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Central Louisiana

Regional Reports From Across the State

Take a carriage ride around the Natchitoches Festival of Lights

Cane River Christmas,
Natchitoches Noel
Each year during the Christmas season, Natchitoches and the Cane River region pull out all the celebratory stops like corks out of champagne bottles. It’s enough to make their neighbors happy just to be residents of Cenla or to turn Scrooges of any age into Tiny Tim. In the holiday season of 1927, Max Bergdorf, a local electrician, decorated Front Street with a few bulbs as both a thank you for patronage and a marketing venture to encourage Natchitoches denizens to furnish their homes with electricity. With this humble beginning, the Festival of Lights now blooms annually with 300,000 bulbs as myriad colors are mirrored in the Cane River in glorious reflection.

On the first Saturday in December, festivities that last the entire day include two Christmas parades, boat rides, streetcar tours, scrumptious food and the incredible fireworks tableau exploding over the Cane River. Journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past at the Fete d’Hiver at historic Fort St. Jean Baptiste on the second weekend of December. Living history re-enactors transport you back to Christmas in colonial 18th-century Louisiana, replete with cooking demonstrations reflective of that time.

Weeknights get no rest from celebrating. The Christmas Tour of Homes takes you through historic houses dressed for Christmas the old-fashioned way – garlands, fresh fruit arrangements, ribbons and candlelight. Highlights are the 1790s Prudhomme-Roquier House, built of bousillage; the Queen Anne splendor of the The Judge Porter House, with its wraparound two-story gallery, five fireplaces and European-cut chandeliers; and the Murchison Town House, which has front-row seats to the Cane River and its splendid Christmas accouterments. Built in 1914 as part movie house and opera theater, it now contains six exquisite town houses. The clip-clopping, rattling sounds of horse-drawn carriages, combined with caroling, cups of wassail and strings of popcorn and cranberries, take you to the Poete Street Condos, handcrafted, renovated and reminiscent of Christmases from the ‘30s. The serendipitous Secret Garden, the last surviving handcrafted Dutch Colonial home in Northwest Louisiana, welcomes you into its 85-year-old walls to explore hidden rooms and secret spaces and climb the resplendent staircases. Restored by local craftsman, each cheery room welcomes you with a Christmas tree.

In the form of Christmas Downriver,  country roads in the Cane River region match the city slickers’ talent when it comes to celebrating Joyeux Noël. Tours of plantation homes dressed in Christmas finery are there to be savored like a good sip of eggnog. A drive through the lower Cane River Lake Heritage Byway will whisk you past historic Creole homes decked in lights that illumine the dark like stars in the sky.

Christmas on the Plantation, held at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park, offers holiday music and sing-alongs near Magnolia Plantation. You can also create Christmas decorations. A week later, travel downriver to the Badin-Roque House for a Cane River Creole Christmas. This restored house, a poteaux-en-terre (posts in ground) is only one of five that remains standing today in America.

Contact www.historicfoundation.org for a schedule of the Christmas Tour of Homes; for Christmas Downriver schedule, contact media@natchitoches.net.

“Just come hungry”
With all of the festivals and celebrations in the Cane River region, you can work up an appetite. If you find you cannot drop your mantle of merrymaking and return home for just a quick grilled cheese sandwich,  go to Antoon’s Restaurant. Their motto is “Don’t Dress Up; Just Come Hungry.” The restaurant is beautifully situated on the Cane River, and the  food and a view of  Christmas lights are a heady combination. Begin your meal by sampling any – or all – of the inviting appetizers: Natchitoches mini meat pies, seasoned ground beef stuffed into a fried dough pastry topped with roasted-pepper-ranch sauce; the creamy spinach-and-artichoke dip bread bowl, accompanied by garlic bread perfect for scooping; or the fried green tomatoes with their crisp yet succulent golden-brown crust. Although fried green tomatoes can stand on their own in my book, Antoon’s serves them with a pesto-aioli sauce should you wish to dip. Hearty winter entrees include the tender Steak Merlot, a grilled rib-eye slathered with homemade merlot butter, a marriage of two flavors perfect for grilled red meat. The distinctive Sirloin Louisiane, christened with Antoon’s own Louisiane cream sauce made of shrimp, mushrooms and crawfish, is served with a side of shrimp-rice and vegetables. In a potato frame of mind? Try the Potato Louisiane, a baked pomme de terre doused in the signature Louisiane cream sauce of shrimp, crawfish and mushrooms. Not to be missed is the wicked Crawtator Tilapia – the butt-kicking Saturday-night-football spice of Zapp’s Crawtator chips encases tender tilapia in a unique crust, and the whole thing is topped with tasso cream sauce. For a more delicate nuance on the palate, choose Shrimp Pasta Danielle. Served over angel hair pasta, this delicious dish consists of sautéed jumbo shrimp, mushrooms, zucchini, squash, red and green peppers, herbs and spices, all lying comfortably in a white wine-butter sauce.

Antoon’s Restaurant, 805 Washington St., Natchitoches, (318) 354-7767.

Diving into paradise
Christmas came a little early this year for Natchitoches horticulturist Connie Shepherd. According to Leigh Guidry of the Natchitoches Times, Shepherd recently received word that not one but two of her floral photographs were selected to be pinups for the LSU AgCenter’s 2010 Get It Growing Lawn and Garden Calendar. This perennially beautiful calendar will depict Shepherd’s photos on both the June and September pages. In addition to gorgeous pictures, invaluable gardening tips are included.

Shepherd, who obtained a degree in horticulture from LSU in 1999, is a licensed landscape horticulturist and the head gardener at a charming private residence complete with a sloping tin roof and seven gardens. She heads a staff of four people who all lovingly care for gardens of the bowl, English, formal rose (more than 70 varieties), herb and vegetable varieties that grow there. Added to the organic repertoire of charges under her care is an orchard, along with acres of newly cultivated pecan seedlings. Her photos of the zinnias that will grace the calendar were taken in one of the gardens she tends. In the cosmic scheme of things, that isn’t a bad office to report to work every day.
“I just enjoy being able to come out here and do my thing,” she told the Times. “It’s like diving into paradise every day.”

This native of Illinois lived in New Orleans for 20 years until, “Hurricane Katrina blew us away.” After living in South Carolina, she settled in Natchitoches, where she and her staff also work one day of the week caring for the garden of a local bed-and-breakfast. When she isn’t laboring happily away in the garden, she indulges in photography and says that she has taken at least 2,000 pictures.

The calendar can be purchased by visiting:  www.lsuagcenter.com/GetItGrowingCalendar or by calling (225) 578-4161. All proceeds support scholarships for would-be horticulturists as well as research and educational endeavors of the LSU AgCenter.

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