Louisiana Cultural Geography
That short video from the food magazine Saveur makes me excited for spring’s arrival here in south Louisiana, because it means good food from the garden is coming soon. We bought a house last summer that is next door to the farm where the man who grows the best tomatoes in the parish lives. Fresh tomatoes are God’s way of reminding us Louisiana folks that He loves us in spite of punishing us with our unbearable summers.
There’s an amusing line in the video in which a young farmer from Kentwood, a small town due east of Baton Rouge, near the Mississippi state line, says that he lives in the “northeast” part of the state. If you look at a map of Louisiana, that is ridiculous. He plainly lives in southern Louisiana. But in the geography of the Louisiana culture, he’s right. If the state of Louisiana were only its Southern region — the Cajuns, the New Orleanians, and the English-dominated Florida Parishes (where I live) — then Kentwood really would be in the “northeast” part of the state. The slip the young farmer made reveals the truth of what I keep saying around here: that Louisiana is two states held together by a political border. North Louisiana has more in common culturally with East Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi than with the south. Happily, there is no hostility between us, but if you live here, you can tell the difference.
I find the differences most interesting when you consider the Florida Parishes. Like the north Louisiana folks, we are primarily Anglo-Irish Protestant (and African American), but the culture is more influenced by the easygoing ways of Catholics. North Louisiana is heavily Baptist, by contrast. I know that as a demographic fact, but I don’t really know what that means in depth, because I’ve never had a lot of exposure to Baptist culture. I know, though, that when I went to high school in north Louisiana from 1983-85, the place felt different in ways I could not articulate, but could definitely feel. It feels the same way when I cross the river into Cajun country — a feeling that is more distinct because you can hear the difference in people’s accents. But there is a significant culinary difference, and a difference in attitudes toward life, as I captured in this 2012 entry.
So the Florida Parishes seem to be neither Catholic South nor Baptist North, but their (our) own thing. I realize, though, that I’m talking about white culture. I would love to know how black culture differs throughout Louisiana, whose population is 32 percent black. On that trip to Breaux Bridge in 2012 (see the link), I heard old black men speaking Cajun French for the first time in my life. It was startling, and beautiful to my ears.