Something’s cooking Downtown

I don’t normally review restaurants, but you all know how much I like to eat. And, now that I am officially an award winning celebrity chef, I figure why not. If you are in downtown Baton Rouge and are looking for a delicious, unique meal at an affordable price, I would suggest that you give Cordon Rouge Bistro a try.

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Recently opened at 343 Third Street (across the street from City Bar), Cordon Rouge is an epicurean delight. The owner, Rhonda Crosswhite, previously operated a restaurant known as Cordon Rouge off Jefferson Highway. Cordon Rouge has been reincarnated at its downtown location and I predict that it will become a downtown fixture. In the interest of full disclosure, my son Matt is one of the managers, but I am gonna shoot you straight about the food.

Cordon Rouge is a small place, with a cozy dining room, with additional tables on the patio and on the sidewalk on Third Street. The menu is simple, but the food is wonderful. Everything is made in house from scratch, including the breads, buns and pastries. The bill of fare is country French cuisine, with a Louisiana flair. All of the sandwiches are served on French bread or brioche buns made fresh in house. The salads are both interesting and delicious, with some new twists that are worth trying. However, I am not a salad person, so let’s get to some more substantial items.

On my first visit, I tried their signature dish, the Duck Burger. Fresh ground duck breast, seasoned and grilled topped with Swiss cheese, heirloom tomato, farmer’s market romaine, and red onion on brioche bun baked in-house. Oh dear Lord is that good! It also comes with fresh cut pomme frittes, double fried in duck fat, with housemade blueberry ketchup. Yeah, you read that right, blueberry ketchup. For dessert, I tried the creme brule’. Believe me, I know sweets and this was probably the best creme brule’ I ever tasted.

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I went back for lunch last week and ordered the steak sandwich. I was not disappointed. It came out fresh and hot. Steak grilled to order, then sliced and served open faced over French bread, with mushrooms and cheese. It was delicious! I was impressed by a sweet taste I could not quite place. When I asked, I found out it was dressed with their homemade onion jam. Mmmmmmmmm. Yeah it was that good.

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They are currently open for lunch and a dinner menu and expanded hours are coming soon. They are also open for breakfast, so stop by and grab a cup of coffee and pastry on your way to work. If you are looking for something good to eat down town, stop by Cordon Rouge. Don’t forget to tell them Robbie sent you!

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Let Me Count The Ways

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is always a popular holiday, especially for people in a relationship, whether is it a new one or a long term relationship.  People’s thoughts turn to romance and romantic notions. Cards, candy and flowers seem to top the list.  And poetry.  Seems like when people are in love, they want to write poetry to each other.

“How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways. I love thee depth and breadth and height My soul can reach”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words are sweet, but honestly, I am not much of a poet. Poetry is not my strong suit.  But I know a lot about love and a little about romance. So in honor of Valentine’s Day, instead of poetry, I will offer a little prose about a love story.

This year marks the 36th Valentine’s Day that I have spent with a beautiful, loving and wonderful lady, my wife Jo Ann.  For the past 33 years, she has been my wife, my best friend, the mother of my children, my rock and my confidant. She has also been my partner in crime, my biggest supporter as well as the one person who can bring me down to earth when my head gets too big.  In short, she has been the love of my life.  And, I am thankful everyday for that.

Our story starts on day in December, 1979.  I was working for Mike Cotton at the old Live Oak Supermarket. One afternoon, in walked a beautiful girl with long brown hair and bright green eyes.  I could say something quaint, like being struck by Cupid’s arrow. Actually, it was more like Michael Corleone being struck by “the thunderbolt”. Or more accurately, like that scene in a cartoon when the male character spots a real dish.

She left her number with Mrs. Hazel the manager, since she was looking for work. I quickly wrote it down and the rest, as they say, is history. Three years later, I proposed, she said yes and that June we walked down the aisle. Little did I know how  a chance meeting in a grocery store was going to change the rest of my life.

We got married when I was still in college, planning on going to law school.  I have wondered many  times what her Daddy was thinking when he let me marry her when he did. We have laughed about that a lot over the past 32 years.  I think one of the things that has helped us grow together over the years is the fact that we got married when we literally had nothing.  We were young and in love and that’s all that seemed to matter. Jo Ann likes to  say that we helped raise each other, and I guess she is right about that.

We have had some good times and a few rough times over the years.  But the good has far, far outweighed the bad.  And, like gold, a going through the fire at times will purify a good relationship.  We’ve had a lot of fun.  We’ve raised three wonderful sons, all of whom seem to have turned out more or less normal. We like to travel together, have a lot of the same interests, but are both smart enough to know that there can be such a thing as too much togetherness. We are secure enough to give each other space, but always enjoy spending time together.

I also like the fact that she is not a girly girl. That is good since she is the mother of boys and the best Boy Scout I know.

We have learned a lot over the years.  Romantic love is fine and certainly has its place.  But being there for each other, through good times and bad is so much more important. Fights and disagreements are inevitable, but never go to sleep mad at each other. And making up can be a lot of fun!   Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut, even when you think you are right. Each of you have to put the other one first, every time, all the time. Love is patient and kind. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It is not jealous and does not go looking for a fight. I found all that and more when I found Jo Ann.

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We have grown to love each other and each other’s families like they were our own blood.  There is a lot to be said for that. We used the Song of Ruth in our wedding.  I am not sure either one of us really understood what it meant then, but over the years it has become even more special. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”

Valentine’s Day is special to me. More so since I have had the gift of love all these years. I could go on an on about what our relationship has meant to me. But, I think it can best be summed up by  the great John Wayne in “McClintock”, when he is talking about marriage to his daughter Becky:

“because all the gold in the United States Treasury and all the harp music in heaven can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman with all that growin’ together. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

Neither can I Duke. Neither can I.

Happy Valentine’s Day Baby!

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Let The Good Times Roll… Watson Style!

Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in a great event, the 5th Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off. I had the privilege of cooking in the first Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off and have made every one since.  I even won Second place one year, and I would not miss it for the world.

Last week, I wrote about our trip to Cafe’ des Amis in Breaux Bridge. One of the things I talked about was the Louisiana value of “Joie de vivre” or the joy of life. Another Cajun saying is ‘to live is to eat’.  Both of those sentiments were very prominent in Watson on Saturday.

In case you don’t know about the Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, it is a big deal. It was started 5 years ago by Bobbi Jo and her husband Berlin.  They were looking for something fun to do with friends around here around the first of the year.  January is the ‘dead season’ in South Louisiana. After Christmas and before Mardi Gras is in full swing. It is also ‘gumbo weather’.  So, they decided to throw a party at the barn behind their house, invite some people to come cook gumbo and pass a good time.  And, they decided to make it a fundraiser for a worthy charity.

That first year, a couple of hundred people showed up, 15 teams cooked, first place paid $230, the proceeds went to St. Jude’s and everybody had a good time.  Saturday, a couple of thousand people showed up, 50 teams cooked, first place paid $1000, the proceed went to Raven’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans and everybody had a good time. My how times change in a few years. And, at the same time, the more they stay the same in some ways.
Bobbi Jo and Berlin who work very hard to pull this thing off
Bobbie Jo and Berlin, who work very hard to put  all this together!

The rules are simple and have never changed.  Any type of bird and any type of sausage. No other meat of any kind. Make your own roux, no precooked ingredients.  No glass, no pets, and no pets in glass bottles, please. Turns out it took a couple of years for some people to figure out that shrimp, crabs, oysters, tasso and the like are not a bird. But now everybody pretty much gets it. People often ask me what time does it start and when is it over. My answer is always the same. Cooking starts at 9:00, judging is at 3:00 and it ends sometime early Sunday morning with the Sheriff’s Office shows up and tells everyone it is time to “get the hell out of here and go home”.

The teams cooked and there were 4 live bands through out the day, and even a dance floor that got a lot of use. Supporters came out, paid $10 for an arm band that entitled you to taste all the gumbo you wanted, plus everything else that was being cooked by the teams, like jambalaya, barbecue, boudin, grilled chicken and burgers.  There were games and a slide for the kids. You could even get a funnel cake or fried Oreos for $3, all proceeds going to Raven’s House.  From the size of the crowd, it is an event most folks around here don’t want to miss.

My day started early. I got to the venue about 7:30 a.m.  After the second year, it got to big to stay at Bobbi Jo and Berlin’s house, so it was moved to a bigger location.  Although my day started early, it started even earlier for the staff, including my wife Jo Ann.  They all got there about 6:00 a.m.

Some of the staff getting ready.

It still makes me proud that in a small community like Watson, so many people will give up their Saturday to make something like this happen and support a good cause.

I unloaded my stuff, set up my canopy and kitchen and got ready.  It was a cold crisp morning, but the weather was beautiful and the sky clear. My first task for the day was to cook breakfast for the staff.  I was ‘voluntold’ to do that by Jo Ann.  I got started.  Two dozen biscuits in the dutch ovens and a big Mountain Man meal in a cast iron pot.  Mountain Man is real comfort food. Ground sausage, hash browns, a dozen eggs and 2 lbs of shredded cheese.  Yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.

Got breakfast done and everybody full. Then it was time to start cooking gumbo!

I could smell the delicious aroma off cooks all around us getting the pot going.


My first step was to get my chickens ready for the pot. This year I decided to roast them in my infrared fryer and then de-bone them. Had them cooking and wasn’t long til they were ready.

We started cutting vegetables and slicing our good andouille sausage, so everything would be ready at the right time. About that time, the official photographer, The Picture Lady, came around taking team pictures.  We posed for ours.

In case you were wondering, that good looking guy in the middle is me. The other two are my friend Calvin Jones and my youngest son Joel. My middle son Matt was also on our team.  He helped us a lot later, but after a hard week, he slept in and missed the picture, so I took one of him myself.

 

With all the prep work done, it was time to get cooking. There are many great recipes in Louisiana. Funny thing is, at least half of the best ones all start with the same phrase “First you make a roux..” 3 cups of flour and 3 cups of oil, turn on the fire and we were ready to go.

Got the heat up and then, as Vernon Roger’s momma used to say, “Braise, braise, braise”, which in English means “Stir, stir, stir!” Before long we had a traditional Cajun brown roux.

Fried the onions and stuff, the it was time to put the ‘juice’ in.

Once we that simmering good, in went the bird and sausage.
Now all it needed was time to simmer and getting the seasonings right.

By this time, the party was really getting started. The first of the bands took the stage, people were lining in to get in and cooks were hard at it from one end of the place to the other.





And of course, as always, Bobbi Jo was keeping everything running smooth

“Move your car if you are parked on Arnold Road!”
Which brings us to what the Gumbo Cook Off is really all about. Yes, it is a fundraiser for a good cause. And, yes we serve up some good gumbo. But what it it really about is a good time with friends and family. Spending a nice day with friends you see all the time, reconnecting with old friends you haven’t seen in a long time, making new friends and spending some quality time with family. I would estimate that there were upwards of 2,000 people out there Saturday, and you could just look around and see they were all “passing a good time, Watson style”.

You always make some new friends at the Gumbo Cook Off. Saturday I noticed a guy standing near my pot, with a big smile on his face, just taking it all in. I did not know who he was but he obviously having a good time. When I was seasoning my gumbo, getting opinions, I asked him if he wanted to taste. He did and we struck up a conversation. He admitted that he was just standing by my pot because it smelled so good. Turns out he was a charter bus driver from Marrero, Louisiana, who had driven a group of people to a wrestling match at Live Oak High School. He was looking for something to do and heard about the Gumbo Cook Off. Like everyone else, he was having a blast, passing a good time, Watson style. Another interesting thing about this is that at least 3 of the 5 years, I have had the opportunity to serve some foreigner from “up North” their first taste of real, sho’ nuff gumbo. Saturday was no different.

 


That young man in the Michigan State shirt was there with his wife and a friend. They all teach at Glen Oaks High in Baton Rouge. He is a transplant from Detroit, ergo the Lions ski hat. He loved my gumbo and admitted that they ain’t got nothing like this in Motor City.

Later in the day, it was time to announce the winners. Actually, at that point it really didn’t matter, because everyone who participated was a winner, especially the displaced veterans at the Raven’s House. Just to show you how this works, one of the ‘prizes’ was the 50/50 Raffle. The lady who won claimed $757, and immediately handed the money back to Bobbi Jo to go the charity. You gotta love people from Louisiana. In case you are wondering, no I didn’t win anything, but like always, I went home with the real First Prize.

I went back Sunday morning to get the rest of my stuff and help Bobbi Jo and Berlin clean up. Bobbi Jo asked me how I thought it went. I told her it thought it went great, especially when I evaluate it like I do some of my wife’s extended family get togethers. Not too many people got real drunk, there were no fights, the cops only got called out once, nobody went to jail or the emergency room and everybody had fun. I would call that a successful day!! If you understand that analysis, maybe you should check out the Gumbo Cook Off next year. If you don’t, maybe you should avoid the Gumbo Cook Off and any future Herrington family reunions.

Cest la vie!

Cruising the Caribbean-Part 2

Today I am continuing my blog about Jon Ann and my recent pre-Christmas sojourn to the Sunny Caribbean. As you may recall from my previous blog, we set sail on Sunday afternoon and made our way down the river as dusk settled.  After dark, it was time for our first dinner in the dining room .

We dressed made our way to Table 669 in the Upper Level of the Scarlett Dining Room. If you have never been on a cruise, one of the best parts is the food.  It is delicious, well prepared and plenty of it.  The dining room is an experience much like a really nice restaurant.  Good service, great choices, tables set with care on fine linen table cloths.  On Carnival, there are standards that are on the menu every night, like grilled flat iron steak, fried shrimp, Caesar salad and shrimp cocktails.  The main menu changes nightly and includes things like Surf n Turf, with Maine Lobster, Chateau Breaun, Caribbean Jerked Chicken, Penne Pasta with Seafood, Escargot, Braised Ox Tongue, Veal Parmigiana, to name just a few.

And the desserts. Oh my Lord, the deserts. Some of the greatest pastries  and sweets you will ever see.  Bitter and Blanche bread pudding, Baked Alaska, Cheesecake, French Silk pie, Chocolate cake.  And, the greatest dessert ever, Warm Chocolate Melting Cake.  Served nightly, it is a chocolate lovers dream.  A concoction of flour, sugar, butter and cocoa, baked until the top and bottom are cake like and the center is still molten and syrupy. And did I mention it comes with ice cream on the side? No wonder everyone in the dining room seems to be smiling all the time.

Another interesting thing about the dining room is the people you meet. If you are lucky enough to be assigned to a table with people you don’t know, you tend to meet really nice people and make new friends. This trip was no different. Our dinner companions turned out to be Eddie and Becky of Longview, Texas, a retired postal worker and his wife who was a dean at Kilgore College, and Francisco and Rebecca, a couple about our age from New Orleans. At the next table, was Mrs. Rose and her husband Gary, experienced cruisers from Meridian, Mississippi. All nice folks and a great bunch to spend a week on the water with.

After dinner, we took in a few of the attractions on the ship, including a stroll through the casino. I will admit that my one character flaw is my inability to walk past a lively craps table, but I will save that for another blog. We decided to turn in early, looking forward to our first relaxing Fun Day At Sea.

I awoke early the next morning and slipped out onto our private balcony. There was nothing else in sight. We were somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, cruising along on a southeastward heading that would take us to Key West. I waited in anticipation of one of my favorite moments on the water. If you have never witnessed a sunrise at sea, you are missing one of Creation’s most breathtaking moments. It wasn’t long until the dull red glow to west began to turn brighter, the colors changing to breathtaking yellows and pinks. And then, suddenly, there it was.

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I could feel my cares melting away as the sun brightened the horizon and began to warm my little corner of Heaven on Earth. Not long after that, there was a knock at the door. Room service was there with our daily morning coffee and pastries. Not a bad life at all.

We had our coffee, dressed casually and then went to the dining room for breakfast. After breakfast, it was time to soak up some sun. We found a spot by the rail on aft end of the Lido Deck and settled in.

Jo and I had our books, sunscreen, sunglasses and all the other essentials.   There were also these really nice crew members who would come around and take your order for a Pina Coloda, Mia Tia,, Cruiser or some other cold libation with rum in the bottom and a paper umbrella on top.. And, if you got tired of sunning and reading, the hot tub was not faraway.  If you got hungry, it was just one short flight of stairs down to the grill or the buffet.  Not a bad way to spend a Monday I think.  We cruised on toward Key West as the sun set to our East.  Nothing quite like a day in Paradise. WHen we got back to our cabin after dinner, we had a nice towel animal monkey.

Tuesday morning dawned as we approached Key West.  Key West sits at the far end of the Florida Keys, the southernmost point in the United States.  It is 60 miles from Cuba and 85 miles from the nearest WalMart. It is an eclectic, old hippie sort of town, where Caribbean pirates and Hemingway both found a hide out, a couple of hundred years apart. As remote as it is, it is easy to see what drew people here and still does. The water is clear and blue, the beaches are white and the sky is like a painting. Bars, including Hemingway’s favorite Sloppy Joe’s, and restaurants dot Duvall Street and the harbor.


Jo and I hit Duvall Street and took a ‘hop on-hop off’ bus tour. We checked out some sights around town and wound up back at the harbor for a conch fritter and fried oyster lunch. We even discovered some local Christmas decorations;

By Noon we were ready to get back aboard and soak up some more sun.

 

We set sail again and headed for Freeport in the Bahamas.  We arrived before dawn.  One thing about Freeport is that when you are there, you are in the middle of a busy, working port.

You are also on the other side of the island from the beach or anything else you want to see or do. So, Jo Ann and I decided to do a ‘first’ for us on a cruise; spend a port day by staying on the ship. We got up and staked out our usual spot in the sun. We had a good view of the port area, complete with other ships, a shopping area and Senor Frogs, the building with the red roof in the pictures.

It did not take long, and a pina coloda or two, for us to decided we had made the right decision.

One of the reasons I love cruising is that it is, for some reason, one of the most relaxing vacations you can take. Let me tell you, after a couple of days of sun and doing absolutely nothing, neither of us could have cared less about CLE hours, year end accounting issues, what work was on the board, back orders or anything else. We were accomplishing just what we set out to do: relax and do nothing.

The following morning found us docking in Nassua. Nassau is a cool town too. The cruise ship dock is right next to the old part of town, full of shops, jewelry stores and the straw market. We decided to get off and roam around. You never know what you might find in old town Nassau.



After Starbucks and a little shopping, we hit the Straw Market. You can find almost anything there, most of if hand made locally. One of the coolest areas was the alley where the carvers set up. They offer all manner of carved items, from walking canes to statuary, much of it made while you watch.

We got back aboard mid afternoon. We went up on the sun deck to catch the evening sun. While we were there, we were lucky enough to witness the other breathtaking sight, a Caribbean sunset. Just like the sunrise, it is one of the truly beautiful sights on this earth.


We headed back to sea, a two day leg that would take us back to New Orleans.  Friday was a great day.  The sunrise was awe inspiring.

Two things struck me that day. First, I had always wondered what, in the old days of sail, would convince a man to leave his home and family and spend a year or two floating around on a small wooden ship. Moments like I had watching that sunrise make it perfectly clear. Second, when you see the sun behind the clouds, almost like you are in the presence of a divine being, it is easy to understand why some many ancient cultures viewed the sun as a deity.

Saturday dawned cold and overcast. Obviously we were getting closer to Louisiana. They weather was turning crappy. We took advantage of some indoor entertainment and even did a little last minute shopping. At 4:00 that afternoon, we went to the Christmas show in the showroom. It was just the touch to put me in the Christmas spirit, especially the kids singing carols and the members of the crew, all 52 nationalities, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

Late that night, before I went to bed, we could see oil rigs off our balcony. We were getting close to home
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After a few hours sleep, I awoke early to find that the ship was still moving, making slow turns along the Mighty Mississippi. I had always wanted to watch as our ship came into port in New Orleans. But, this had always alluded me, since every time I woke up, we were always already tied off. safe and snug alongside the Julia Street Wharf. I sensed this was my chance, so I pulled on a pair of pants and grabbed my camera. It was cold and windy, but the sleeping city was waiting just around the bend in the river.

The river front was quiet as we crept up river, back to the wharf from where we had started.



With surprising grace for a ship her size, the Carnival Dream eased up to the wharf in the pre-dawn glow, like so many ships before her, ready to disgorge her passengers and cargo along the New Orleans waterfront.


Then I felt the vibrations stop as the engines shut down. We were home. Our Caribbean adventure was at an end. As I returned to our cabin, I caught sight of the fuel barge coming along side and then the return of our companion ship.

After that, all that was left to do was grab our luggage and be prepared for the quick disembarkation. We carried our luggage off, made a quick stop at Customs (“No sir, I didn’t even know they sold Cuban cigars in the Bahamas”) and then to the car and headed back to Watson. Our trip was done, but we were heading home to family and Christmas and food and love. It was a wonderful trip and we had done just what we had set out to do: Absolutely nothing! So, as the French say it is not goodbye, just ‘au reviour” until we meet again.

Down the Mighty Amite…

Saturday, thanks to my friend Jeff Easley, I had the opportunity to kayak down the Amite River in Watson. It was a great day, but as we headed down the river I realized that, although it had been here the whole time, this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in 25 or more years. That realization was a shock for a Watson boy, who grew up on and around the Amite. But, more on that later.

Jeff called me last week and said he and some folks were planning to “float the river” Saturday morning.  He was gracious enough to invite me to go with them.  After last Saturday’s adventure on the Mighty Mississippi, I was definitely ready for a more laid back, rural float trip.  We were concerned about the weather and the condition of the river, but when Saturday morning dawned, it was going to be a beautiful day. At least until around noon, when the rain was supposed to start. I called Jeff and found out that we were still on, so I packed my gear, loaded my kayak and headed out.

Jeff and his wife live up Hwy 16, almost to the parish line and have access to a beach on the river behind their house. Jeff’s family also owns a tract of land on the East Baton Rouge side of the river around Indian Mound, off Greenwell Springs Road.  The plan was to make a 3 hour or so float from Jeff’s house to the other property. So far so good.  There were six of us going today. Me, Jeff, my neighbor John Kennedy, Jeff’s friend Dean and Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law, Joey and Jan. We loaded the gear and the kayaks on a trailer behind an ATV and headed down to the beach.  Well, nothing ever goes quite as planned.  The first casualty of the day was when Jeff got the ATV and trailer stuck in the sand.

Not a big thing. We had enough man power to get it out and unload the kayaks. In just a few minutes, we were all geared up, in the water and ready to head out.

When we got on the water headed downstream, I was immediately impressed with the tranquil beauty of being out on the water on such a perfect day.  The water was muddy, but the current was just about right, not to swift but not too slow. We were going to be able to do a lot of floating and less paddling.  It was going to be a great day.  As we floated along, the thought hit me that this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in almost 30 years.  That was quite a revelation for a kid from Watson, Louisiana. I spent a lot of time in and around that river, up until I was about 20 years old.  When I was growing up, “the river” played such a big part in life around here. It was one of those things that was just always there.
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The Amite River originates from two forks in Amite County Mississippi, which eventually join up and flows south through the Florida Parishes.  It separates St. Helena Parish from East Feliciana.  It separates Livingston Parish from East Baton Rouge Parish and further south from Ascension Parish, before it empties into Lake Marepaus.  The lower 28 miles or so of the Amite, from Port Vincent south, are navigable. Which means that for years it was populated with camps and small houses. Today, many of those have been replaced with million dollar homes.  But the portion of the Amite that winds past northern Livingston Parish, and therefore right through Watson, is a curvy, shallow, sandy, muddy bottomland stream.  But for many years, it has been the heart of the community and the people who live here.

According to historians, Indians lived along the Amite, drawn here for its easily accessible sand and gravel deposits, as far back 4,000 B.C.   How they know this is a mystery to me, because I am pretty sure the Indians did not write anything down and white people were still about 3,500 years from finding the New World.  But, I am willing to take them at their word. which means that 1,000 years before the Egyptians built the first pyramids, there were people in Watson living along the Amite River.   Pretty cool, huh?

Back in the day, even when I was growing up, the river was a source of recreation, food, income and pride.  Many of us learned to swim in that river.  Back then, no one in Watson had a swimming pool so the best way to cool off on a hot summer day was a family trip to river for a swim. It was a great place to fish, before folks were willing to drive several hours to Fourchon or Toledo Bend. Catfish, bass and sacalait were plentiful.   The swamps and bottomland forest produced  bountiful amounts of  whitetail deer, rabbits, squirrels and ducks.  Gravel operations were common as far back as the 1920’s and a lot of people made their living in the sand and gravel business.  That muddy little river meant a lot to people around here.

For some of us, maybe it meant even a little more.  If you read my previous “Being Underwood” blog, you know that I am an Underwood, like many of us natives of Watson.  It is more than just happenstance of birth.  It is a state of mind.  Well one thing is for certain. The Amite River is as sacred to an Underwood as the Jordan River was to the Israelites.   It is much more than  just a geographic feature, it represents The Promised Land.   Sometime after the War For Southern Independence, our family patriarch, John Zachary Underwood migrated from Pine Grove in St. Helena Parish to the Watson area and settled near the Amite River.  He was a few thousand years after the Indians, but it must have looked pretty good to him too; it looked like home.   John and his wife raised 12 children, most of whom stayed close to the river themselves.  Their oldest son and my great-grandfather, Walter, wound up with a couple of hundred acres near the end of the Bend Road, which fronted the river.  Some of his children set up homesteads on part of his land.  The river always held a special place for all of them.  Family picnics. baptisms, fishing trips, camp meetings  and the like were, more often that not, held on the river.  Many an Underwood child learned to swim in the Amite.


This is a picture of Grandpa Walter and some of his grandchildren at the river in the 1920’s.  My Daddy is the one on the left with his head turned.   By the time I was child, Walter’s daughter and son in law, Margie and Ken Goodman, had purchased the land at the dead end of the Bend Road.  From where their house was at the end of the blacktop, there was a gravel road that lead down the hill to the sandbar on the river.  They had fixed up a beach and picnic area for the extended family and whoever else wanted to use it.  Each Spring, they would go down to the river and wade in, checking for logs, snags or drop offs.  After this reconnoiter, they would rope off a safe swimming area.  They painted old Clorox bottles and use them as the boundaries.  One set was painted blue and was were the water was only a couple of feet deep.  This was the younger kids area.  The other set was painted yellow and marked the general swimming area.   I remember spending many a hot summer day, and every 4th of July, on that little beach, swimming, playing and eating watermelon cooled in the river.  Those were some good times.

Later when I was a teenager, the river played another large part in my life.  Sometimes my friends and I would put a boat in up around Cloverleaf Farms and float down the river to the Bend Road area. Sometimes we would fish and sometimes we would just float and partake of cold malt beverages we were too young to buy but acquired anyway.  A buzz bait with a white skirt thrown up against a log was the undoing of many a bass and sacalait.  Other times we would run lines or put slat traps in the river to catch catfish.  When we weren’t fishing or floating, Keith Jones and I spent many  hours in the swamps along the river, coon hunting and trapping.  We had visions of getting rich on selling those hides, but somehow we never really did. Those were the days.

One of my best memories of the river were when I was in my high school and early college years.  My Daddy and I had cows for many years.  Uncle Howard Underwood, Walter’s only son, wound up with the bulk of the family home place.  When I was 15 or so, my Daddy leased it from Uncle Howard to run cows on.  So, for the next 6 years or so, I spent a good deal of time on the “old family place”.   It had open pasture, plenty of woods and some swamp.  Two of the most noticeable features were a long sand beach about 50 yards wide and, just upriver, a cleared pasture which abruptly ended at a 30 foot bluff that dropped straight down to the river.  My Dad and I spent many long days there working cows, building fences, cutting and bailing hay, planting rye grass, birthing calves, spraying and worming cattle and many other things.  We even set some lines and traps in the river and did a little hunting. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to work with my Dad on the same land he told me he used to help his grandfather, Walter, work when he was a young boy.   At the time I didn’t really appreciate it like I should have.  But it was quality time.  Some of the best times I spent with my Daddy during my youth happened right there.  After I graduated from high school, we sold the cows and gave up the lease.  I went on to LSU, got married, started a family and found other things to do for fun that did not involve the river.

So, as I headed downriver Saturday, a lot of these thoughts were running through my head.  Had it really been that long since I had been on the Amite?  And if so, why not. I needn’t have worried though.  Like an old friend  you haven’t talked to in a long time, but discover they have not changed much, the river was still the same.  The simple beauty and rustic charm were the same as they had always been.  The day was bright and clear and the water was cold and muddy. The scenery was spectacular.

Just like it had for years, the river had drawn a group of friends to it to rest and recharge.  We had a great time, just floating and visiting, chasing the shade as we went.


As we made our way down the river, I kept looking for things that were familiar, but most of it, while beautiful, looked the same.  Brown water, woods and sandbars.  Jeff told me about the route and where we would take out.  His property on the East Baton Rouge side had two sandbars.  The farthest one was across from the end of the Bend Road, where the tubers put in.  By my calculation that was or next to Aunt Margie and Uncle Ken’s old place.   The first sandbar, where we would take out, was just past a bend in the river and was right across from a steep bluff with a large clearing at the top.  My mind started racing.  Was it? Could it be? Probably not, but then you never know.

As we neared the end of our trip, I saw Jeff and John round a bend and then head for the bank on a wide sandbar.  We had reached the take out point.  I was excited, but didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. But then I made the turn, and there it was.

Yes. that was “our” bluff; mine and my Daddy’s bluff.  The clear area at the top used to be our rye grass field. I have plowed and seeded that thing many times.   I beached my kayak and stood and just took it all in.  I walked down the beach for a better look.  I could see the north end of the sandbar downriver on the opposite bank.

Yes, this was Underwood land for sure. I stood there and all the memories and stories came flooding back.  I felt like I should do like Moses and take my shoes off.  I was almost on holy ground!   I was home.

So, thanks to Jeff for inviting me.  He thought he was just taking for a float down the river. But it turned into much more than that.  I look forward to the next time so I can do it again.

Being Underwood

Earlier this week I attended a funeral at Live Oak Church for Mrs. Iris Harris. “Aunt Iris”,as we knew her when we are growing up, was a beautiful lady, inside and out. She was always neatly dressed, wearing a smile and had that naturally sweet personality that always made you feel blessed to be around her. Her children, Craig, Wiley and Ginger, were roughly the same age as my sisters and me. She was a friend of my mother, so we saw a lot of her when we were growing up. But the most important relationship seemed to be that she was one of our Underwood cousins. Actually she was my Daddy’s first cousin, but how and what degree we were related didn’t really matter. She was an Underwood and if you grew up in Watson in the old days, that was all that really mattered.

Being an Underwood is more than just a happenstance of genealogy. It’s really a state of mind; something that defines who you are. Way back when Watson was a little community up the road from Denham Springs, everything revolved around family. There were several ‘old’ families in the Watson area. Even when I was growing up, a common first question that was typically posed to someone you weren’t sure of was “Who’s your Momma and Daddy”. The answer to that question told everyone more than just who your parents were. It generally told them everything about you, because they were really asking “who are your people”. And the answer usually revealed what clan you belonged to; Ott, Jones, Allen, Thames, Easterly, Garrison, Chandler, Graves or some other family. But by far the biggest bunch were the Underwoods.

The Underwood clan in Watson traces its roots back to my great-great grandfather, John Zachary Underwood, who we all know as “Grandpa John”. His father, William Underwood, emigrated from England and eventually settled in St. Helena Parish, by way of Georgia and St. Tammany Parish. Grandpa John was born in 1835. He eventually became a school teacher, served in the Confederate Army and after the war, married one of his former pupils, Rebecca Hill. Eventually, around 1892, John and Rebecca settled on Chandler’s Bluff near Watson and John founded the first Live Oak School. John and Rebecca were well thought of in the community. Not only was John the local school teacher, they were devout Methodists and were faithful members of Live Oak Church.

And, being good Methodists, they apparently took literally the Biblical admonition to “be fruitful and multiply.” John and Rebecca had 11 children, six boys and five girls, which eventually provided them with 72 grandchildren. My paternal grandmother, Mildred Underwood Harrison, was one of those grandchildren. Her father, Walter Underwood, was John and Rebecca’s oldest child. He and his wife had 9 children, 2 sons and 7 daughters and had 29 grandchildren. Which was about average for an Underwood in those days. So, as you can see, in just a couple of generations, the woods around Watson were plumb full of Underwoods. And the family tree continued to branch out.

And, since there were a lot of girls in that Underwood family, they did not all carry the Underwood name. A quick run down on the old Watson families will tell you what I mean. Back in the day a partial roll call of Watson families looked something like this: Mixon, Story, Hancock, Nesom, Rose, Erwin, Kinchen, Webb, Philpot, Everett, Harris, Harrison, Truax, Rasberry, Justice, Meinke, Curry. Yep, you guessed it, they were all Underwoods. Oh, and I forgot to mention that two sets of Joneses and some of the Easterlys  and some of the Fuglers were Underwoods too.

Live Oak School students and faculty, 1910. I bet most of them are Underwoods!
And, believe it or not, all those Underwoods were a close bunch. When I was growing up, I always thought it was neat that I had all these people that I was related to, although I wasn’t always sure exactly how. But that is one of the things about being Underwood. The legal degree of relationship is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether you were my first cousin, or if our parents were fist cousins, or if our grandparents were first cousins. We are all still Underwoods and that means we are cousins and that’s all that really matters!

I remember as a child sitting in services at Live Oak Church. Even at that age, I realized that I could look around the building and count on both hands the people that were not my “cousins”. I sometimes joke that when I was in high school, you still couldn’t throw a rock in Live Oak Church without hitting an Underwood. I realize now that is not true. You would hit at least two.

The old Underwoods were quite a bunch. Most of them were blessed with good health and longevity. Living into their nineties was quite common. I hope I inherited that gene. They were people of faith, who loved family and loved the outdoors. Even when I was young, those two things centered around two venues; Live Oak Church and the Amite River. Both of those places are special if you are Underwood. We spent many a 4th of July down at the end of the Bend Road at Aunt Margie Goodman’s place, swimming in the river, eating watermelon and just visiting.

Grandpa Walter, Uncle Willie and grandchildren in the Amite River, around 1930. One of those boys is my Daddy

The Underwoods were and always have been a close knit bunch. The height of the social season in Watson used to be the annual Underwood Family Reunion. All of the descendants of Grandpa John would descend on Live Oak Church on a Saturday in the fall for a day long family get together. Everybody was there and you would consider missing ‘the reunion’ about like you would consider skipping your Momma’s funeral. It just wasn’t done. The day usually started out with a couple of hours of just visiting and catching up. In those days, Aunt Ethel Hancock, John and Rebecca’s youngest daughter was the family matriarch. She seemed to have been 100 yrs old when I was five. Then around noon there was dinner on the grounds. And believe me it was good. Sweet tea and all the food you could imagine.  After lunch everyone would gather inside the church for some old time gospel singing and reminiscing. Then it was back outside for dessert and coffee. Think about it a minute. If John and Rebecca had 72 grandchildren and those kids all married and had 3 or 4 children a piece, and that generation had some of there own, by the time I was born there were easily 300-400 people at those reunions. Those were some good times. Here is a video captured from an old 8mm home movie:

 

They also loved to travel. I can remember my Grandma and her sisters and brother-in-laws taking long driving vacations together. Grandma Harrison used to keep two suitcases packed and ready in her bedroom closet. One had an extra nightgown, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a few dollars. That was her hospital bag. The other one had a week’s worth of clothes, a week’s worth of medicine, extra shoes and around $100 in cash. That one was in case somebody came along and said “We’re going to …… You wanna go?” That way all she had to do was change her clothes, grab that bag and call somebody and let them know how long she would be gone.  Not strange at all if you are an Underwood.

The Underwoods also have quite a connection to public education around Watson. Grandpa John started the first school in Watson. His children, Walter and Posey, became school teachers. Walter eventually was superintendent for Livingston Parish. Their brother Willie was the school board member for the Watson area for many years. When he died, Walter was appointed to his seat, which he held until his death in 1944. My Daddy was later elected to that school board seat in 1960 and held it until 1976. I can remember my Grandma telling about her Daddy teaching her to read as a child, using the King James Bible as a primer.

Walter Underwood and family, 1937. Pretty gal on the far left is my Aunt Mary.

The Underwoods were always active in church and community affairs. Walter attended his first Methodist Church Annual Conference in 1894. He went on to attend 50 consecutive conferences, a record that likely still stands. Willie was the point man for getting folks to sign up with the REA during The Depression and was largely responsible for bringing electricity to Watson. Every Sunday at Live Oak Church looked like an Underwood family meeting.

Underwoods are also easy going and friendly, but on the other hand they tend to be hard headed and stubborn once they make up their mind. In 1976, the Bicentennial celebration was in full swing. One of the events was a trail ride along Hwy 190 through Livingston Parish. Folks from each community were supposed to ride from their place to 190 and join up with the main group. Aunt Ethel, who was in her 90’s at the time, caused something of a stir in the family when she announced she was going to ride a horse, sidesaddle, from Watson to Denham Springs. The excitement went on for a week or so, because she wouldn’t budge, To everyone’s relief, , a compromise was eventually reached; she was still going, but agreed to drive a buggy instead. Being an Underwood was never dull!

So, when I went to Live Oak Church Monday for the wake, I pretty much knew what to expect. I was going to know just about everybody there and more than half the crowd would be my Underwood kinfolk. I was right. Not only the Harris kids, but my sister Cindy, the Curry girls, Jackie and Claudia, Hal Rasberry, Tim Truax, Johnny and Robbie Hancock, Laurie Taylor and Dawn Rush, just to name some around my age. Of course, the current generation of “old” Underwoods were there too. Mr. Dan Truax, Mr. Leon Kinchen, Mr. Hewitt Underwood, Carol Justice, my Aunt Lela and my Aunt Mary, to name just a few. Leon, Dan and Carol are my Daddy’s first cousins. Hewitt, who was the same age as my Dad, is one of those generic “cousins” I was talking about. But if I have the story straight, he is actually my Grandma Harrison’s first cousin, but as usual I might be  little fuzzy on this. A little discussion quickly revealed that Aunt Mary, who is 90, is now the oldest Underwood in captivity.  Mr.Hewitt and Mr. Leon, both 88, are running a close second. Aunt Lela and Carol are not far behind.

On the young side, I ran into Ethan and his younger brother Evan. Ethan is 11 and Evan is 7. Ethan is one of the boys in my Scout Troop. Ethan is a great kid, but to be honest, I don’t remember every laying eyes on him until him and 9 of his friends visited and subsequently decided to join our Troop last year. But, true to form, when I found out who his people were, I knew what I needed to know. Yep, you guessed it; he is an Underwood too, by way of the Webb branch. We have sort of a tradition in our Troop. I am not real good at remembering names. I think it is just rude to keep referring to someone’s child as “Hey you.” or “Hey boy, whatever your name is”.   So, when we get new blood, I usually give each of them a nickname I can remember until I get their real names fixed in my head. Usually the nickname I pick is something that will hopefully help me to eventually remember who they are. The kids think it is funny, and sometimes the nickname sticks. Picking a nickname for Ethan was easy. When I found out who he really was, there was really only one choice. So, forevermore, he will always be known to me as “Cuz”.   After all, he is an Underwood!


My cousin, Ethan!