its opening credits —
That pretty much sums it up: a boy and his dad racing through the Everglades on an airboat… with a giant black bear on board. As boys tend to grow bigger but not necessarily “up”, I can confess that the above image has been lingering around my soul for forty-some years, singularly defining the concept of the perfect day. Boy, father, black bear (optional), airboat. An Angelino born and bred, however, I must confess that I’ve found little occasion to commute by airboat, vacation via airboat, or pick up my prom date with dad’s airboat. And, so, from an early age, I resigned myself to an airboat-less existence.
Then, TABASCO came calling. If you’ve read the first post in this series, you’ll know that this past March, I was invited to Avery Island, the historical homeland of the grand-pappy of all pepper sauces, for a TABASCO Tastemakers event — an open house for writers and photographers. The purpose of a such junket is, of course, to expose the attendees to the wonders of the product and send us off evangelizing to our readers. What interested me specifically about TABASCO was its simple ingredient base (peppers, salt, and vinegar) and the fact that it was already a component we were using in drinks. What I hadn’t expected was the small-company, open-door mindset of something which I had always perceived to be a giant international corporation. Well, that last part is mostly true, the reach of TABASCO knows few global boundaries, but there is no denying that the McIlhenny Company is an intimate family business and, when company comes visiting, that company is treated like family.
Following a trip to the TABASCO museum and archives, the second full day of our trip centered around lunch at Trapper’s Camp, the company’s private fishing camp south of Avery Island. The trip by fast boat was a utilitarian one — isolating the traveler from the surrounding sounds and sensations — during the thirty minute ride down the long waterway. All around us, the marshy brown bayou stretched to the horizon, dotted by the occasional viridescent tree. Trapper’s Camp itself presented little contrast to the spartan quarters of the fast boat which had ferried us there. This was no corporate playground; there was no valet nor executive washroom. Then again, this was exactly the way things rolled around Avery Island. Flamboyance nudged aside by pure down-home hospitality. The finest crawfish boil I would most likely ever attend was being prepared for us, and to keep us entertained in the meanwhile, there were airboats. Yes — airboats.
I’ve been a motorcyclist for the majority of my life — first as a passenger during my early years, then learning to ride at around age 10. There’s an exhilaration that comes from being face-to-face with the world at speed. Well into my adult life I found it nearly impossible to drive a car with the windows up — it’s too isolating, the road too removed. Never did I imagine that there existed a more exciting means of transportation than two wheels. (Actually, I had imagined it since those Gentle Ben days; I just never thought I’d be able to experience it.) I am tempted to say that the airboat danced over the placid bayou waters, but “danced” is too active a verb. We glided, we slipped, we skated over the shallows and up across the land. Like the Trapper’s Camp — and like TABASCO itself — the airboat is a pillar of unpretentious pleasure. My only complaints would be that of being afforded just a single trip and not being allowed (wisely) to drive.
Back at the camp, large Styrofoam take-out containers of crawfish (cooked with a pepper mash which is the by-product of making TABASCO), garlic bread, and ice cold Heinekens waited for us. I’ll skip wordy prose here to simply say that it was one of the greatest meals of my life. Was it the food, the drink, the airboats, or the quiet calm of the bayou itself? I imagine it was truly a matter of time and place — no more and no less than a perfect moment.
A large part of that perfect moment — a part I’ve conveniently neglected to mention until now — was the music. Throughout the visit, we were treated to some amazing Cajun sounds courtesy of Joe Douglas & The American Cajun Band. Just as Steve Martin noted that you can’t play a sad song on a banjo (and Vince Noir told us that it’s impossible to be unhappy in a poncho), it’s really impossible not to tap your feet while listening to Cajun music or Creole zydeco. But there is another South Louisiana sound that we’ll be discussing today (queue the segue) — a unique mixture of Cajun, Creole, country, R&B, and Rock-n-Roll affectionately known as swamp pop.
While you may never have heard of swam pop, you’ve heard swamp pop itself. Case in point —
“Sea of Love” was one of the top songs of 1959, and it’s not the only swamp pop single to chart. Historian Shane Bernard (of whom, more later) tells us that since the first recordings in 1955 more than twenty swamp pop songs have infiltrated the Billboard Hot 100, with a few going as far as No. 1. The style is uniquely Acadian and is described by Roger Dopson at GVCRecords.com thusly:
” Stylistically, Swamp Pop is clearly a close relation of New Orleans R&B, being readily identifiable by its piano triplets, plaintive melodies (which are often in 6/8 waltz time), bluesy guitar licks, rolling bass and a mournful horn section, all underpinned by a strong Rhythm & Blues backbeat. Lyrically, its songs are often anguished, “God-done-treat-me-bad” tales of lost loves, failed romances, broken hearts and stark loneliness (NB: it should be stressed that not all Swamp Pop songs are ballads – but a hell of a lot are!)”
It should not come as a surprise that the mid 1950s saw the explosion of rock-n-roll. Elvis was bursting onto the national scene, and all around the country, recording labels were popping up to capitalize on the demand for new sounds. In South Louisiana, record store owners were finding that they couldn’t supply customers with the music they were demanding — namely white Cajun and black Creole artists — so they launched their own recording studios and labels. With rock-n-roll taking over the charts, the local label owners began to seek equally local artists with just the right sound. Despite racial separation in the South, swamp pop accepted white and black artists alike, and although there were no mixed-race bands, artist of either color often wrote for each other, covered each others’ songs, and played on each others’ recordings.
Without going too far down the swamp pop rabbit hole today, I do want to highlight the work of one particular swamp pop artist: Rod Bernard. A pioneer of swamp pop (some call him the king of the movement), Bernard was born to French-speaking Cajun parents in Opelousas, Louisiana and grew up around his grandfather’s dance hall, the Courtableau Inn. By age 10, Bernard was hosting his own radio program, playing traditional Cajun and country music. Then rock and roll — especially R&B-influenced rock — hits the airwaves. Bernard and some fellow Opelousas teenagers formed the group the Twisters and, in late 1958, the group recorded a version of an unproduced King Karl song, “This Should Go On Forever“. The song became a national hit, and nineteen-year-old Bernard found himself touring the country, playing local Bandstand programs — ultimately, appearing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand — and touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and B. B. King, among others.
Over the next decade, Bernard would release a number of minor hits, never again reaching the success of “This Should Go On Forever” (I think Colinda particularity exemplifies the swamp pop sound). He never left radio, however, carrying on his career as a Louisiana disc jockey and advertising executive. For you music nerds, here’s a well-worth-watching short video of Bernard, who here possesses a wonderful Elvis/George Jones swagger, made by Bernard’s then-nineteen-year-old son, Shane — the very same Shane Bernard mentioned above. Shane’s love of music and his Cajun heritage led him to become one of the foremost historians of the Acadian region and people as well as — as luck would have it — the historian and curator at the McIhenny Company museum, which is where I had the good fortune of meeting him on the same day as the trip to Trapper’s Camp .
This would be a good point to segue (again) to today’s drink. As part of our TABASCO series (in exchange for the opportunity to visit TABASCO headquarters, we agreed to produce four recipes and were compensated to do so), we wanted to create a drink that would have been right at home alongside that bayou-side crawfish boil. During my visit to Avery Island, we had TABASCO-inspired drinks prepared for us by Kirk Estopinal of the top-shelf New Orleans bars and restaurants Cure, Bellocq, and Cane & Table. It was Estopinal who pointed out during our meeting that, given its base components, TABASCO itself is, in many ways, a shrub, a Colonial- era drink combining fruit, vinegar, and sugar.
Here, we’ve made a true shrub out of TABASCO Green Jalapeño Sauce. To tame the burn, we cook the shrub (the good folks at the McIlhenny Company informed us that cooking TABASCO products reduced their heat but not their flavor) and topped it off with a long measure of Izze blackberry soda, which adds just the right amount of sweet, fruity bubbles. Add to that a slash of white rum, and you get a tart summer quencher with just enough heat to help you fend off a humid summer day.[ultimate-recipe id=”8120″ template=”default”]
Now to wind all this up, let us for a moment step back to that crawfish boil and savor the food, the drink, the music — and, of course, the airboats — but most importantly of all, the experience. Individually, any of the parts that made up that day could be replicated a hundred times over. Put them all together, however, and you have a day which can never be relived. It was a moment unique unto itself — a hit record, likely will never be repeated. Try to recapture the magic and, more likely than not, you’ll be left with little more than a bad cover version. That day of crawfish, music and airboats may be behind me, but it continues to live inside of me — a place where it truly can go on forever.
Rod Bernard Images Courtesy of Shane K. Bernard