Wednesday, October 21, 2009

RETURNING TO “THE BERRY”


Some citizens of the Queen City on the Teche, New Iberia, Louisiana, refer to it as “The Berry,” derived from Iberia, and I often use it myself. On Sunday we’ll begin traveling toward that destination, and this morning I got up thinking about the town where I lived for over 40 years before migrating to Sewanee, Tennessee to enjoy cooler summers. Two years ago, I wrote and published a young adult book about the Spanish settlement of New Iberia entitled FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, a book that required a year of intense research about this settlement.

Of course, I couldn’t include all the legends, facts, and historical accounts about New Iberia in the fictionalized young adult book that I wrote, but I discovered many interesting tales in Maurine Bergerie’s THEY TASTED BAYOU WATER, a history of New Iberia that covers its settlement and growth until the 1950’s. One of the stories she relates is about the area of town known as Camellia Subdivision where I presently have a home, an area so named because of the myriad varieties of camellias that grow in most yards of the subdivision. It seems that after the Spanish settlers fled a flooded site near Charenton, Louisiana, they came up the Teche in large flat boats, propelled by long oars or sweeps. When they reached a bend in the bayou that begins near Camellia Subdivision, which is the upper limits of New Iberia, some of the settlers debarked and climbed tall oaks that abound in the area. They made camp a short distance from the Teche and remained there for several days. This area was the original site for Nueva Iberia, according to Bergerie, and not the site uptown at Bouligny’s Square that has been identified as the place where settlers came ashore. Supposedly, their camp was under a large live oak that stood at the point where Darby Lane and the highway to St. Martinville intersect. That oak remained in the center of the highway until the road was surfaced. So, I live approximately a half mile from the site where original settlers set up camp for a settlement in Nueva Iberia!

Another interesting fact that was recorded by Francisco Bouligny refers to the Creoles, a word derived from the Spanish “criolla,” which designates the pure blooded offspring born to mixed French and Spanish parents in a colony. In Bouligny’s memoirs, he refers to the Creoles as healthy and robust people, capable of doing tasks that required unusual physical strength. The passage that interested me was about the Creole children whom Bouligny describes as beginning to hunt and with no ill effects could spend the whole day with their feet in water! When I read that report, I wondered if it was the origin of the phrase that describes south Louisiana inhabitants as “web-footed!”

Flax and hemp provided the livelihood for these early settlers, but these crops soon failed, and the families turned to raising cattle. At that time, raising stock resulted in the production of a beef carcass weighing in at 700 or 800 pounds that sold for the grand price of $4. Part of the story I wrote about FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE involves the Romero family turning to raising cattle after failing with agricultural crops. Those first settlers struggled to remain in Teche country, and following the first Spanish migrations to Nueva Iberia, only 190 people lived in the Queen City on the Teche.

Through the years, sugarcane and oil have increased the fortunes of those who live near the banks of the Bayou Teche, and the town now has a population of 32,000. It’s just large enough for people like me who prefer small cities. New Iberia is a town where you see the names Thibodaux, Broussard, Poirier, Romero, Migues, Lopez, Segura, DeBlanc, etc. in the telephone directory – Spanish names interspersed with French, and also German, English, and Scots names. However, New Iberia’s European flavor is derived primarily from the descendants of the Spanish and French, a colorful intermingling that contributes to a rich culture.

The Queen City just celebrated its annual Gumbo Cook-off, an event that brings in chefs from throughout Louisiana and other parts of the country, who compete to produce the most flavorful gumbo – chicken and sausage gumbo, seafood gumbo… Judges evaluate the gumbo for consistency, color, and taste. A chapter in another of the young adult books I’ve written (THE KAJUN KWEEN) entitled “Great Bowls of Gumbo” describes this event. The illustration by Paul Schexnayder at the beginning of this blog announces the chapter about the gumbo cook-off in THE KAJUN KWEEN.

So “hay la bas,” I’m headed toward the Queen City on the Teche and am wondering what chapters for new books “The Berry” will inspire during my winter sojourn there.
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