"Alligator with sauce piquant," said the waitress at the roadside cafe, "is our speciality. How many of you are going to try it?"
Not all that many, it turned out, among the nine tourists on the five-hour Swamp and Cajun Country tour in the Mississippi Delta about 40 miles southwest of New Orleans where we were staying.
But, after wrinkling our noses for a moment, my wife Sandy and I and a venturous insurance man from Chicago decided to give it a try. After all, we had hunted for an out-of-the-ordinary tour, and this one -- sold at the Voodoo Museum on Bourbon Street for $25 each -- fit the bill.
For another $7.25, we got a heaping -- too heaping, I thought, as the image of a slimy green monster flashed in my mind with each mouthful -- plate of rice with a spicy red sauce filled with small chunks of tender white meat that resembled veal. It was, at least in this recipe, not bad at all.
Having tasted the unknown and proved our courage, we were about to be put to another test.
For several miles, our small van had rumbled through small Cajun communities, where in the 19th century French Acadians driven from Nova Scotia had sought refuge. Their descendants, speaking a lilting French-English patois, have tended to keep to themselves, fishing and hunting along the bayous reaching to the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, we passed fields of sugar cane ready for the October harvest and huge, centuries-old live oaks (they never fully shed their leaves) draped with spongy Spanish moss, once gathered by the Cajuns to stuff pillows, mattresses and furniture before the advent of foam rubber. Beneath the more spectacular trees, we spotted clusters of graves. It is Cajun custom, we were told, to bury the dead under a live oak.
To help us capture the Cajun mood, our guide, Gerhard, played tapes of Cajun music -- not unlike hillbilly bluegrass -- until we begged him to spare us the twanging chords.
Near Des Allemands, our van pulled up at a delapidated beer hall at the edge of a swamp that seemed to stretch for miles. Four shy young males at a pool table amused us with their game chatter -- sometimes French-sounding, sometimes oddly accented English -- while a Cajun guide warmed up a small pontoon boat that shortly carried us deeper into the watery jungle of cypress and vines.
About a half hour out, to our surprise, the boat pulled up to a muddy bank and the guide shut off the motor. Ye gods! We were expected to take a hike in that murky, mucky gloom. Well, "if you go first," we told one another as the nine of us -- including a woman in her 70s -- stepped onto a narrow dry ridge rising only inches above the oozing green slime.
To say we urban dwellers were nervous is an understatement. Our heads all but swiveled 360 degrees as we checked the undergrowth and overhead branches for the poisonous vipers we were convinced would strike momentarily. Our goal, 10 minutes ahead, said leader Gerhard, was an alligator nest. That remark did little to calm us.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, once at the site we could not lure a 'gator from the depths, though we all tried the nasal "um-um, um-um" call the Cajun boatman had assured us was a mating lure. We did manage to stir up swamp-gas bubbles by plunging a stick into the muck. Fifteen minutes later we arrived safely back at our boat for the return trip with muddy feet but no encounter, either, with a snake.
(One not-so-minor quibble on this tour: While we enjoyed the adventure, and the chance to visit a swamp, we were disappointed by the quality of information provided on Cajun customs and life.)
My wife had flown to New Orleans for a professional conference. I went along to do some sightseeing in this exotic, subtropical city so different from Washington. While she participated in seminars, I sampled what turned out to be a wide offering of commercial and free U.S. Park Service tours that offer a good glimpse of local history and customs.
One morning, after strong coffee and beignets (French doughnuts covered with powdered sugar) at the open-air Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, I boarded the 1,600-passenger, steam-powered sternwheeler Natchez for a two-hour cruise ($8.50) up and down the Mississippi shoreline.
The captain quickly informed us that New Orleans has become the second-busiest port in the world, after Rotterdam, principally because of huge grain and coal shipments abroad brought to the city in an endless stream of barges from America's heartland. The tour focuses on the harbor, past and present. As we made our way past ocean-going cargo ships and banana boats of all sizes and nationalities -- including Russian and Chinese -- the captain gave us an impressive, up-to-the-moment account of the kinds of goods each was carrying.
Another morning, after more beignets, I stumbled by chance into the visitors center of the Jean LaFitte National Historical Park, located on Jackson Square. Established in 1978, the park is named for the notorious local privateer and smuggler who later became a national hero when he assisted Andrew Jackson's forces in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans against the British.
The park encompasses the French Quarter; Chalmette battlefield just outside New Orleans, site of Jackson's victory; and a natural wetlands area in the planning stages on a bayou site, also outside the city.
A young park ranger, Toni Snyder, scooped up me and two others for a free, hour-and-a-half "Legends of the French Quarter" foot tour. We visited a quadroon ballroom, where white aristocrats bid for their mistresses, and a famous dueling ground that their love lives kept bloody. We learned of a voodoo queen, the witch of the opera and the ghosts that haunt many of the quarter's structures with their famous wrought-iron balconies.
Jazz spots, historic sites and New Orleans' above-ground burial vaults are subjects of other walking tours scheduled throughout the day.
A number of commercial firms offer visits by bus to nearby Mississippi plantations, for about $10. I joined a special conference outing for spouses to Oak Alley Plantation about 40 miles from New Orleans. Built in 1837-39, its principal feature is a spectacular double-row of 28 live oaks leading from the front door down to the river. Sadly, the view of the river is blocked by the huge flood-control levee.
Beneath the oaks, though, the hostesses served mint juleps. That's a part of the South I was looking for.