Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.
Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.
I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.
Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.
*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.
I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.
I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.
Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.
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