Monday, July 25, 2011

Snakes Alive...A Story!

A Show of Strength!
Pierre le Pooch, our sassy, cocker spaniel with a Napoleonic complex, found a four foot cottonmouth coiled under a tree near our front pond. In the eleven years we have been on this property, I have never seen a venomous snake. Therese, my law abiding and always cautious wife, called animal control, but it was after hours when the dog located the snake. I thought animal control could capture the cantankerous creature and milk it to create anti-venom serum, but since they weren't going to show up until tomorrow, I decided to kill it with a shovel. Of course, Therese thought I should call the Sheriff and let them handle it, which I reluctantly did.

What a joke that was.

Two patrol cars and one local police car drove up. With their billie clubs and pistols, walkie talkies, stun guns and all, all three of them, once they confirmed that it was a cottonmouth water moccasin, kept their distance as they discussed for about ten minutes which "implement of destruction" should be used. No one wanted to shoot it with their pistols or with their shot guns. They asked me if I had a gun and when I told them that I didn't, they all looked at me in astonishment.

"You don't own a rifle or shot gun?" Not even a twenty-two?"

"No, I said... I'm from the city! I really don't have a need to own a gun!" They now looked at me even more confused than before. I later found out that it was not in the best interest of law enforcement to have one of their patrolman discharge a weapon on someone's property unless it was really necessary. Still, the scene seemed written for,"The Andy Griffith Show!"

"Well, what'cha need is a ten or twelve gauge shotgun... That would take care of this snake!"

"Yep, that's what'cha need!"

It was getting late as they continued to share"snake stories". Ten foot rattlers, dueling vipers, a fight to the finish, alligators attacked by pythons, deadly baby reptiles killing cattle, you name it, they discussed it. Tiring of all this, and coming to the realization that the heavy armament they brought with them was not going to be deployed, I asked them if a shovel might be the preferred implement for dispatching 'da critter. They agreed. So I quickly ran to the shed and picked out the perfect shovel for the job. Impatient with all of this talk and wanting some action before it got dark, I presented the shovel to the officers, who, I assumed, specialize in such work. Of course, not one of them wanted to do the ugly deed though they all had their suggestions as to how I should do it.

"Gotta get 'em with the first swing else it'll come out and attack you!" Rattlesnakes won't do that, no sir. Neither would a copperhead, but moccasins are mean sonofabitches, man... they'll chase you down!"

"Oh boy, I thought. I better choked up on this handle to be sure I make good contact!" Thoughts of coming up to bat with the game on the line and with men in scoring position just trying to make contact, suddenly came to mind. "Just a clean, quick, short stroke... no home run swing. Just a clean, quick, short stroke!"

"After you kill it, don't touch it!" "Cut off the head and it will still bite you, so be careful!"

I finally bashed it with the edge of the shovel head a couple of times, cut off its head and dropped it into a large black, garbage bag. The snake, even without its head, was heavier than I thought it would be! Tying up the bag, one of the local cops told me about an old wife's tale suggesting that one should, after killing it, completely douse the nasty creature with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. Somehow, it creates a hex which would keep all other snakes away from the property... for good! It must be one of those voodoo kind of snake phobias, I thought.

"They hate the smell of burnt scales... in the morning!"


Naturally, after making jokes about snakes tasting just like chicken, they drove off saying, "Be careful around the pond... you see one snake, you'll see more, especially if you ain't gonna take the advice and burn it."

Well, it has been over a year, and even though I have seen other snakes on the property, I haven't seen any more vipers. Still, I tread lightly whenever I go for walks with my trusty Pierre in the lead.

And I thought poison ivy was the only thing I needed to fear in my own back yard! C'est la vie!

Copyright 2011/ Ben Bensen III

Thursday, July 21, 2011

When a Cajun Recommends It...

My seafood platter didn't last long enough to photograph!
My accordion playing buddy knew we were gonna go visit our son in and around Lafayette, LA and suggested three or four restaurants owned and operated by local Cajuns. One of those was Soop's in the town of Maurice just north of the city of Abbeville near the Vermillion River. Bernie suggested a big bowl of gumbo. He didn't say which kind of gumbo, but said,"Dose folks sure know how to make 'dat gumbo... So, get 'da big bowl!"

We both knew mom and pop restaurants like Landry's and Don's Seafood and Piccadilly were excellent, authentic Cajun fare that was very affordable back when, even for someone like me and Bernie. But those venues became so popular that they had to lose something when something gained was so big. They all hit the corporate big time, which I applaud, but over time those restaurants changed.

I remember working for the university food service to pay my way through school basically washing dishes at lunch and dinner, five days a week. Because I worked there, I could eat all I wanted regardless of my meal ticket restrictions. Getting and eating great "coonass" food wasn't the problem. It was keeping my weight in check and my body physically fit.

I use to go to the local hospital and give blood at least once a month to have the bread needed to take out my girl friend or to eat out with the guys. One of those restaurants was "supposedly" the original Piccadilly in the Oil Center section of Lafayette which was within walking distance from the campus. Their crawfish etouffee was incredible. Roux based and patiently cooked to a rich, beautiful dark brown, it was not just mushroom gravy spiced with peppers. The portions were huge, the crawfish were plentiful... and the plates were very affordable. One of the black guys I worked with at the university restaurant was a cook, who also worked at the Piccadilly and turned me on to it, though he never gave me any culinary lagniappe.

I always found it interesting being from New Orleans, where everyone wrecks the English language, to hear African Americans speaking in Cajun French. Even when they spoke English, you could barely understand them because they seemed to accent all the wrong syllables! It was something to behold.

Occasionally, I would walked in the opposite direction of the campus, into downtown Lafayette and dine at "supposedly" the original Don's. When I did, I had trout or stuffed flounder with an etouffee crab or crawfish sauce.  The restaurant was a bit more "expensive" than Landry's or Piccadilly, so I didn't go often.

Many times, you can't tell a good restaurant from the looks of it on the outside. I used to tell my California friends, when they visited New Orleans, to look for the venues that had clam or oyster shell parking lots. It's a sure bet the food is authentically local. But, no more. Katrina pretty much put an end to that concept.

Anyway, Soop's a great find and we highly recommend it. And, not only the gumbo. Thanks Bernie!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thoughts About Pies... Immoriarum.

Don't Miss Your Pies... Until...
When I was young, practically no one in our entire family made pies until the holiday season and then, my maternal grandmother would make wonderful pies. Her specialty was mince meat and meat pies. They were delicious. But if we had any fruit pies, it was probably store bought. I don't recall any one in the family making fruit or nut pies.

I really don't know why my wife started this trend, but, early in our marriage, she made two of the best pies I believe I ever ate. One was an apple pie and the other was a lemon pie. Oh, my goodness! Since then, those two pies are, in my mind, the pinnacle of how all pies must be judged... even the ones that Tee or I now make, during the holidays, can ever beat those two original. I could really expound on the concept of deserts and what our minds conjure up about them as time and taste buds fade away. For example, Therese's entire family could not live without "Mrs. Jo Lou's" cinnamon rolls and when she passed away, Mrs. Jo Lou created a legend by which all other cinnamon rolls are judged. On a scale of ten, according to my wife, no bakery or baker has even approached a "7."

So, when a friend or relative makes a claim about "pie stardom", well, every self-proclaimed pie lover has to travel to taste test and have their say.

Four years or so ago, my brother told us about a small town restaurant that made the best pies in the world. Going to school at LSU in Shreveport, every time he came home to visit, Bob would stop and have some pie at Lea's Restaurant, in LeCompte, LA , off Hwy#1. Every time we visited it, it was closed. But one day, we actually, almost serendipitously, moseyed off Interstate #49 to find Lea's getting ready to close for the day. Therese walked in with her check book and walked out with two whole pies... one for us and one for my brother, who seldom eats deserts, but makes an exception with Lea's.

He never received his pie!

It was so good that we just couldn't help ourselves. And, there was no guilt involved, whatsoever! We figured that what he and his family didn't know, wouldn't hurt them. Inside of a long weekend, both pies were obliterated! I think it was one apple and one cherry pie... I think!

Since that time we've passed by Lea's several times only to have arrived too late to have dinner or pie. No pie for desert and no pie to take home. And no pie for, hopefully, my dear brother and his pie starved family. But just a few days ago, all the gods came down to help us find our way to pie-dom! It was open and full with the after church services crowd of locals and a smattering of un-locals looking for pie rapture.

Sadly, it was not to be. All that anguish, the frustration of years of untimely closures, the miles and fuel spent in vain. The desperation in the hopes of, once again, reaching that pie in the sky high. It all, was not to be!

The meal was country fare and certainly edible. Therese had a turkey dinner that wasn't so filling to not have room for pie. The turkey stuffing was good and the turkey was real, not that pressed turkey product you get this time of year. The veggies were the frozen kind, but again, not unacceptable. I had fried chicken which was reminiscent of Knott's Berry Farm fare. The portion, for me, was rather skimpy, but it was all good as long as the pie was good.

Let me just take a moment to say that one of my pet peeves is service that's too damn efficient. Being from the south and, worse yet, a New Orleanian who likes to linger and chat after a meal, I hate it when the server rushes you and your meal under the guise of being efficient. It especially aggravates me when there are other tables available for customers to be served. Dining should be an event and not just a way to appease one's tummy grumbles.

But, this time, we applauded her speed.

Having not quite finished our meal, we happily ordered pie and coffee. Since it is blueberry season, as well as blackberry, we were disappointed to hear the waitress tell us both kinds were freshly made that day and were already sold out. So, Therese ordered  a slice of cherry pie and I had apple, but when the pie arrived we both could tell it wasn't what we had a few years back. The crust wasn't as brown and flaky as it should be and appeared rather soggy with no crumbly crust, per se! The fruit was hidden in between gelatin fill and Therese said she counted only four cherries in her entire slice.

Mine had more fruit than filler, and the apples did have a slight snap to them when you took a bite, but it didn't really have a taste to it. It was like any other product you'd get at any other restaurant or frozen food section... like blandsville! In fact, Mrs. Smith's Apple Pie, that you buy at the frozen food counter, is better than what I had. Sadly, we left with no pies to take home.

As we were walking out the door, a close friend of my sister, who now lives on the east coast, spotted me and Therese leaving and called out to us. They decided to go for a drive from their homes, south of Baton Rouge, to stop at Lea's... for pie! Dopey me would have walked right by her and her riding companion, had she not noticed us. Guess I was still wallowing in my pie-dom. They asked us our opinion and in hushed tones, we spoke of our disappointment.

"It's a long way to drive to have mediocre grub,"I said.

Later that night, having returned from their Sunday excursion, Audrey expressed her disillusionment in an email she sent to me. She said it this way," The pecan pie was bland! How do you make pecan pie bland?" She also mentioned in the email that the owner of Lea's, just a year ago or so, had passed away. What a shame! It's funny in a sad way, how one person can, solely, make such a difference in the world and... in the world of pies!

Obviously, like Mrs. Jo Lou, the recipe died with Mr. Lea and the memory of their gustatory delights is all we have left. It's what legends are all about, for sure, but maybe... just maybe...

We should have just held out for the blueberry pie!

Copyright 2011/Ben Bensen III

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Maybe Just Another Static Display To Most...

On returning from my Barksdale extravaganza for the Air Force Art Program in 2010, I passed through what used to be the home of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Command ( Flying Tigers) at England, AFB just outside of Alexandria, LA. Though he was born in Texas of French descent, Claire Chennault was the pride of Louisiana, an LSU graduate and leader of the original and volunteer force called the Flying Tigers, which is why this display stands at the entrance to what is now known as the England AirPark.
Included in the display, are jet aircraft used to protect air space around the south and most especially the SAC facility at Barksdale in Shreveport, LA especially in the sixties. The display is comprised of a F-7U Corsair II, an A-10 Warthog, and F-86 Sabre, which is painted in the colors of the namesake's aircraft, Major John England, an Vietnam era F-105 Thunderchief and this F-84F Thunderstreak.

The Thunderstreak originally caught my eye because I have never seen a static display with the undercarriage half retracted. I found it intriguing. At that time though, I couldn't take any pictures having used up my entire digicard at Barksdale. But, just this weekend, while visiting our son, I returned to shoot the entire static display.

The other reason this display caught my eye was because of an illustration I donated to the Air Force highlighting the "E" model of the fighter/bomber. Although the experimental XF-85 Goblin proved to be a failure, USAF believed that the bomber-borne fighter concept was still a good idea. But instead of escorting the big bomber, the focus shifted to a strike role with a Convair B-36 Peacemaker carrying a Republic F-84 Thunderjet. The plan was for the heavy bomber with superior range to arrive in the vicinity of the target and deploy a faster, more maneuverable F-84 to deliver the tactical nuclear bomb. The F-84 would then return to the ‘mother ship’ and be carried home.

Though quite primitive by today's technology, in the late fifties, it seemed a realistic possibility. A B-36 Peacemaker, designated GRB-36F carried a mechanism in its bomb bay, that would hold a production F-84E Thunderstreak (serial number 49-2115) fitted with a retractable hook in the nose in front of the cockpit. The hook would link the fighter to the trapeze mechanism which would hold the aircraft in the bomb bay during flight, lower it for deployment, and raise it back in after the mission. Due to the size of the fighter, only the cockpit, the fuselage spine, and the tail fin actually fit inside the bomber.

The illustration I painted of the  F-84E Thunderstreak (serial number 49-2115) can be seen at:

Copyright 2011/Ben Bensen III