Saturday, February 7, 2015

MEANDERING AGAIN

Wanderlust strikes me when the first rays of sunlight pierce gray winter days we've been experiencing, and I'm soon off exploring sites of interest close to my home base of New Iberia, Louisiana. Jeanerette, a part of Iberia Parish, is only ten miles down the road, and yesterday we decided to meander down the Old Jeanerette Highway. Our plans included lunch at a new restaurant we had heard about while talking at the table of The Fortnightly Literary Club—a restaurant in a restored building on Cooper Street in Jeanerette.

We passed several historic sites set back from the Old Jeanerette Road—private residences whose interiors I've always been curious to see but have never entered. To name a few: Alice Plantation, a home floated down the Bayou Teche from Baldwin to its present site by a descendant of Agricole Fuselier de Claire who first built the old home; and Bayside Plantation, which is the Roane Home built in 1850 by Francis Richardson, a sugar plantation owner who helped establish the Louisiana School of the Blind. Sugarcane profits built so many of the old plantations in the area when the City of Jeanerette was at its zenith, and the cypress lumber industry also played a part in boosting the economy of the town.

A bit of history trivia about Jeanerette: When my friend, Dr. Kennell P. Brown, who formerly lived in Jeanerette, was alive, he gave me a copy of the genealogical work he had done on Nicholas Provost, Brown's ancestor who was one of the first and largest landowners of the area around Jeanerette. Provost owned approximately 3000 acres of land in what was then St Mary Parish but what is now regarded as Iberia Parish. The land in the succession included cultivated land and did not take into consideration the marais (swamp) which was described as "worth nothing and we have found in the whole two tracts only 1788 acres of land worth anything..." The entire town of Jeanerette lay within the property once owned by Nicholas Provost, with a lot of extra land to spare, and at one time there was a possibility of calling the town Provostville, according to Record of the Descendants of Nicholas Provost by Dr. Brown.

On the ride through town, we passed LeJeune's Bakery (1884) where I often stopped to buy French bread for my godfather from Virginia when he visited. If he came along for the ride, he'd say, "We have to save this for our dinner guests," but he couldn't resist the smell of freshly-baked bread and would tear off the wrapper and begin eating one of the delicious loaves before we passed out of the city limits. LeJeune's has the distinction of being on the National Register of Historic Places and is managed by the fifth generation of the LeJeune family who have used the same recipe for the bread since 1884.

 We passed another historic site, the old Moresi Foundry (1890), while searching for Cooper Street. The Moresi Foundry was built of old bricks from Swiss-born Antoine Moresi's brickyard and still manufactures machinery for sugar mills in the area. Another Moresi property on Main Street, the Albert Moresi home, is a Victorian cottage, circa 1898, built of cypress weatherboard, a material that was prevalent during the lumber boom in Jeanerette.

After traveling the length of the town, we finally resorted to using the navigation system in the car to locate the Cooper Street Coffee Restaurant. What a find! The restaurant is housed in the old Louisiana Public Service Company building constructed in 1925, a masonry structure that has been totally restored by Anatole and Jennifer Larroque. When we arrived, Jennifer told us that she only prepared lunch the first few days of the week and breakfast and coffee were the specialties of the cafe, but she went into the kitchen and heated up homemade vegetable soup made with homegrown carrots and turnips for us. I couldn't resist one of her pastries, a blueberry and nut bar that had been baked for breakfast patrons. The Larroques have installed various types of brand-new coffee machines that produce coffee equal to Starbucks, and we sat at tables that Torger Brown, a local cabinet and furniture maker, had made of 100-year old cypress from the area. Long windows let in light throughout the room, giving the huge room a welcoming ambience. 

A grand piano occupies space in one corner of the room, and Jennifer told us that a local woman plays for early breakfast patrons on Sunday mornings. Anatole, who plays a trumpet, sometimes accompanies the pianist. I also learned that the Larroque's son is an accomplished oboe player who has been a participant in the Sewanee Music Festival held on the University of the South campus where I live part of the year. In another corner of the spacious room, grouped leather couches and striped fabric chairs provide a nook for readers and writers, Fortnightly clubs, and other literary groups, but special lunches for these groups are arranged only by appointment.

When we left the restaurant, the sun still shone in this corner of Teche country, and we knew that we'd return to Cooper Street Coffee Restaurant and Jeanerette soon, realizing that we don't have to board a plane or drive across country when we can meander only ten miles down the road to enjoy another rich cultural experience.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan



Post a Comment