On a photography workshop with Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com), our adventure of the morning was an airboat ride through the swamps of Jean Lafitte National Park. There are a lot of swamps, waterways and lakes at the end of the mighty Mississippi. How our guide found his way around must have come from many years experience. Pretty amazing where these boats can go and how fast they can go.
I enjoyed the whole trip and liked our guide, Rocky, a fitting name for this guy. He was barefoot, sometimes getting out of the boat to push off or walk on the shore. I told him I would be worried about cottonmouths, but he said you can smell them! He threw marshmallows to the gators, which I’m sure they get on a daily basis. They just swim right up to the boat. I don’t know how he a perfectly camouflaged barred owl sleeping on a limb as we cruised past. Also surprising that the owl didn’t move as he pulled the boat right beside the tree! In my past efforts to photograph owls, they are quick to leave as I approach. Like the alligators, they must be used to boats and people.
At the end of the trip, he said he was going to see a big alligator, and he knew right where to go, even calling the gator. From under a tree, it came toward the boat. Our guide pulled the boat onto the shore and got out a package of chicken. The gator walked right beside the boat and up to the front where our guide sat barefooted with shorts on, coaxing the gator to get right into the boat! Like old friends they met, our guide petting him on the nose, head and scratching his throat! Amazing!
We are on a photography workshop with Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com) in New Orleans. Driving north, we crossed the Mississippi River, that always impresses me. It is big, appears to be rather fast and is heavily trafficked by barges shipping products.
We visited Oak Alley Plantation. Oak Alley is.a beautiful place with its oak-lined drive, gardens and slave quarters. Turning away from the house, I saw a ship making its way up the Mississippi. The plantation has rooms and cabins for rent as well as an excellent dining room, where we had breakfast.
After some initial shots, we went into the restaurant for a good breakfast.
Back outside, we walked the grounds and gardens.
Heading back, Mark had found an eagle’s nest with a young one taking short flights.
Then on to Middendorf’s Manchac Restaurant at the Manchac Swamp Bridge, known for its thin-sliced catfish. A lot of other things also looked good on the menu.
Back at the hotel, Mark reviewed and helped us with our images, pointing out ways to improve and showing us editing techniques and sequence. In the evening, we took a ghost tour, but it was rather disappointing, so we dropped out.
Next up on our photography workshop (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com) was a cooking class. I didn’t know what to expect as we waited in the store part of the School of Cooking. I did see some interesting books, spices and goods.
We went into the class, in which were round tables with place settings. Things were looking up when they brought us a beer. Our instructor was Harriete, a little lady loaded with personality and local knowledge. She first made corn and crab bisque and gave served us a bowl which was excellent. Although I had heard the term, roux, I didn’t really know what it was. This one was butter and flour and took maybe 15 minutes to make. She emphasized staying with it, stirring or it would burn and you would have to start over. She used Joe’s Stuff seasoning, claw crab meat, chopped green onion, corn and parsley.
Next up was Chicken Étouffée. I had already seen that Étouffées were a common thing. One might have a fish covered with crawfish Étouffée. I learned that an Étouffée is dish of shellfish simmered in sauce made from a roux, usually served over rice. Rice, Harriette told us, was brought by Africans to the area, and it grew well here. She made here dark roux with butter, flour Joe’s Stuff seasoning with onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. It was another excellent dish.
In another pot she heated chicken stock, added it to the roux gradually, cooked 10 minutes, added chicken for 30 minutes adding green onions and parsley and served over rice.
Then she was on to making pralines, a signature desert in New Orleans. I learned it is pronounced “prahlines”, like you are having your throat examined by a doctor.
Harriette was a treat. You just wanted to give her a big hug!
We went back to the hotel for some quiet time, well actually to upload our images and edit them before venturing out to dinner. We walked most places, which is always interesting. The more I walked the streets, the more interesting it became – the people, the street art, the ever-present music and the shops.
We couldn’t get into Superior Seafood, so we went to Carmo where our Cemetery guide, Taylor, used to work. It was quite good.
We were on a photography workshop with Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com) After walking the streets for a while, we had breakfast at Cafe Beignet’s, a popular, very efficient little restaurant that moves people quickly, and the food is good.
We then took a cemetery tour with Taylor, a very knowledgeable young man. He had been a chef for 12 years, but finally decided to make a change, to work outside and do tours, so he does the cemetery and a ghost tour at night. There is quite a unique history to the cemeteries of New Orleans since it is below sea level, so at first bodies would float up, especially if it was in a coffin. There is also limited space, so a unique way of doing things was developed. The graves had to be above ground. To keep the bodies in place, the plot was often capped with concrete. The Masons were prevalent and the Catholic Church strong. Rules were made and fees charged for maintenance of each site could be quite expensive. Whole families could be buried in one plot. As many as 35 bodies would be uniquely placed. We visited St. Patrick Cemetery that was started by Irish Catholics in 1841
Mosquitoes being prevalent in the area, Yellow Fever epidemics in 1847 and 1853 were devastating. As many as 1300 people died in a week! There were so many people buried so fast, the sites are haphazard, not in their usual neat rows.
Maintenance fees were high and some families couldn’t keep up. There was an eviction notice on one
The soil being so soft, the tombs would sink, cracking or even bending marble doors.
The wealthy had some very ornate tombs with brick and marble, but most impressive were the crosses and statues on top.
In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, causing 1800 fatalities and $125 billion in damages, the costliest tropical cyclone in US history. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina). A memorial and the dead are in Charity Hospital Cemetery. The horror would strike again with Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
On our first day of our Photography/Cultural Workshop with Zablotsky Photography (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com), we explored the French Quarter. We would soon realize that we were going to sample New Orleans’ unique cuisine. The day started with a walk to maybe the best breakfast place anywhere, Mother’s Restaurant. It’s a busy place, where people stand in line to place their order. They give you a number on a metal stand to put on your table. A waitress quickly came by, taking our receipts that she gave to the kitchen while she got our drinks.
With a full stomach, we walked the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Jackson Square and the Market. The iron works, porches, flower baskets, open air restaurants and the ever-present music make up the atmosphere. the street people sleeping in doorways and park benches are blended with tourists from all over the world.
The area was inhabited by Native Americans for 10,000 years. By the time Jean-Baptiste, who was born in Montreal, founded New Orleans in 1718, there were about 15,000 Indians inhabiting the area. The Natchez Indians were predominant in the area. If you follow the Natchez Trace north, there is an impressive Native American history. Today there are four recognized tribes: the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana. The United Houma Nation is recognized as a tribe by the state of Louisiana. Standing before the Andrew Jackson statue, I was reminded of his role as president and the “Trail of Tears” so vividly told in the Museum of Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina. For a long time the French Quarter was the city of New Orleans, named after Regent Duc d’Orleans.
After a little quiet time, we went to dinner at the excellent Deanie’s Seafood Restaurant on Iberville Street where I had a fabulous grilled Redfish, and their crawfish were outstanding.
On the walk back to the Wyndham Hotel, the streets were taking on a more lively atmosphere.
Driving from my Tentrr campsite in Buccaneer State Park headed for New Orleans, the skies opened up and it poured sheets of rain. I pulled over at a Louisiana Welcome Center to wait it out. I was to meet Mark at the Airport where he was meeting Terry, who was coming in on the red-eye from California. Now was going to be late, but safety comes first.
I was coming for Mark’s one-week photography workshop in and around New Orleans. I have been on two other workshops with Mark, and I always learn a lot. He knows New Orleans because he spent two years here for a Periodontics residency at LSU. It is also Jazz Week, so I’m sure there will be big crowds. Big cities are not my thing, but I’m sure Mark will find some great shoots, and it will be interesting to see how he works. This is also going to be culinary tour because the foods of New Orleans are unique.
Fortunately, things worked out as Terry’s flight was delayed due to the thunderstorms. We met at Camellia Grill for lunch, a popular place for hamburgers, omelets and other goodies along with excellent service. The food was good and the service great. Sitting outside on a perfect day, we had a good view of streetcars going by while people continued to line up to get into this New Orleans classic. Terry made it about 45 minutes later.
We loaded all our luggage and photography equipment into Mark’s Honda Pilot, then drove to the airport where I left my truck in long-term parking for $14/day. It costs $40/day in the French Quarter and it is not secure. Well, the Wyndham has a garage, and it is all valet parking.
We checked into the Wyndham French Quarter Hotel and chilled for a few hours, then drove to Harbor Seafood and Bar out near the airport. I was now becoming familiar with I10 and 610, although I was glad I wasn’t driving. There are some very confusing exits and on-ramps to I10 going underneath the highway, turn left, turn right. In heavy traffic, it is wild!
At Harbor Seafood and Oyster Bar, there was a line out the door. A simple restaurant, it can seat a lot of people. Mark used to come here with his fellow residents one or two times a week. It is an interesting menu. I was all set to order the “Swamp Platter” with gator tail, turtle soup, crawfish tails, fried frog legs, crawfish etoufee and cajun alligator sausage. Now you won’t get that everywhere!
We decided to order for the table, so we got crawfish, steamed shrimp, oysters on the half shell, hush puppies and a soft shell crab Po Boy. The three of us couldn’t eat it all. It was quite a table of food!
I got up early, fixed some coffee and listened to some birds not far away. Although I couldn’t tell what they were, they sounded big. Looking at Google Maps, I saw a big lake or inlet next door. There was also a creek close to my camp. No wonder there were mosquitoes. I drove out of the park, turned right and followed South Railroad Avenue going behind my camp site. There was a train track on the other side of the road.
As I slowed down to look at the big estuary, a man got out of his car in front of me. I pulled over behind him, thinking I would take pictures of some egrets or something similar, but there were none. The man started rigging up a fishing rod, so I walked up and asked what he was going to fish for.
In his mid-sixties, he put a Hula Popper on as he told me he came here every morning for an hour’s fishing while his wife slept. He said he sometimes caught sea trout, flounder, largemouth bass and drum. “OK”, I thought to myself. “I think I’ll hang around and watch.”
This guy was a pro. He had a Daiwa rod and a Japanese reel, braided line and a tippet he tied onto a loop at the end of the line. As we talked, he must have thrown one of two lures 200 times, and never got caught in the grass once. He could throw that thing a long way with a two-handed grip with the lure dangling 2.5 feet below the end of the rod. He knew the currents and the wind, so he threw it past and left of a point. The current would carry the lure right past the point. It was pretty-much high tide, his favorite time to fish.
Fish began jumping to our left and further out. I suggested he needed a boat. “Ahh, I used to have one, but now I’m too old and sore to pull it out. I sold it last year.” The jumping fish were bait fish trying to escape some predator. Sea gulls cried above, swooping down to capture some.
Finally, we introduced ourselves. Stephan Champagne (pronounced with Creole accent). He was born and raised in New Orleans, but traveled a lot with business. He worked with the railroad for years, and said this is still a busy line carrying all sorts of goods – whatever someone wanted to have shipped. He worked in Newport News for a while, installing a system for ship building that was a big success.
Finally he got a hit – a good one. He had switched to some 2.5” topwater crawler he gave me the name of, but I no longer remember. It was a very nice trout. He quickly dispatched it with a knife to the spinal cord and threw it into a cooler. “Dinner”, he said with a smile. He said he preferred topwater lures. “It’s just more fun.”
After a few more casts, he looked at his watch. His wife would be getting up, so he started packing up, and we said our goodbyes. I enjoyed my morning with Stephan, and I think he liked having some company. I liked his stories as well as watching an expert fish. He talked about his 40’ mahgany trawler he bought and restored. He and his wife enjoyed traveling in it for about 7 years before he got tired of throwing money at it.
I stood looking at this pretty piece of water, imagining a nice fishing kayak, maybe one you power with your feet. Maybe I could get to the other side where all the fish seemed to be. Then again, maybe Stephan was right. Drive up, throw lures for an hour in the early morning, watch the gulls and maybe take a nice fish home for dinner.
Next week I am doing a 5-day photography/cultural workshop with Mark Zablotsky Photography in New Orleans. Mark lived in New Orleans for two years while doing his Periodontics residency in the 80’s, and he has been back many times for continuing education.
I could have flown down, but didn’t want to, or I could have taken the train, which I strongly considered. It would have been cheaper than driving if I didn’t get a sleeper. A sleeper pushed the price to $507, so I opted to drive.
I thought about taking the Airstream, but a hotel is included in the price of the course. In my many campground stays, I have often wondered what it is like to stay in cabins or tents that are so often in campgrounds. They seem rather under-utilized, so I thought I would give them a go.
Sweetwater, Tennessee is an hour short of half way to New Orleans. Actually I thought it was half way, but I didn’t factor in the time change, which happens just east of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had booked a small cabin at Sweetwater KOA, not far off I75. The costs are about $77 without plumbing and $110 with plumbing. I thought I would try it without plumbing, which means no sink or shower, but I would later learn there is a faucet in front of the cabin.
It’s a bit like camping with the trailer, using the bathroom for showers etc, but in the middle of the night, the treck to the bathroom is cumbersome. Cooking is more like camping with a tent. All in all, it was a nice little cabin, and I slept well.
I chatted a while with the owner of this beautiful camper that isn’t made any more.
I was up and out early, but I had to go into town for gas and DEF. I went into Skinner Auto Parts Store at 7:00 and it was hopping. Sweetwater is a town of 6300, but looks smaller. I think everyone was in the auto parts store, and they all knew each other. A nice man behind the counter asked what I was looking for, and he pointed to the DEF right by the front door. He greeted two others by name before pointing to the Diesel Clean on aisle 10. After I paid he carried two containers of DEF (diesel exhaust fluid) out to the truck, set them down and said goodbye. Two small groups were talking in the parking lot. A donut shop next door caught my attention, so after filling the DEF tank, I went over and got a couple of donuts and coffee. I think it was the owner sitting at a table who thanked me as I walked out. What a nice, little town.
Back on I75, traffic was busy on this Friday. Chattanooga was busy, but Birmingham was more busy with road construction making things come to a complete stop several times. By the time I got to I59, things got less hectic. I pulled into Buccaneer State Park at 5:15. A young man showed me to my Tentrr and wished me well.
I had visions of exotic tents I had seen pictures of in Africa, but it wasn’t exotic. It was a nice tent on a wooden platform with two chairs out front. Like the KOA cabin, there was a bed inside and a picnic table and fire pit outside.
I went out of the park, along the gulf coast and turned toward Waveland and went into Da Kitchen Too restaurant. It was rated a 4.3, and I envisioned home-style black cooking. It was not. It was hopping on Friday night, and the all-white staff couldn’t keep up. A young girl pointed me to the refrigerated cabinets to get my own beer. The food wasn’t worth waiting for.
At my Tentrr, I poured a glass of wine, and started to relax when the mosquitoes came out. I retreated inside the tent. Tired from two days of driving, I went to sleep early. I vaguely heard a train horn in the distance. It progressively got louder until I thought it was coming through the middle of the tent! I could feel the rumbling of the train. I sat right up, trying to remember if there was a train track coming through camp. Fortunately it rumbled on by and I went back to sleep. Two more times trains came by in the night.
The day began with Red and White Market sausage, eggs and pancakes. That sausage is so good!
Mt. Pleasant/Charleston KOA is owned by adjacent Oakland Plantation, which has been in the family for several generations. At 236 acres, it isn’t big, but it is very pretty with its Oak-lined entrance. The campground provides a free tour of the property in a tractor-drawn wagon.
“Some time later, while in England preparing for the ministry, young John Grimké Drayton received word that his older brother Thomas had died on the steps of the plantation house of a gunshot wound received while riding down the oak avenue during a deer hunt. Thus, having expected to inherit little or nothing as a second son, young John found himself a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22.
Despite the prestige and wealth inherent in ownership of Magnolia and other plantations, he resolved still to pursue his ministerial career; and in 1838 he entered the Episcopal seminary in New York. While there, he fell in love with, and married, Julia Ewing, daughter of a prominent Philadelphia attorney. Returning to Charleston with his bride, he strove to complete his clerical studies while bearing the burden of managing his large estate. The pressure took its toll, and his fatigue resulted in tuberculosis. His own cure for the illness was working outside in the gardens he loved. He also wanted to create a series of romantic gardens for his wife to make her feel more at home in the South Carolina Lowcountry. A few years later, as though by a miracle, his health returned, allowing him to enter the ministry as rector of nearby Saint Andrews Church, which had served plantation owners since 1706 and still stands just two miles down the highway towards Charleston. But until his death a half-century later, along with his ministry, Rev. Drayton continued to devote himself to the enhancement of the plantation garden, expressing his desire to a fellow minister in Philadelphia, “…to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there.”
After walking through the gardens, we took the house tour. No photographs were allowed. Although the house isn’t grandiose, it is comfortable, and the huge porch is wonderful. The original home burned three times, once by Union troops. It was rebuilt as a cabin at first, then gradually, additions were made. The property is still owned by the family through 12 generations.
“After the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement Magnolia continued to function, though in a distinctly different way. Among the many challenges was establishing a new relationship with the formerly enslaved workers who remained on the plantation as sharecroppers, tenants, and day laborers. All of Magnolia’s residents worked to find a new level of social and economic understanding and accommodation. The plantation’s main house was rebuilt in the 1890s. Increasingly mechanization would replace the need for tenant farmers; what began in the 1930s was accelerated by World War II bringing the end of plantation agriculture at Magnolia. In spite of difficulties the African American community still maintains a strong presence in the Cane River region. Traditions rooted in African, French, Native American and Spanish influences give this area its character.”
Next we hopped on a trolly that would take us through the Audubon Swamp. They have built ramps in the water where alligators, birds and turtles sit. The trees were loaded with roosting Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Anhingas. John James Audubon spent time here, studying and painting wildlife. Some of his work hangs in the house.
Fortunately, we brought sandwiches and snacks, so we had a quick lunch before the boat tour through the rice fields. Thomas and Ann Drayton came to Magnolia near “Charles Towne” in 1676, having made a fortune with a sugar plantation in Barbados. They tried many things including sugar, but none worked in this unique land. Finally they they found success with rice, namely Carolina Gold Rice. Cultivating rice was the most dangerous kind of farming there is. Several on the boat tour simultaneously asked, “Why?”. The slaves walked through this flooded 60-acre field where it is hot, out in the sun. There are alligators all over the place. Cottonmouths live here amongst other snakes. Mosquitoes carried yellow fever, but the most deadly was a cut, which could become quickly infected in these stagnant waters.
Now the fields have returned to marsh, which is a wonderful place for wildlife. It still has gates to control the water. As a duck hunter, I had visions of ducks flocking into flooded rice fields.
After this tour, we went for a walk through the Audubon Swamp. Photographers with tripods were wandering trails and boardwalks. What a cool place in this blackwater swamp where Audubon himself once roamed.
On the way home, we stopped at Mt. Pleasant Seafood to get something to cook for dinner. You don’t know what you are doing when you walk into an unfamiliar place, even though it is highly rated. I wandered around while I listened to Martha ask the nice, patient lady what she recommended for a fish to cook over an open fire, and how to do it. She recommended a Red Snapper that would be big enough for four. I came up to join her and noticed the oysters and asked for a dozen. I was impressed by the knowledge, patience and enthusiasm of this lady. Later I would learn she is an owner, Sarah Fitch. For 75 years and four generations, the family has run the market. From an article in Mt. Pleasant Magazine:
MPM: When did you decide to go into the business you are in?
Fitch: Mount Pleasant Seafood first opened its doors back in 1945, on the banks of Shem Creek, with my great-grandfather and grandfather, Captain Walter G. Toler and Captain Walter D. Toler. For four generations now, we have been serving fresh local seafood to both our local community and tourists from around the world. Whether it’s the fresh catch of the day, the Ready-to-Go Shrimp Boil or we are catering a special occasion, we are extremely grateful for the opportunities that allows our family to serve others.
MPM: How do you find your passion?
Fitch: I wouldn’t say I found my passion, but more so I was born with it. From the time I was old enough to shuck an oyster myself, I fell in love with our family’s legacy and the people of this community. It was a natural fit for me to assume this role and work hand-in-hand with my family, doing what we love to do.”
MPM: What or who inspires you?
Fitch: “My family’s history inspires me and the future of our community motivates me. Along with sharing recipes and smiles with the folks we serve, I equally enjoy working with today’s youth, both within my church community as well as inside our market. To me, the greatest thing we can do to ensure the success of our future is to create a space for them to learn and grow. I believe we do this well at Mount Pleasant Seafood.
MPM: Tell us about how you grew up and who shaped you into the woman you are today.
Fitch: I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a family that has taken pride in hard work. Also, even with our community growing larger and larger by the day, there is a small-town sense about this place that instills care and concern for our neighbors and environment. I think I’ve benefited greatly from my family and community all around.
MPM: Give us some success tips for someone just starting out in your line of work.
Fitch: Keep your eyes and ears open all the time. The natural resources around us are incredible, as are the men and women cultivating the waters for our seafood. Listen to their stories and learn the rhythms of seasonal products to fully enjoy everything the Lowcountry can provide. When we know what goes into the art and hard work of harvesting local seafood, I think it tastes even sweeter and tastier.