Vermilion Parish Spotlight
● By Robert Frey
By Shanna Perkins | Photos Submitted by Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission
Census Bureau records indicate that more residents of Vermilion claim Cajun ancestry than anywhere else on the planet. The Parish is centrally located in Acadiana; no matter where you are, you’re only a short drive away from experiencing Cajun culture. From the museums and music to the food and festivals, your journey will be filled with history and joi de vivre.
“Even though we’re very rural, we do have a lot to offer,” explains Alison Miller, Executive Director Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission. “Particularly with our cultural attractions and our great seafood and Cajun restaurants. So if you’ve never experienced true, authentic Cajun, Vermilion Parish is ‘The Most Cajun Place on Earth,’ so it’s definitely the place you need to try.”
Walk Back In Time – History of Vermilion Parish
Each city in Vermilion Parish has its own unique history; each town has its own museums to showcase its proud past. These museums are open to the public, free of charge.
The Parish’s seat of Abbeville is steeped in more than 150 years of history. Most of these historic sites are a short distance from one another. You can take them all in as you stroll around Magdalen Square. The Abbeville Cultural and Historical Museum and Art Gallery, 200 N. Magdalen Square, is a hub for both past and present art. They feature artifacts from the Vermilion Historical Society as well as the works of local artists. There is an entire room dedicated to the devastation caused by Hurricane Rita.
Cross through the oak tree-spotted park at the center of the square, and explore the kitsch historical museum and gift shop that is The Depot at Magdalen Place. The depot is a repurposed 1894 wood frame railroad freight station. It showcases memorabilia and unique Louisiana gifts, including handmade items and authentic Cajun products. Outside of the gift shop you can get behind the wheel of one of two cabooses.
The careers of the Parish’s forefathers also receive homage. Two museums dedicated to telling the stories of Vermilion’s industrious ancestors are The Sam Guarino Blacksmith Shop Museum, 304 S. State St., and Louisiana Military Hall of Fame and Museum, 911 Revis Sirmon Loop. The Sam Guarino Blacksmith Shop Museum remained an operating blacksmith shop until 2004. Today it contains all of its original equipment and charm – right down to the dirt floor. The Louisiana Military Hall of Fame and Museum honors all Louisiana veterans. You’ll view videos, documents, military equipment and the illustrious Hall of Fame members.
It’s essential to visit the Magdalen Square’s namesake – the St. Mary Magdalen Church, rectory and cemetery. Pere Antoine Desire Megret established the church in 1842; it was built in 1911 and added to the National Register in 1988. The church is as ornate and beautiful as it is historic.
Traveling back in time doesn’t begin and end in Abbeville. The outlying towns in Vermilion have their own historic story to tell. The Gueydan Museum, 212 Main St., is housed in a building that remains from 1902. They host local artist and cultural artifacts. Le Musee de Kaplan, 405 N. Cushing Blvd., presents a theatrical representation of what life in Kaplan was like in the 1900s. Maurice Villien Museum, 218 Chief H Fred Ave., is housed in the town’s oldest building, the Maurice Villien Mercantile Store, which was saved from demolition in 2008.
It’s difficult to get a true understanding of the culture of Vermilion Parish without first understanding the history of the Acadians. The Acadian Museum, 203 S. Broadway, Erath, is a wealth of information on the Acadians’ exile and how they shaped the culture of Acadiana.
“Addressing the many aspects of the Acadian Deportation at the hands of the British, and of the Acadians’ re-establishment in faraway places, including Vermilion Parish, is a complex endeavor,” admits museum founder Warren Perrin. “The violent upheavals of the Grand Dérangement rendered thousands of Acadians homeless as the deportation order was relentlessly carried out from one Acadian settlement to the next in an inexorable march across Acadie. Families were torn apart, in many cases never to be reunited again.”
The museum is an excellent testament to the bilingual nature of the Parish. Brochures are available en Francais, and it may take you awhile to find the English versions. Community members and historians from around the world have donated objects and artifacts to the museum. There are three rooms, each one dedicated to a different history. There is the history of Erath, The Cajun Room and The Acadian Room.
“As more archaeological, civil, religious and personal documentation becomes available in well-researched historical works, the mysterious and anonymous are now being revealed, obtaining names, personalities, occupations and family connections,” continues Perrin. “The people of Vermilion Parish will lead this important work, such as the archaeological search for the first Acadian settlement, New Acadia Project.”
Gumbo Ya-Ya – Where to Eat
Sure, Vermilion Parish is “more than a great meal,” but it’s certainly a huge part of it. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting down for a seafood platter at one of the local hot spots or picking up a to-go po’boy at a convenience store; you’re guaranteed to have a meal you’ll write home about.
Vermilion’s close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico means that its seafood cup runneth over. Abbeville’s oyster scene is a trifecta of deliciousness, consisting of Dupuy’s Oyster Shop, SHUCKS! the Louisiana Seafood House and Black’s Oyster House. Black’s and Dupuy’s are less than a block away from one another. For years the institutions kept full houses and happy customers. In 1995 Shuck’s opened their doors; the new kid on the block served up competition on the half shell. Black’s, formerly the oldest single-family owned oyster house in the parish, is soon reopening under new ownership. Three successful seafood restaurants in one small town is a true testament to the Gulf’s gifts to Vermilion.
When in Delcambre, you can purchase fresh seafood straight from the boat. While you’re there, take advantage of the recently renovated and newly opened Bayou Carlin Cove boat dock, fishing pier and pavilion. Richard’s Seafood Patio and Cajun Claws, open seasonally, are both famous for their seafood spreads. For Cajun classics, try Hebert’s Steak House, Perry’s ByYou Café, Larry’s Super Foods, TLS Seafood, Nunu’s Country Market and Hebert’s Specialty Meats.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler – Festival Fun
It’s been said that Acadiana has a festival for everything; Vermilion is no exception. After all, there’s plenty to celebrate. In July there’s the Annual Erath 4th of July Celebration, complete with all of the fireworks and festivities the holiday requires. In August, Delcambre celebrates its lucrative seafood industry with the Declambre Shrimp Festival. The Gueydan Duck Festival, also in August, is dedicated to the flocks of feathered fowl that grace the Parish’s skies. Abbeville pays homage to the cattle industry every October with the Louisiana Cattle Festival and Fair Association.
Not all festivals are created equal; some require you to break out of your shell a little. Abbeville’s Giant Omelette Celebration is held in November; the two-day event concludes with the cooking of 5,000 eggs to make the famous giant omelette.
“In 1984, representatives from Abbeville’s Chamber of Commerce traveled to Bessieres, France to a Giant Omelette Celebration,” explains Arlene Collee, who handles public relations for the festival. “They came back to Abbeville with the thought of creating a Celebration in Abbeville. Representatives from Bessieres traveled to Abbeville to help them cook their first Giant Omelette.”
Those close to the festival say that 2014 will see the best musical and events lineup in the celebration’s history.
“It is a family-friendly two-day festival with a charity walk and bicycle ride, great music, food, antique cars and an arts-and-crafts show,” continues Collee. “Over 90 booths of handmade items and artists to share their stories. Of course, Sunday afternoon’s cooking of a 5,000-egg omelette in a 12-foot skillet is something to see.”
If your visit doesn’t fall during festival season, which is unlikely, there will always be music and entertainment. Much like their museums, Vermilion’s musical events are generally free of charge. Dance the night away to a Cajun band at Touchet’s Jam Session, Hwy. 167, Maurice or at seasonal concerts like Jammin’ Under the Oaks and Sounds of the Square, both in Abbeville. Stop by the Abbey Players Theater for one of their yearly main stage productions, a performance by the Children’s Guild or catch a play by an outside theatre company.
Down the Bayou – Outdoor Adventures
Towns within Vermilion have acquired nicknames such as, “ The Duck Capital of America,” “Gateway to Acadiana’s Coastal Wetlands” and “Someplace Special on the Bayou.” It would be criminal to leave the Parish without taking in its wondrous wildlife. Palmetto Island State Park, located on the Vermilion River, is an excellent place for guests and campers to experience the true south Louisiana outdoors. Pecan Island is a coveted spot among outdoorsman. The lush marshland is home to alligator, deer, nutria and waterfowl. White Lake WCA Birding and Nature Trail is a 32-acre haven for numerous indigenous plants, birds and mammals. A 2-mile trail will guide you through the wildlife wonderland.
Suire’s Grocery & Restaurant proclaims, “If you want country cooking, come to the country.” Suire’s has been acclaimed by the New York Times and is a favorite haunt of celebrity chef John Besh. To get to the country store, set your GPS to 13923 Hwy 35, Kaplan. You’ll wind through cane fields and bounce over potholes and just when you think you’re lost, keep going, you’re almost there.
The parking lot is always packed with vehicles ranging from construction trucks to luxury automobiles. The menu is hand painted on the front porch of the small white building, a mural of cannibalistic turtles cooking up a pot of turtles adorns the side and the thick smell of seasoning, sauces and love rolls off of the porch.
Suire’s is a true mom-and-pop shop. What began as a convenience store only serving boudin, barbecue burgers and chili dogs soon turned into an international eatery.
“We’re going to make 38 years on Nov. 4,” says Joan Suire, part owner along with her sister Lisa Frederick. “About 30 years ago, Mama had a vision, a dream. She told Daddy, ‘tear down the shelves.’ Three of the tables are made from the original shelves that he made. The back was a storeroom; they turned that into a kitchen and here we are.”
The three-fold menu is packed with Cajun country cooking. Your favorite meal is likely included, from fried okra, homemade burgers, po’boys and boudin balls to BLTs, crawfish fettuccine and chef salads. Their chicken and sausage gumbo is true to southern form, with a deep, dark roux and smoky sausage. Pistolettes are a treat only a Cajun could dream up, fried bread stuffed with decadent seafood filling. Suire’s achieves pistolette perfection; they’re available in crab, crawfish and shrimp.
“It’s all homemade family recipes,” adds Frederick. “It’s all made from scratch. This was all food that we were raised on.”
The BLTs with egg are a personal favorite of chef John Besh. If you visit Suire’s during hunting season with a craving for a BLT, get there early. During the opening of teal season 2014, they sold a record-breaking 138 BLTs.
Suire’s most famous dish, known far and wide, is their turtle sauce picante. The recipe came about when a local judge persistently requested turtle on the menu. If the thought of taking a bite of Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo is a little too much for you, tell yourself whatever you must to take the first bite. This perfectly smothered, seasoned red sauce concoction is served over rice with a filet of the flakiest, fresh fried catfish you’ve ever encountered. There is also a generous helping of potato salad, moist chocolate cake and a nostalgia-evoking dinner roll.
“You never leave hungry,” exclaims Fredericks. “We welcome anybody to come enjoy authentic Cajun food.”
Suire’s is open for indulgence seven days a week, from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. Joan explains that breakfast is, “whatever your stomach can take.” You can take the decadence home with you; Suire’s sells their famous recipes frozen. As you check out don’t forget dessert. Clustered around the register are homemade desserts. There are pecan pies, cream cheese bars the size of bricks and everything in between.
“Customers just feel at home,” says Suire. “I don’t even have an open, close sign. You just come in; it’s an experience. There’s no place like Suire’s.”
Proof that Vermilion Parish is far more than gumbo and ‘gators lies in the work of Alexander Caldwell, originator of Vivian Alexander, which has been hailed as, “the most elite evening purses in the world.”
Caldwell’s workspace and museum are located at 6165 Picard Lane in Maurice. Drive over a few cattle guards and pass the herds of grazing bovine, when the oak trees start to form canopies and the Spanish moss hangs like curtains, you’ll begin to see Caldwell’s secret garden of sparkle.
Vivian Alexander began more than 25 years ago when Caldwell began decorating a surplus of geese eggs from around his property. “We have evolved dramatically in the last 25 years,” he says. “I can’t do any one thing very long. I have to invent something or create something new. Generally, what I create is something nobody else is doing. So after a couple of years of decorating geese eggs, I moved up to larger eggs, rhea eggs.”
Rheas are South American ostriches; their sizable eggs serve as the base for Caldwell’s creations. The evolution from decorative eggs to purses happened as so many south Louisiana visions do – on a bar napkin at Mardi Gras.
“In 1991, I went to a Mardi Gras ball in Lafayette,” he recalls. “I was sitting at the head table and watching the young ladies come in with their beautiful ball gowns and carrying their little purses with the strings hanging from them and I said, ‘I think I can do better than that.’ I took my bar napkin off my drink, laid it on the table and sketched the purse. I still have that napkin.”
Vivian Alexander handbags maintain the shape of the Rhea egg; they’re made of pure silver, painted with enamel and garnished with gemstones, and occasionally alligator skin. Every woman would likely agree that the functional genius of Vivian Alexander is the small mirror placed in the top of each purse.
Caldwell’s work quickly caught the eye of the Forbes family. Malcolm Forbes contacted him and he travelled to 5th Avenue in New York where he began a 7-year partnership with them working in their Fabergé museum.
“Forbes was developing a new business, having people that did Fabergé type work, to start selling to wholesale stores,” he explains. “I worked with them for seven years. During this time I studied their works extensively and discovered a process that’s called guilloche. What Fabergé did was guilloche the object he was making and put the translucent enamel on top of it. It gives a very striking effect, and it’s something that isn’t done. Nobody is doing it except me.”
During his Forbes partnership, Caldwell recreated some of the Fabergé’s most beautiful and renowned work, such as Lilies of the Valley, Chanticleer Egg Clock, Duchess of Marlborough Egg Clock and many more exquisite pieces.
In 2011 Caldwell was commissioned by Warner Brothers to create two identical Imperial Coronation Eggs to be shipped to Rome for a film. The film turned out to be “Ocean’s Twelve.” The second half of the film is centered on the Ocean’s crew attempting to steal the Imperial Egg from the Vatican Museum; the original Vivian Alexander piece is seen repeatedly.
Vivian Alexander was once featured in seven Neiman Marcus department stores and the iconic Harrods in London, but Caldwell has since retired from the wholesale “rat race.” His products are available online at vivianalexander.com. Beyond that, in true Louisiana fashion, he invites you to come visit. Call to schedule a tour and meander through the museum filled with original and ornate Vivian Alexander pieces.