Let’s Kill The Loop

It appears that Kip Holden’s pet project for the destruction of Livingston Parish is still alive and well. The Capital Area Expressway, generally known as “the Loop”, has arisen from the ashes once again.  Apparently, the first phase of the Environmental Impact Survey has been completed and it is time for another comment period.  I would urge all of you to make your opposition known.  The comment period ends on February 22.  Comments should be mailed to: Raul Regis, P.E., 10000 Perkins Rowe, Suite 640, Baton Rouge LA 70810.

I was also made privy this week to a letter from Congressman Garret Graves concerning this issue.  The tone of the letter seems to read like Rep. Graves thinks the Loop is the best thing since sliced bread. He needs to hear from you as well.  The following is the text of my letter to Graves. Feel free to use any or all of it in your comment to the Expressway Authority or to let Rep. Graves know how you feel.  Thanks for your support!

Hon. Garret Graves
United States House of Representatives
204 Cannon House Office Building
Washington DC 20515

Re: Baton Rouge Loop project

Dear Congressman Graves:

Your correspondence dated January 26, 2016 regarding the Baton Rouge Loop project and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act has come to my attention. I would like to take this opportunity to voice my opposition the proposed Baton Rouge Loop, which is not the solution to the Capital Area’s transportation problems.

The proposed Loop is the brainchild of Mayor Kip Holden of Baton Rouge and a group of consultants who have already made substantial amounts of money on this project and stand to make a windfall if the project is actually approved. Certainly the traffic and infrastructure problems in the Greater Baton Rouge area have to be addressed. However, the Baton Rouge Loop is not the solution.

I note that your letter describes the Capital Area Expressway Authority as being comprised of “two of the five area parish presidents.” That raises the question of what about the other three? The answer is simple. The parish presidents of the other three parishes have resigned from the Authority because the are opposed to the proposed Loop. In addition, the parish councils of those three parishes have voted numerous times not to support the Loop, including a resolution by the Livingston Parish Council just last week. You may ask why these public officials in the affected areas are so opposed to the loop? The answer is simple. It does not serve the needs of the people of the surrounding parishes and will destroy our communities.

The Loop, as proposed, will solve some of the City of Baton Rouge’s traffic problems at the expense of its neighboring parishes. I, and many other residents, have reviewed the proposed project at length. The primary problem with the proposed expressway is the fact that it will disrupt and carve up existing communities, particularly in the Watson area. One of the primary objections which I have to the project is that if the purpose was to take out as many private homes and public facilities as possible, the proposed corridor could not have been drawn any better than it is now. For example, there are 2 proposed corridors which that cross the Amite River from Central to Watson. One of those corridors crosses the river just north of the existing Magnolia Beach Road bridge. That corridor will require removal of the historic Amite Baptist Church cemetery, will cut off at least 3 subdivisions containing hundreds of homes. And that is only in the first mile from the river crossing.

The other corridor crosses the Amite River north of the Old Greenwell Springs hospital. That corridor will pass directly through the new Live Oak High School property and will also affect North Live Oak Elementary and the Live Oak Ball Park, which recent underwent a multi-million dollar expansion and renovation. That corridor would also pass directly through at least two of the largest residential developments in Livingston Parish. What are we supposed to do about our homes? What are we supposed to do with our dead? Where are we supposed to educate our children or provide recreational opportunities for them.

There are also other alternatives to solving the gridlock in Baton Rouge, without doing so at the expense of the surrounding parishes. For instance, the group Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions (CRISIS) is a business and industry group which has proposed several projects which would make the proposed Loop unnecessary . These include
a. widening I-10 from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/I-12 split;
b. creating a commuter route from Ascension Parish along I-10 or Airline Highway;
c. Building an additional bridge across the Mississippi River South of Baton Rouge and widening Nicholson Drive to Gonzales;
d. Upgrading Airline Highway to an expressway from the Old Bridge to Gonzales; and
e. Building a north bypass from Airline Highway to Livingston Parish.

I would also point out that the Hooper Road extension has been approved, which would improve traffic flow in the Central area and provide another bridge across the Amite River to Highway 16 in Watson.

These projects would primarily use existing corridors, which would negate the problem of buying up land and acquiring new right of ways. They would also divert more traffic to the existing U.S. 190 bridge, which even DOTD recognizes as being underutilized. Increasing use of the U.S. 190 bridge would offer a cheaper and more readily available way to move more traffic across the Mississippi River from West Baton Rouge Parish.

These are just some of the reasons why the Capital Area Expressway should be allowed to die a quiet death, once and for all. I am eager to hear from you regarding this subject. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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And First Place goes to…..

“And 1st place goes to….”. Every year at the Annual Watson Bird & Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, the crowd waits for those words. The anticipation is nerve racking. Everybody wants to know who won; who, on this day, had the best gumbo around. When the announcement comes, the celebration is boisterous and vocal. But, much like a beauty pageant, for the other competitors, it is bittersweet. You applaud and smile politely, giving a friendly nod to the winner. But in your heart, you are a little disappointed that it wasn’t your name that got called. I’ve been in that also ran group every year since this thing got started. But, that changed Saturday, January 30, 2015. Turns out that was OUR day!

The Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Cook Off is the brainchild and pet project of my friends Bobbi Jo and Berlin. They thought this up 6 years ago, mainly as just a way to get some friends together, have a good time, cook some good food and raise a little money for charity. The first year, it took place in their backyard. A total of 12 teams competed and the crowd was somewhere just south of 500 or so. Over the years, they built this event up. Four years ago, it got so big they had to move to a bigger venue. Now that venue is looking too small. This thing has grown to be “the” event of the Watson social season. (I know, I never thought I’d write that sentence either, but hey, times are a changing.)
Everybody looks forward to the event. It is a microcosm of what makes Louisiana, and Watson in particular, such a great place to live and raise a family. It brings together the three great cornerstones of what we are about around here. Good food, good friends and helping someone else who needs it. If you want to know more about the history and what happens at the cook off, you can read some of it here in my blog from last year.

COOK OFF BLOG 2015.

Our team name Is Los Amigos, which is Spanish for “the guys”. My friend and partner in crime Calvin Jones and I cooked in the very first cook off and have made every one of them since. We have always had a lot of fun, but the closest we ever came to getting the brass ring and gumbo immortality was the second year, when we took second place. Calvin and I make a good team. I do all the planning and cooking and he brings all the beverages and handles the PR. This year our team also included my youngest son Joel, and some very useful technical help and advice from my son Matt and his friend Rich, who are both excellent cooks in their own right.

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The funny thing is, I almost didn’t cook this year. After 5 years, there were a number of reasons why I thought I was going to sit it out this time. First, believe it or not, cooking in this thing Is hard work. There is all the prep work of getting everything together and getting it up there. Then on Saturday, you start before daylight, work all day and then have to clean up and pack up. Second, this is a very busy time of year for my wife, Jo Ann and I. The weekend of the cook off was looking like the only ‘free’ weekend we would have for about 3 months. And, to be honest, after 5 years of not winning, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. But that changed one night when Calvin asked me if we were cooking this year. I explained what I was thinking. His response was simple and to the point. “This will be the first year we ain’t cooked in it” Touche’ my brother. So the decision was made. Sign us up.
For the participants, the cook off experience usually starts on Friday evening, when you bring your tent and chairs to the grounds and claim your spot. Then, on Saturday morning, check in starts at 7:00 a.m. This year there were 50 teams competing. It looks like a small army, outfitted with all manner of cast iron pots, stainless steel boilers, propane burners and stoves, barbecue pits, ice chest full of chickens, ducks, sausage and onions and celery by the truckload. Thanks to Bobbi Jo and her dedicated staff, it is well organized and before 8 o’clock, everyone is in place and ready to go.
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We got set up and were ready to get started. We were around some good people again this year. We were right next to our buddy Jeff Gill and his Daddy.

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On the other side was Melissa, Heidi and “the girls”. Right on the other side of the Gills were some of my favorite local idiots. Jeff Betz and his crew, which this year included none other that “Big Sexy” himself, LOHS head coach Brett Beard.

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As the siren announced it was time to start cooking, everyone got into action. Not long after that, the spectators started drifting in. For a contribution of $10, they got to stay all day, eat all the free food they wanted and pass a good time. And they come, young and old. If you want to see pretty much anybody and everybody in Watson, you should come on out to the Gumbo Cook Off.
Our recipe this year was simple chicken and andouille, with a little duck sausage. We took it slow, being patient and not rushing things. We boiled our chicken and used the broth to brew our own homemade stock. Then it was time to really start cooking and make our roux. Ask any Louisiana cook and they will tell you that making a roux is both an art and a science. It is just flour and oil, but it is the most important part of making gumbo. Like the foundation for a house, everything else rests on it and if you get it wrong, everything else is going to suffer. You have to get the fire hot, but not too hot. It needs to be dark, but not too dark. We got it going and started to stir. I even managed to get Calvin to stir the pot and he did a masterful job. I sort of felt bad that I had to keep stirring during the opening prayer and the National Anthem. But our roux was at a crucial stage, and everybody knows when that is happening, you keep stirring even if the house catches on fire.
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Once the roux was just right, we started putting all the other ingridients together. Before long we had simmering pot of some of the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth. Then the trick was to be patient and not rush things. Go slow and let everything meld together. As we did that, we did some tasting and, with the help of Rich and Matt, made a few minor adjustments to the formula. After about 3 hours of simmering, we finally decided we had it right. Cut off the fire and put the lid on it. It’s ready.
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While we were cooking, there was a steady procession of friends old and new. We went about our work, stopping often to visit and do a little talking.

 

 

 

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We spooned out plenty of gumbo during the afternoon and got some good compliments. I also had a chance to walk around and check out some of the competition. They were all good and after tasting 7 or 8, it is hard to say which one you think is best. Finally 2:00 o’clock rolled around and it was time to submit our gumbo for judging. We spooned it up, dark and steaming hot. At that point, all you can do is just wait and see.
Bobbi Jo, Berlin and the wonderful staff they put together work really hard to make this event one of the best. The amount of work they put in is amazing, both before, during and after the event. The funny thing is, most of those folks are the same old Live Oak High people we’ve known all our lives. Makes me proud to be an Eagle. And, there is a lot more going on around here than just cooking gumbo. The staff runs a 50/50 raffle, sells t-shirts, aprons, caps and other ‘logo’ merchandise. They sell beverages and other stuff, the profits of which all go to designated charity. These people rock!
Finally about 3:30, it was time. The winners were going to be announced. The crowd gathers around the bandstand and dance floor and it begins. First, they announce the winner of the raffles. Then they give out awards for the best decoration and other special prizes. Then they introduce the judges. You never know who the judges are until they announce the winners. But, over the years, Bobbi Jo has done a great job of recruiting a roster of celebrity judges who know gumbo and Louisiana cuisine. One year, Chef John Folse was a judge. Others have included renowned cooks, food writers, media personalities and just plain folks who love to eat.
This year’s judges included some of my local culinary heroes. Duke Landry is a former neighbor of ours, whose family started the Don’s Seafood eateries, is a World Champion Oyster shucker and recently opened Watson’s newest restaurant, Duke’s Seafood. Kendall Day is a former cook off participant and owns and operates Day’s Smokehouse, one of the finest specialty meat establishments around. Ramona Addison manages and operates the deli at Oak Point Fresh Market in Watson. Each of these folks know food and put out some of the best tasting stuff I have ever put in my mouth. Other judges included Richard Condon, a food writer and a representative of Tony’s Seafood. Quite a line up if you ask me.
Then it was time. I have always told people that the announcing of the winners goes something like this: When the announce third place, everyone cheers and claps. When they announce second place, everyone cheers and claps, slapping the second place team on the back. Then they announce first place. Most of the crowds cheers and applauds, while 49 other cooks are saying “this is bulls**t!” Only in Louisiana!
Third place this year went to Donald Lambert and his team, Faithful Companions. Donald is married to one of my old schoolmates, Linda.

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Second place went to Tom Peak and his team, Curve Ballers. Tom is an old Live Oak alumni and long time friend.

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And then, they were making “the announcement”
“And 1st place goes to LOS AMIGOS!” Oh WOW! You gotta be kidding me! After six years we finally did it. It felt pretty good being up on stage, folks cheering, knowing that we were the winners.

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Of course, some of my fellow competitors we happily yelling “this is bulls**t!” Hey man, it is what it is. It felt really good and we spent the rest of the evening celebrating and accepting congratulatory words from the patrons and other competitors. And we celebrated some more.


I was also proud that 1st, 2nd and 3rd place went to some old Watson folks. But what I was most proud of was the opportunity to participate again in such a wonderful event. I am pretty sure that the final donation this year, which goes to Quad Veterans Transitional Housing Program, will be in the 5 figure range. We might have taken taken home the plaque for first prize, but believe me, everyone was a winner!

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I Believe…

I believe!  (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Beard)

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To say it has been a Cinderella season for Live Oak High football would be an understatement.  Forty  years ago, as a youth, I remember standing on the sideline of a makeshift football field in a drizzling rain as Live Oak played its first football game. Last Friday night I traveled to Monroe to watch Live Oak play a 5-A playoff game and upset the No. 8 team in the state. There has been a lot of football played around Live Oak since that first game in 1975.  Little did any of us standing in the rain that  day know how far Live Oak football one day would go.

To be honest, there were a lot of tough times and lean years around Live Oak.  We started out as a small country basketball school that decided to add football.  It takes time to build a team and tradition.  I played football for 4 years in High School and finished my senior year with a team that had 20 players total that  finished 2-8.  One of the problems over the years has been the unbelievable rapid growth at Live Oak.  When I graduated in 1980, there were probably less than 250 students in grades 9-12.  Today, there are over 1,200.   It seems that every time Live Oak moved up to a new classification, it took time to be competitive. Then when we did, we got moved up again, and the process started all over again. At one time, Live Oak held the longest active losing streak in the State of Louisiana at 25 straight games.  But, those days are apparently behind us.

Enter Coach Brett Beard. Coach Beard was named Head Coach at Live Oak in 2015.  He came to Live Oak after two successful years at Woodlawn High in Baton Rouge.  Who knows what makes the right coach the right fit for the right team at any given time. But, whatever it is, Coach Beard seems to have it.  In one season he has taken the Eagles into the “Golden Era” of Live Oak football.  The team believes.  The student body believes.  The community believes. I believe.

The student body at Live Oak has a cheer that comes from the student section at each game.  It goes like this, repeated several times:  “I BELIEVE THAT WE CAN WIN..I BELIEVE THAT WE CAN WIN!…”  Apparently, under the direction of Coach Beard, Live Oak’s football team also believes they can win.

The Eagles finished the regular season with a record of 6-4 (actually they really finished 7-3, as everyone with half a brain and two eyes knows, but that is another story).  Along the way, they have been competitive, motivated and fun to watch.  This season also saw a few firsts for Live Oak. In week 6, they beat upset Denham Springs, for the first ever win over the neighboring Yellow Jackets.  I guess the days of them referring to us a “Live Joke” are over for good.  Then, in week 10, the Eagles pulled another upset by beating Central, the perennial powerhouse right across the Amite River.  Another first.  Then, on Friday, the Eagles went on the road for the opening round of the playoffs and picked up their first ever post-season win by beating Ouchita Parish High 33-28.  Or, as one of my Facebook friends put, “Live Oak Shocks the World, Part 3!”

The game against OPHS was a barn burner and one of the best games I have ever seen at any level.  The Eagle fans traveled well and were there to cheer on the team.  The game started with Live Oak receiving the opening kick off.  The return man fumbled the ball and OPHS recovered it around the Live Oak 30 yard line.  Not exactly the way an underdog wants to start out on the road.  However, from the first play from scrimmage, it was apparent that the Eagles came to play.  The Eagle defense held, without giving up a score.  And from that point on, Live Oak brought the wood all night long. The Eagles pounded it out on offense, wearing down OP’s defense and keeping its high powered offense on the sideline. As the Monroe paper said on Saturday, Live Oak used its starting QB Dylan Wang like “a human battering ram.”  The Eagle defense was stout and stingy all night long. By the beginning of the second half, the OPHS coaching staff realized they were NOT going to run the ball on Live Oak.  Unlike some coaches at LSU, they knew that if you can’t run, you have to pass.  OPHS’s passing game opened things up in the second half and lead to some big scores.

Read more about it here:

Late in the second half, Wang was shaken up on a pass play and had to come out of the game.  Enter Ryan Morris.  Morris was Live Oak’s starting QB for most of the season, until he suffered a concussion in a very scary episode a couple of weeks before. Morris came in and was able to open up the passing game.  The leadership and change of strategy was just what the Eagles needed at that point.  The lead changed hands in the 4th quarter 4 times. The Eagles scored midway through the 4th, to trail 28-27.  The Eagles came back with a successful onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and drove 45 yards for the go ahead score to lead  33-28, with three minutes left to play.  But the game was far from over.

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The Eagle defense was still laying the leather to ’em, but along the way OPHS managed to convert on a 4th and 13 and eventually drove down to a 1st and goal at the 2 yard line, with :30 left. After a game which saw a total of 51 points scored, it was going to come down to whether or not the Live Oak defense could hold on 4 downs to seal the win. And they did. On first down, a dive on the middle was stopped for a one yard loss. OPHS clocked it on 2nd down to stop the clock. On 3rd down, they tried the middle of the line again, only to be stopped for no gain. At that point, OPHS called time out with :07 left in the game. The season was going to come down to one play. On 4th down, OPHS put in the “elephant package” and tried one more dive up the middle. Not only did the Eagles hold, they stopped the play 3 yards in the backfield and caused a fumble. Time expired. EAGLES WIN!

WATCH THE FINAL PLAY HERE!

So now, Live Oak, for the first time ever, gets host a home playoff game.  Friday night, the Eagles will line up against Number 9 ranked John Ehret right here in Watson!   People are paying attention now.  Even The Advocate published a nice story about the new feel around Live Oak.

Live Oak soars to new heights with playoff victory

Who knows what will happen Friday night.  Win or lose, it has been a great season at Live Oak High.  But my take is this:

I BELIEVE THAT WE CAN WIN!

 

 

 

 

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!

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!