Gene Seneca said he has been giving swamp tours in the Atchafalaya Basin for years, but he never gets tired of the relentless praise from tourists who become enraptured with life on the bayou.
“It’s a good feeling to hear it from other people, that we’re a special people here,” Seneca said. “We love who we are, what we do, what we eat, we love each other and we love you.”
It was a celebration of all that Atchafalaya Basin residents hold dear on Saturday at the Iberville Parish Swamp Life Expo on the grounds of the parish Visitor’s Center.
Hundreds of people strolled in the shade of giant oak trees as they perused booths featuring authentic Atchafalaya cuisine, art, craftsmanship and wildlife exhibits.
The festival seeks to showcase the unique heritage and culture of the area, said organizer John James Clark, Iberville Parish Council environmental manager.
“We’re the eastern gateway into the Atchafalaya,” Clark said. “Most of the people here live in or around the bayous and swamps, and that’s had a special influence on our heritage.
“The locals are very talented, making use of our natural resources, and the food is just incredible.”
Dozens of Iberville Parish residents bustled about their booths, serving up bowls of homemade crawfish etouffee, bread pudding, turtle soup or wild duck and andouille sausage gumbo to passersby.
Rick LaCombe, of Grosse Tete, caught a lot of attention as he pulled an entire 3-foot alligator off of a barbeque pit to carve on the table at his booth.
LaCombe called it a “gator de lait” — which he and a friend made by stuffing it with peppers and onions and basting it with a secret recipe before letting it soak for a week.
“I’ve only seen it done one other time, when my son and some friends did it for the Florida game last year,” LaCombe said. “Word got out that it was actually good, so now we’re doing it again.”
Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso — who called himself the “official taste-tester” for the day — said after last year’s inaugural event was an overwhelming success, he immediately approved plans for this year’s celebration.
“It’s a beautiful day, and we have all these people out here celebrating this culture,” he said. “There’s a lot of homegrown talent here.”
Some of the homegrown talents on display included paintings depicting an array of scenes of swamp life, intricate carvings from old cypress wood and collections of photographs of the swamps.
Orie Mendoza, 79, stood next to two putt-putt boats that he crafted from found cypress wood as he explained the process to build the vessels, which includes three weeks of carving and the additional task of finding the rare “putt-putt” engines.
Mendoza said he learned the skill from his grandfather when he was 18 and has made a lifelong hobby of boatbuilding.
“It’s an art, and you just have to have it in your head how to build boats,” Mendoza said. “Nobody builds these boats anymore, so my son and grandson, I’m teaching them.”
Mendoza’s boats were on display a short distance away from the Visitor’s Center front porch, where Cajun zydeco bands played for the crowds.
The Cajun sounds set the backdrop for the quaint festival, where longtime friends and neighbors gathered in circles to catch up and talk about the LSU game or couples danced in tune.
Virginia Smith said in addition to the music, food and ambiance of bayou living, it was the warmth of the people that helped persuade her to leave Baton Rouge behind six years ago to call Grosse Tete home.
“I’m lucky to live among such warm people who love to have a good time,” she said.
The expo kicked off Experience Atchafalaya Days, a month-long series of outings and exhibits aimed at bringing attention to the attractions of the bayou.
ON THE INTERNET: