Avoyelles Parish … Goats, Sweet Potatoes and a Louisiana Fall

I texted my friend Gretchen and asked what she was up to this weekend. I’ve only met Gretchen once, but we have a lot in common, and I was feeling the need for some Gretchen time. She called me and said she wanted to go to the Southeastern Louisiana University game (my alma mater) in Lake Charles. At first, I really balked. I’ve been on the road for three weeks – mostly day trips – but some night trips, and I was looking forward to some time at my house. What I really wanted to do was to get a box of sweet potatoes from Mansura LA where my sister lives. I looked at the map and finally decided that this was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. “Let’s go,” I texted her back.

I loaded up Pursy with my dog’s kennel for the hotel, road trip essentials – my Macbook Air for blogging, makeup, healthy snacks and lots of water for me and Ashok – and hit the road. I don’t know whether fall is so pretty in Louisiana because it’s takes its own sweet time getting here or if it’s just gorgeous in its own nondramatic way, but I couldnt’ have asked for a prettier day. I drove Northwest on country roads from Baton Rouge to get to the little tiny string of towns whose names roll off my sister’s mouth consistently – Cottonport … Mansura … Marksville. I had to stop for gas in a little tiny town called Innis. Athleta has not discovered Innis yet. I had to go in the store to pay for the gas since they haven’t upgraded to the credit card-swiping pumps yet. Everybody in that store, young women, men, boys, men – I mean everybody in that store – had on camouflage of some rendition. I’m surprised I could see anybody they were so well-hidden. I thought of how Athleta was missing out on some customers with their lack of camouflage attire.  I asked for the ladies’ room, and she said to walk to the center of the store and there would be an opening. I looked at her for a second. Nah … surely the opening LED to the bathroom. For a second, I was going to ask and then I thought, “This would be great for the blog.” But, alas, it was a modern bathroom, albeit very small. I don’t know how a big guy would have used the facilities as I practically had to cram myself into the little cubicle with no ceiling to take care of business.

I saw a sign in Mansura for the Tourist Information Center, and I giggled a little as I couldn’t imagine what there was to do here in the middle of nowhere, but, by God, you know I’m going to find out by day’s end! I saw a sign for an iron bridge that I wanted to check out, but I had no idea if it was just down the road or 20 miles down the road, and I had to make time. I visited my sister at her school fair, and she gave me directions to the sweet potato farm. You see…. this is a top secret sweet potato farm. I’ve been trying to get directions from her for a week. She couldn’t give me an address. She just knew how to get there. She offered to get them for me, but, once I realized that this outfit would be countrified, I knew this would be a Midlife Moment fo’ sho’. I drove up to a little old country house that had a large tin warehouse behind it. Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers were tied up all over the place in front of this warehouse where three sweet potato farmers were busy re-arranging sweet potatoes. I wish Ashok could have seen all of those sweet potatoes, but when I walked back to the car, she was glued to the back seat with a Doberman sitting there staring at her. She decided she was a little too tired to get out and socialize, I guess. One of the farmers had to introduce me to his dogs. I talked to them a little bit about how much I loved their sweet potatoes and where these five boxes were going, and I hit the road.

My sister’s friend Marguerite owns a goat milk dairy. Susan told me she probably wouldn’t be home on Saturday as that’s the day they go to Farmer’s Markets, but I should try her anyway. I drove up in the driveway at WesMar Farms and knocked on the door of the little store outside adorned with a Welcome sign. I got no answer when I knocked, so I timidly walked up to the house. A screen door on the most perfect little farmhouse I’ve ever seen separated me from a fabulous kitchen that was bubbling with cinnamony smells. I knocked, and a woman who I’ve seen on Facebook but not in person, said, “Come on in!” She was making Cushaw Butter which is similar to Apple Butter but made with a squash called a Cushaw and hibiscus syrup.

Hibiscus 101

I have to mention Marguerite’s kitchen. From the other side of the screen door, I could tell it was special. First of all, I love a squeaky screen door. My soul remembers walking through squeaky screen doors into kitchens when I was a kid. That was back in the day when air conditioners didn’t really exist, and big windows and screens allowed the humid sticky air from the outside to cool the humid sticky air on the inside a few degrees. It actually didn’t cool very much, but I guess it just got air circulating. We did have fans to move air and that was the best you could hope for – moving air. But, behind those screen doors were the people I loved in Louisiana. The kitchens were always full of good food. The screen door especially reminds me of MawMaw who lived behind us. She’d always have a plate of biscuits on the counter and coffee in the drip coffeemaker on the stove. We’d have biscuits with bacon and bacon grease as a gravy along with coffee generously laced with whole milk for a snack. I don’t know if it tasted as good as I remember or if it was just the laziness of it all that I still can feel in my bones. I felt all of that when I walked into Marguerite’s kitchen. It was a well-worn kitchen. It’s not the marble countertop, beautifully bedecked kitchens cooks of today build as their workshops. It was a farmhouse kitchen with cabinets to the ceiling, and love all over the place. I could literally sense the energy of decades of love and laughter and good eating that have passed in that kitchen. I’ll be back, Marguerite. I want to have coffee laced with goat’s milk in that kitchen.

The Girls – WesMar Style

She took me out back to give me a tour of her farm. She grows hibiscus – not the flower – like you find in all kinds of healthy herbal teas. I’d never seen that type of hibiscus before. She also had mirlitons growing in the backyard. We talked about how country people look for ways to make money. They don’t think of going to get a job. They try to figure out what they can do to support themselves on their land and with their own resources. She knows a young man who is putting himself through college selling flavored honeys from his beehives. His sister makes lip balm from the beeswax. Marguerite grows loofah, makes fabulous goodies in her kitchen – my sister tells me of the ravioli she makes that sounds divine -, and raises goats. Everything she showed me yesterday supported their life in some way. She told me how all of the girls in her family sewed their own clothes. If there was a special event coming up, they all had a dress to make. They had one sewing machine. If you were working on your dress and had to go to the bathroom, you frequently came back to see a sister had stolen your spot. It was a dog-eat-dog world on the sewing machine.

My sister has treated me to some of Marguerite’s goat milk delicacies. She brought me a basket when I was in Memphis. It was filled with goat cheese, crackers and goat cheese truffles. Goat Cheese truffles are this unbelievably great combination of goat cheese and chocolate. They are tangy, hearty and so very chocolatey. I had to have the first one out of curiosity because it sounded really weird, but I ate the other dozen because they were so dang good I couldn’t stop. They are not richly sweet.  I’d like to think they are pretty healthy. Alas, Marguerite didn’t have any yesterday. What she did have was some Goat’s Milk – really, really cold – in the refrigerator. She gave me a cup, and I had to buy a quart. It was very sweet and very good, and I knew exactly where that milk came from, where it was processed and the effort that went into it. Marguerite gave me a tour of the entire process. It was really interesting until she sat me down and showed me how to milk a goat. I looked at her incredulously. “You want ME to milk it,” I asked. She just laughed. Well, of course she did. The dogs hovered around to get a taste of the raw milk. They loved it.

Milking a Goat 101

I got lost on the way out. I’m glad I did. I drove up a bayou that was filled with the pretty little yellow flowers that thrive in the water here in the fall. Some of the trees were changing, but it’s not the wild, incredible show you see in the mountains. It was subtly, quietly fall. I drove over to Lake Charles to see my alma mater play football, and we beat the tar out of the McNeese Cowboys. I almost froze to death at the game. I got in the car, and the temperature was 61 degrees. Really? Has my blood already adapted to the sweltering Louisiana weather? I got back to the hotel and made some decaf cafe’ au lait with Marguerite’s creamy sweet goat’s milk. I’m hooked. I bought some more tonight at Trader Joe’s, but it’s not the same. There’s just something incredibly spiritual to me about meeting the people who grow my food. When I take a sip of Wesmar Farm’s milk, and I have a tiny bit left for tomorrow, it tastes extraordinarily special.

NOTE: They do tours on WesMar Farms, and they bring their foods to the Farmer’s Markets in Louisiana. CHeck their website for details. The sweet potato folks only have a phone. Tell them Midlife Moments sent you!!

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