Around Louisiana

Northern Louisiana

The power of grace
Missy Crain, artistic director of the highly acclaimed, Monroe-based Louisiana Delta Ballet, was sitting in a church service one day when the preacher asked the congregation, “What do you have to give in return to God for your abilities?”

Louisiana Delta Ballet

Crain, an award-winning choreographer who once danced with the Twin City Ballet Company and studied under the likes of Robert Joffrey and Richard Englund, didn’t have to think twice. Her answer to the reverend’s question eventually resulted in Monroe’s innovative and inspiring Christmas event, Power and Grace: The Christmas Story – an imaginative interpretation of the Nativity according to the book of dance.
“I knew how difficult it may be to create and produce a professional ballet production with a religious platform,” says Crain, a passionate dancer since age 9. “So I added live music and scripture readings … I didn’t want people to think it was a group doing liturgical movement.”

Crain’s first Power and Grace, a non-Christmas theme, debuted in January 2000 at the Quachita Parish High School. The dance company adopted the philosophy of “if we dance it, they will come.” And a fold 1,300-strong came to see the performance.
“Everything just fell into place,” exclaims Crain, “and I know it was divine intervention the helped me create this.”

At the end of the first performance, the audience rose to their feet amid thunderous screams of approval and cheers, overwhelming Crain with emotion.


By December 2004, Crain’s brainchild premiered as a retelling of the Christmas story and received acclaim so high it was a dizzying as Cynthia Gregory’s 32 fouettes as the evil Odile in Swan Lake. An attendee told Crain after the show, “Now I know what heaven will look like.”

The program is choreographed by a team as diverse as the population of Louisiana. In addition to Crain, South African native El Marie Wessels, professional dancer and Czech Republic native Jiri Viborsky, Alvin Ailey dancer Dianne Maroney Grigsby and Kathy Thibodeaux, silver medalist at the International Ballet Competition created choreography that’s danced to classical and traditional Christmas music, along with original music written by Ruston natives Dee Alexander and Eli Whitney. The sections of the story are interpreted either by classical, modern or contemporary dance. Joining the pre-professional Louisiana Delta Ballet troupe is Sam Pergande of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. Vocalists include Louisianians Collin Wimberly, Mark and Sabrina Goodman, David and Christie Wheeler, joined by New Yorker Corey Trahan and other guest singers from Monroe area churches.

Ouachita River

“Power and Grace is from my heart,” says Crain. “The performance seems to truly touch the audience, the performers and the director! It has become our signature performance.”

For more information, call the Louisiana Delta Ballet, (318) 345-11557, located at 10 Highway 139, Monroe.

Under the mistletoe
Before you associate mistletoe with romance at Christmas, brace yourselves. This yuletide charmer, a sort of natural matchmaker, has a rather earthy past that belies the charming red bow you’ve tied around its stem. North American mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) and its smaller counterpart, European mistletoe (Viscum album), like Spanish moss, are parasites, tapping deep into the host tree’s vascular system for nutrition. Mistletoe grows well in Texas and Louisiana and wraps its pale green leaves and sticky snowy berries around apple trees and the occasional oak. To ancient Druids, mistletoe found growing in sacred oak trees only added to its magnitude of holiness.

This botanical received its moniker from a most ancient theory that it sprang to life, similar to the propagation of rain forests, from bird droppings. In actuality, this does apply to European mistletoe. “Mistel” is an Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” means “twig.” “Tan” eventually evolved into “toe.” Literally translated, mistletoe means “dung on a twig” and was considered to be charmed in pre-Christianity days because it remained green when all other trees had shed their leaves. Mistletoe was thought to house the little friendly spirits of the woods and kind humans brought the plant indoors during winter to keep them safe and warm.

The winter solstice and its accompanying Saturnalia festival that honored the god of agriculture, Saturn, saw the ceremonial harvesting of mistletoe with a golden sickle. It was during Saturnalia that the practice of kissing under mistletoe originated, signifying that peace on earth reigned and all the grudges of the past year were laid to rest.

When Christianity bloomed, followers of Christ incorporated many familiar pagan customs into Christmas festivities as a means of protection. Mistletoe became entwined in the tradition.

Sparkling waters
Before the French came in the 1700s and gave the river its present name, the Native Indians had named it the “Washita,” meaning “river of sparkling waters.” In Louisiana, these silvery waters that turn violet at sunset flow past magnificent hardwood forests, towering cypress swamps and the occasional bluff in an almost otherworldly beauty. The water cuts through Mother Earth in softened angles. Called one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, the river originates as a stream in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas near Eagleton and flows downstream towards Hot Springs and spills into nearby Lake Ouachita. This stalwart stream then travels through a series of lakes emerging transformed into a river bound for Louisiana. When it crosses the state line from Arkansas into Louisiana at Union Parish, the Bayou State imprints its stamp on her. Trees on the banks become moss covered and shorelines are sandy.

The Indians once built one of the largest ritual mounds to be discovered in all of North America on the Ouachita. In one of its lesser moments, the state destroyed this archeological treasure in 1930, when it built a bridge over the site. Still, the banks teem with relics of the past, pottery, arrowheads and beads. Believed to have been once a part of the prehistoric Gulf of Mexico, paleontologists have unearthed whalebones, shark’s teeth and seashells along the Ouachita. Blooming along the banks of the river are certain plants that are found nowhere else in Louisiana.

The Ouachita River that cut the city of Monroe in twain, giving birth to its twin, West Monroe, flows for 600 miles. After its 600 mile odyssey nears its end, the Ouachita then joins the Tensas and Little Rivers near Jonesville. Conversely, this body of sparkling waters that left in its wake such breathtaking beauty then turns into the River Black.

Central Louisiana

What’s in a name?

Just as they should be, children are precious in Avoyelles Parish. If you ever wondered how Bunkie, La., got its name, look to a child. Bunkie, tiny and filled with antique curiosities, lies about 16 miles from Marksville. Nancy Carruth, a resident of Avoyelles Parish, relates that the area where Bunkie is located was originally named Irion after the first settler arrived there. He was known as “Major Irion,” a veteran of the War of 1812, who came to Avoyelles 10 years after the conflict ended.
Carruth’s great-grandfather, Col. A.M. Haas, and her paternal uncle, Capt. Sam Haas, donated land for a train station and a right of way to the Texas and Pacific Railroad that was then under construction in the Central Louisiana town. For his generosity, the Railroad gave the colonel the privilege of naming the station.

“He named it after his daughter, my great-aunt, Maccie Haas,” says Carruth. Well, sort of.

Haas journeyed to New Orleans and returned home from the Crescent City with a toy monkey for his little daughter. The child was so delighted with the gift that she mispronounced monkey as “bunkie.” This little slip of the tongue became her nickname and she became the town’s namesake.

Love of family figures largely in the names of town that skirt Bayou des Glaises and the winding Avoyelles roads. Hessmer was named after the sister of William Edenborn who was laying the LR&N railroad tracks from Shreveport to New Orleans. The post office for the area was first located in Norma but once the tracks were laid by Edenborn, the post office relocated to the area named for his sister.

The birth of Bordelonville occurred in 1808. There on the banks of Bayou des Glaise nearly 200 years ago, Joseph Ducote married Marguerite Bordelon, cleared some land and built their first home near his father-in-law’s farm. Filled with endless soybean and cotton fields, today Bayou des Glaises runs like a ribbon throughout the thriving little village.

The lady from Elizabeth
It’s unconfirmed, but the rumor still persists that the Emmy Awards were named after her. In the 1950s, it was almost considered gospel. Faye Emerson, an actress who hailed from the Allen Parish town of Elizabeth, was called “The First Lady of Television” because of her ubiquitous presence on the small screen during the ’50s. Emerson appeared on talk shows, musical variety programs and various other shows. Possessing cheekbones that soared, the strikingly beautiful Emerson likewise had a successful film career during the ’40s, acting in the films, Destination Tokyo with Cary Grant as the commander of a WWII submarine, The Mask of Dimitrios with Peter Lorre as a writer desperately searching for the evil Dimitrios and the mystical Between Two Worlds with co-star John Garfield. All three films are gems in their individual way. They’re perfect for viewing when you’re staying indoors on a cold January day and a pot of chicken and andouille gumbo simmers on the stove or you’ve just returned from the dining delight provided at Kyrle’s Restaurant in Mansura and you need to catch your second wind.

Born in 1917, this Louisianian who was the star of Lady Gangster (shooting it alongside Jackie Gleason), died in ’83. At one point in her life, she was married to Elliott Roosevelt, son of Eleanor and Franklin. She later married bandleader Skitch Henderson.

Healthy promise

Vidalia lies on the silt side of the Mississippi River, across from the high bluffs of antebellum Natchez. Vidalia’s Riverfront is slated to be the location of a new Promise Hospital of Miss-Lou. Designed to be a Long-Term Acute Care Hospital, it will facilitate the needs of patients who require a longer acute care recovery period. Patients will be able to receive around-the-clock respiratory care combined with daily visits from skilled nurses. It will also create at least 120 jobs for the area.

“We’re anxiously awaiting to forge ahead with construction,” says Lee Huckaby, CEO of Promise Healthcare, Inc. Plans are currently in the last stages of architectural consideration.

Promise Specialty Hospital

“We will be able to handle a higher level of ventilation patients,” says company spokesperson Bonnie Kaye.

Promise specializes in the medical management of patients suffering from diseases considered acute or chronic, complex, unresolved or catastrophic. Multi-system disease processes are also treated.

Based in Boca Raton, Fla., the corporation owns and manages hospitals nationwide, but their interdisciplinary team approach to patient care is led by local physicians. According to Huckaby, everyone works as a team with the physician as captain. The family and patient are included in meetings for regular updates.

Cajun Country

One Christmas morning in New Orleans, I awakened to temperatures in the 80s, walked downstairs, turned on the air conditioner and ate Christmas dinner wearing shorts. Every year since then, I pray for a cold Christmas. However it’s wise to remember Christmas comes to deserts and tropical islands and scenes not altogether pictured in a Currier and Ives print. Adding Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) to your indoor plants makes you want to toast winter with a salty, green Margarita.

Like Spanish moss, this cactus is epiphytic, or tree dwelling, native to humid rainforests found in Central and South America. The flowers that adorn this chartreuse, succulent little plant bloom either snowy white, blazing red, fuchsia, yellow, pink or peach. As it nestles in a well-drained, cozy pot, the cactus loves plenty of indirect light, regular water and misting.

Christmas cactus

The plant will bloom in the winter only after watering has been reduced during autumn months in preparation for its dormancy. Its soil must remain slightly dry but not baked like the banks of the Sabine River on the Texas side. During this dormancy period, the cactus will require 12 hours of total darkness during the night, similar to poinsettias. It is during this long dark sleep that its flower buds are set. As festive as palm trees strung with colored lights, the cactus will need to rest after the flowers bloom. Less frequent watering, keeping it warm and humid, combined with a twice-monthly meal of houseplant food will keep Christmas cactus growing for years.


Pizza Dean

Since 1971, Dean-O’s, a family operated restaurant, has deliciously interpreted pizza with Cajun inspiration. You are in for a dining wonder regardless of what Cajun-Italian pie you order from this thoroughly enjoyable and clever menu. The Cajun Executioner is as hot as McIlhenny’s Tabasco, filled with pepperoni, spicy shrimp, onions, bell peppers and a multitude of jalapeno peppers. Fall into a Seafood Seizure – shrimp, scallops and broccoli seasoned and sautéed, resting on an olive oil pizza crust – that causes deliriums of delight. Blue Point crab sautéed in onions, mushrooms and spices comprise the bewitchingly satisfying “Marie LeVeaux” pizza and New Orleans receives further recognition by the eatery’s “Muffalata” Pie – olive oil crust cradling ham, salami, mozzarella cheese, Dean-O’s own Italian relish, all drizzled with olive oil and spices. The Cajun Canaille, (Mischievous Cajun) boasts a hearty combination of Louisiana smoked sausage, shrimp and jalapenos, while the Barbecued Chicken pizza presents itself in an Louisiana State University theme – purple onions and golden cheddar cheese atop layers of grilled chicken strips in a kicking spicy sauce.

If you’re more in the mood for an entrée, the “Don’t Feed the Chicken, It’s Already Stuffed” choice is a delicious possibility. Filled with a melange of cheese, veggies and spices, its boneless, skinless chicken breasts are baked, laid on pasta and then doused with either marinara or Dean-O’s signature Parmesan Sauce.

Like a delicious glass of wine, you owe it to yourself to take a deep whiff of the aromas from each creation before you dive in and partake!
Dean-O’s, 305 Bertrand Drive, Lafayette, (337) 233-5446.

Creole Nature Trail

Happy trails

Just five years ago, the breathtaking Creole Nature Trail, known as Louisiana’s Outback, joined the only 20 other roads in the nation (such as the Blue Ridge Parkway) designated an “All American Road.” When Hurricane Rita came barreling through 180 miles that loop from Sulphur through Cameron Parish and the Lake Charles area in 2005, the Trail was severely damaged. But the marshlands are regenerating and the wildlife is returning, baby alligators are hatching and birds still paint the panoramic skies with the beat of their wings. Full recovery of land and wildlife is expected. The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of Hog Island Gully, West Cove Recreation areas and the Blue Goose Trail, is open. The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, credited with saving alligators from extinction, has likewise reopened and Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary is still splendid stomping grounds for photography and birding. The Cameron Prairie Fishing Bank Road across from Highway 27 has been repaired and upgraded to include roadside parking. The Cameron Ferry operates daily 5 a.m.-9 p.m. and Calcasieu Lake still teems with fish.
You may not find the amount of convenience stores in nearby towns, nor rest facilities that were former amenities, but the Creole Nature Trail remains a magnificent natural enclave, which, like Southeast and Southwest Louisiana, is still rebuilding.

For more information, visit


It has been said that when the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England on its maiden voyage, it nearly collided with another boat in the harbor. To the everyday seaman, this was always a bad omen and one farsighted sailor dove overboard before the Titanic was at sea. Officinados of its history always quickly point out the inaccuracy of James Cameron’s movie that depicted all of her smokestacks puffing away – in actuality, one was non-functional. Visit  “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” at the Historic City Hall of Lake Charles and you’ll learn more about this ship.

“Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition”

Weighing 46,328 tons, it sank on the night of April 14, 1912, plunging two and half miles below the surface of the icy North Atlantic two hours after an iceberg ripped a gash through its hull. Ninety-five years later, the recovered artifacts of this iconic disaster ship have arrived in another area that knows what it’s like to be inundated. Visitors will witness the remnants of this catastrophe through the eyes of a passenger. A replica of the Grand Staircase has been reconstructed and artifacts are displayed among the same type of contemporary Louis XIV décor the early 20th century passengers strolled among. One hundred fifty recovered artifacts are there to be seen – cooking and dining equipment, personal items and currency of the time. Tickets may be purchased at the door of the old City Hall or online by visiting The exhibit will sail away from Lake Charles after Twelfth Night.
For more information, call Lake Charles Historic City Hall at (337) 491-9147.

Baton Rouge/Plantation Country

Imperial victuals

The dishes created at the Capital City Grill Downtown somehow seem to match politics, power lunches and those who like to swagger after they’ve had a marvelous meal. After a repast here, you just can’t help but feel “important.” The appetizers alone deserve the term “feast.” Try the creamy shrimp and artichoke soup, the crab cakes that soak the buttery divinity of a beurre blanc sauce reduced to perfection or the tangy herb and cream cheese filling that adds dimension to the earthy flavor of mushrooms. Even chicken salad gets the V.I.P. treatment here, with additions of Swiss cheese, bacon and honey dijon. The Tenderloin Salad, consisting of grilled filet medallions laid over a classic Caesar salad, is replete with parchment crisp Romaine lettuce, parmesan, croutons and dressing, then topped with bleu cheese dressing and diced Roma tomatoes. For dinner, you may as well go full throttle and have the Aged Prime Rib, complete with au jus, accompanied by creamy horseradish sauce, salad and parmesan “smashed potatoes.” A slice of the three-layer Chocolate Cappuccino Cake will crown your dining experience.

Capital City Grill Downtown, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge, (225) 381-8140.

Capital City Grill Downtown

Settling the Czech, part deux

James Hlavac is a New Yorker now transplanted into the verdant loam of the Bayou State. Hlavac, a descendant of Bohemia, has been proudly waving a Czech-ered flag since his arrival in Louisiana and with good cause. His book, A Hidden Impact, the product of seven years worth of research combined with the additional two years it took to write, uncovers the vital contributions the Czechs and Slovaks have given Louisiana from the onset of her history.

“The poor Czechs and Slovaks in Louisiana have waited decades, even centuries, to get their story told,” claims Hlavac, who grew up in a bilingual household with four grandparents who hailed from the Czech Republic.

According to Hlavac, who presently resides in the Baton Rouge area, historians have given the French, Germans and Spanish most of the attention when it comes to the early history of Louisiana, entirely ignoring the Czechs and Slovaks. His research uncovered that Czechs actually arrived here in the 1720s and lived on the “German Coast.“ Slovaks followed soon after. Part of the secrecy and misconceptions regarding this incredible heritage stems from the insularity of some of Louisiana’s rural Czech communities. Hlavac, perhaps to their chagrin, penetrated their inner circle like a true New Yorker. His exhaustive search took him through over 3,000 sources: genealogical and property records, obituaries, books and archives. Hlavac’s pertinacity has given Louisiana yet another rich layer to her storied past and some Louisianians might be surprised to learn they’re more Czech than they realize. Cameron Parish, which skirts the Gulf of Mexico immersed in Cajun culture, was heavily populated with Slovaks. As Hlavac points out in his book, the Czechs beat the Cajuns to Louisiana.

One of the Louisiana families Hlavac researched is the “Cajun” Touchet family. He discovered that the Touchets are actually the oldest continuing Czech family in the Bayou State, descended from one Wenceslaus Tutzek of Prague. Hlavac describes them as “Cajunized” Czechs who probably have no idea of their true origin. Tutzek’s son, Hans-Jakob and Jean-Jacques are among the first Czechs to arrive in Louisiana prior to 1742. Their surname evolved through many spellings, such as Touchex, Tuchique and others, to finally become the Cajun “Touchets.”

For 600 years, the Bohemia region of the former Czech Republic was a hub of education and arts, and this fine heritage survived in the descendants who made it to Louisiana centuries later. You can thank Samuel Kohn, a Bohemian, for the world-famous New Orleans Streetcar Line. Hlavac’s book chronicles the story of Kohn joining forces with Bernard Marigny, Laurent Millaudon and John Slidell to develop the old Macarty Plantation into the town of Carrollton in New Orleans in the 1830s.

Hlavac doesn’t hesitate to reveal that Moravian Benjamin Latrobe, one of the country’s foremost architects in the early 1800s, gave us an iconic symbol of New Orleans: Latrobe designed and supervised the construction of the tower and steeple of St. Louis Cathedral. Along with his son, Latrobe built water systems that protected New Orleans from inundation while also supplying the city’s drinking water. Incorporated into more modern water systems, Latrobe’s work still survives to this day.

Whether or not you’re Czech or Slovak, history lovers of all ethnicities can sink their teeth into this fascinating, well-written book for a good long read. Much of Louisiana’s history is interwoven into this cultural chronicle. Hlavac covers the remarkable story of the Czechs and Slovaks in Louisiana from the 1700s to modern day.

Greater New Orleans
Wail of “A Tale”

Terence Blanchard’s brilliant and elegiac A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) has a sanctity about it that moves through the heart like an aching American anthem. The cuts “In Time of Need” and “Wading Through” immediately evoke the epic images of the Crescent City transformed into an ocean, with natives, alive or otherwise, bobbing in its flooded streets. In this hauntingly beautiful jazz suite, Blanchard coaxes music from his heart to his trumpet like a loving parent who knows when his child needs to grieve. He has captured the wonderfully strange voice of a suffering New Orleans who has opened her mouth to weep. Filled with passion, Blanchard’s performance is nonetheless perfectly restrained out of obvious respect for all who suffered from Katrina.

According to Blanchard, recording this CD was difficult. “I was frustrated and in rage. I wanted the trumpet to scream on every track but I feel that God is using me to speak for all the souls in New Orleans. We’re all still tired.”

Four of the 13 cuts on this CD, “Levees,” “Wading Through,” “Funeral Dirge” and “The Water” were written for the documentary, When the Levees Broke. Interspersed throughout the work of this native, Grammy-winning New Orleanian are “ghost” tunes such as the wild African beat-driven “Ghost of Congo Square,” (wherein the only vocals accompanying Blanchard’s pristine trumpet is the chant, “this is a tale of God’s will”), “Ghost of Betsy” and “Ghost of 1927.” According to Blanchard, these “ghost” pieces “represent the warnings of the past.” Indeed, A Tale of God’s Will runs the gamut of the seven stages of grief, from denial all the way to acceptance.

A 40-piece orchestra accompanies Blanchard’s quintet which consists of Derrick Hodges on bass, Aaron Parks on piano, drummer Kendrick Scott and Brice Winston, saxophonist. In addition to Blanchard’s compositions, the four other members contributed their own musical impressions of the devastation. Park’s “Ashe” (a Yoruban word meaning “and so it shall be”), is called a “benediction” by Blanchard, “an acceptance of – and release from – past troubles.”

A Tale of God’s Will is a loving work of genius suitable to take its place among other timeless and enduring suites. More than entertainment, it’s a musical landscape that pays proper justice to our suffering and asks the world not to forget.

Red Velvet

My mother was not an overtly sentimental lady – she showed her love through her actions, not her words – but there was one Christmas when she sent me reeling. Mom, Earl (my Bichon Frise lap dog, God rest his soul) and I were assembled in the living room one December evening listening to carols. The Christmas tree was lit, cookies were baking in the oven, poinsettias glowed and pots of scarlet, trumpet-shaped amaryllis filled the room like a botanical rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” My mother, very matter of factly, said if Earl had been present the night Jesus was born in the stable, he would have breathed on the Infant to keep him warm. Then, breaking from usually telling me to do something with my spaghetti-straight hair, Mom said my dark hair looked pretty against the red amaryllis. This all rendered me uncharacteristically speechless.

Pots of amaryllis are great wintertime gifts but be sure to tie the top-heavy stems to a stake or wire. Born of tender bulbs (meaning you can’t leave the bulbs outdoors all year), the flower is named for the Greek maiden Amaryllis who fell in unrequited love with Adonis. He told the girl that she would remain rejected until she created a phenomenal flower. Night after night the girl pierced her breast with a golden arrow until finally her spilled blood caused the magnificent flower to appear.

Recipients of the potted, velvety flower should keep it away from sunny windows to prolong its glorious blooming and water regularly. After the bloom fades, cut the flower stalk down to just above the top of the bulb, place in sunlight and treat the remaining foliage as a houseplant. By the time next Christmas rolls around, the amaryllis will again blaze like a levee bonfire.

Maurice’s French Pastries

Maurice le magnifique

Perfect desserts for parties, Maurice’s French Pastries is a perfect enclave for holiday indulging. Dive into the divinity of Maurice’s Swiss Torte, layers of hazelnut meringue, hazelnut sponge cake and French butter cream flavored with your choice of Grand Marnier, Kirsch or Pear Williams liqueurs. As you sit in the glow of the tree, have a slice of Le Gateau Saint-Honore, a crown-shaped cream puff of a creation brimming with cream, whipped and otherwise, flavored in vanilla, chocolate, dark rum, Grand Marnier or Amaretto. Do not miss the Chambord cake – raspberry liquor christening a white chocolate gateau. To accompany a good cup of French Roast, have a Kugelhopf, flavored either in Hershey’s Kissable or Praline, Brandy and Pumpkin.

Maurice’s French Pastries, 3501 Hessmer or 4949-51 West Napoleon, Metairie, (504) 885-1526 or (504) 455-0830.