The happy musician played his accordion while I pondered the true meaning of the word “lagniappe” and devoured my fried alligator. The goal of this journey was two-fold: to interview locals, and to learn why the idea of lagniappe (that little something extra) is preciously prevalent in this region. My toes tapped as I ordered the bread pudding, knowing most would end up in a to-go box.
Jimmy LaGrange is the man with the most melodic Cajun accent and General Manager of Randol’s Restaurant https://www.facebook.com/RandolsRestaurant/ who answered my many questions about this famous restaurant and the band. I asked patrons about local beliefs and customs. We talked about lagniappe, art, food, the nutria, the Rougarou, and things I should see while in town. Watching couples dancing on that old wooden floor, I couldn’t help smiling and feeling incredibly happy. After all this is Lafayette, the heart of all things Cajun in Louisiana. Many say it is the happiest city in America. I tend to agree.
This prearranged interview with Jimmy was one of several during my four days in Lafayette. He explained the difference between Zydeco and Cajun music; Zydeco is faster and includes a scrub board while Cajun always includes an accordion and fiddle and is much better for dancing. His list of Cajun bests includes food, fun, music, art, and beautiful scenery. He suggested I see nearby Lake Martin. Later I asked Julia, the server, to bring my check. She laughed and said simply, “Lagniappe, love, per Jimmy’s orders it’s on the house!”
Sunrise the next morning found me standing alone in a sizeable sugarcane field. I felt gratitude as I took photographs in perfect light. Then I headed to Lake Martin, a magnificent expanse of over 760 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp that serves as a rookery for herons, egrets, and other significant nesting water birds. This ecosystem also supports alligators, amphibians, and nutria.
The nutria is an invasive species rodent resembling a beaver. Humans trap them, eat them, or harvest their fur, yet they a destructive nuisance in the wetlands. Seeing a live nutria casually going about its daily routine was a first for me. Again, I said a quick thank you to God for allowing me to see that special something extra. Apparently, my Higher Power was providing a little lagniappe of His own that morning.
My early morning solitude over, I sought out a cup of strong coffee. That led to a pleasant conversation with a local named Diane who said the Cajun people are proud of their family and genealogy and welcome new friends into their hearts and homes. She spoke of the wedding custom of pinning money to the bride’s veil before asking her to dance. The custom and the sharing both seemed like gestures of lagniappe. She suggested that I go see the beautiful architecture of the historic downtown area, so I did.
While walking along Vermilion Street, a fabulous old hardware store caught my attention. I stepped closer to read the for-sale sign on the door at the same moment the owner opened it from inside. When he offered to give me a tour of the building even after I had told him I was not in the market to buy, I’m sure my jaw hit the floor. He covered every inch and lovingly explained each detail. The two-story Italianate style was built in 1890 of wood, pressed tin, corrugated metal, and cast iron. Ornate designs in the columns included ribbons and fleur-de-lis. The beauty of the craftsmanship just about made me cry. I thanked him profusely and told him that his kind and caring spirit was a perfect example of lagniappe.
The following morning, I interviewed Cully Firmin, https://www.facebook.com/cully.firmin whose versatility is astounding. Scientifically, Cully designs geothermal sensory devices for computers and cameras. He gave me a shop tour, explaining how his work relates to photography and drilling oil wells. Quite honestly, most of it was way too technical for me.
Artistically, Cully and his wife Angela are award-winning instructors in photography, lighting, modeling, figure drawing, and body painting. We had stimulating discussions about food, art, and entertainment. I met their adorable son Edgar and their dog Lenore. The first lagniappe here was my favorite quote from Cully, “Pursue what you love, but never too much of any one thing.” The second was a cup of hot chai tea with cinnamon.
My next stop was to meet Bonnie Camos, https://www.facebook.com/bonnie.camos a native Lafayette artist and educator. She gave me a hands-on demonstration in her art studio of creating with encaustic wax; the lagniappe was two pieces of art to take home with me. She shared her views on faith, family, food, and fun. Her husband is descended from Joseph Beausolei Broussard one of the first Acadians to reach Louisiana in 1765. Bonnie claims every person has the potential to be an artist and that sometimes “you just have to tease it out of them”. She talked about the wedding veil custom and about sucking crawfish heads. Bonnie said some local artists use the large orange teeth of the nutria in creating jewelry.
She took me on a whirlwind tour of several top shops, markets, and galleries. We discussed the idea of food as art while studying, and then eating, a piece of quiche. I was thrilled and slightly star-struck when she casually introduced me to her friend Dusty, whom I had read about and immediately recognized as the “Cajun Picasso” https://www.facebook.com/TheCajunPicasso/ . He combines Cubism and Folk Art into what he calls “colk art” often incorporating found or recycled objects. Dusty has eaten nutria and does suck crawfish heads. He says strange Rougarou creatures similar to werewolves could exist out in those Louisiana swamps and bayous. Meeting him felt like an extra benefit or a free prize, which is just one more way to define lagniappe.
As we were about to leave, Dusty mentioned that he and several other local artists had painted decorative frogs all over the tiny town of Rayne, about sixteen miles away. Later that same day I drove around viewing those adorable frogs. In a small thrift store there, I spoke with the lady named Lena at the cash register. That brought back wonderful memories of my grandmother, also named Lena. When I told her that Dusty had suggested this town, she put a discount on my purchase and said, “Every little act of lagniappe makes a big difference.”
My last interview in Lafayette was with Clint Hebert, a burly bear of a man with great facial hair and a love of good conversation. His family includes makers and artisans of luxury goods using alligator leather at Mark Staton https://markstatonllc.com/about-us/ . I mean, really, just stop and think about this for a minute. Louisiana, swamps, alligators, and artistry! They produce exceptional exotic items using the world’s most valuable reptile skins in a multitude of colors.
Clint is quite passionate about being a good steward of those skins and local natural resources. He is also keenly interested in food, art, and travel. He would love to someday visit Paris. Clint reports that his French-Canadian ancestors have been traced as far back as 1522. Oh, and that nutria tastes like dark turkey meat. His tip about where to find the best tasting and most artistic food in town was a lagniappe. So was the free tour of the shop. So was the nice discount when I decided to splurge on some alligator skin items.
As my tremendous trip was nearing its end, I reflected on my original goals. I had interviewed all four of my prescheduled contacts and ten others as well. We had the expected conversations about art, customs, food, music, nature, and travel. Additionally, there had been those very unexpected topics including architecture, genealogy, and science. Each interaction had been entertaining and joyful on such a deep level that I will always treasure them in my heart.
What did I learn about lagniappe? The many cultures of Louisiana have blended to form a most fascinating and fun-loving mix. When they take a strong liking to anyone, that lucky person is quite often given special gifts called lagniappe to show affection, appreciation, and a cherished “little something extra”. Lagniappe is gestures of generosity and acts of kindness. It is born of a loving spirit with an inclination to give more, do more, and be more.
Lagniappe is deeper relationships and caring connections. It is a sweet and simple concept that makes a grand and glorious difference; it is thrilling and transformational. Living with the love of lagniappe and choosing to let it loose results in an uncensored and unencumbered freedom. It leads to a fuller awareness that an open heart and open mind can change the world for the better. I learned to embrace my own power of lagniappe and then to exuberantly let it loose upon the planet.