Opelousas, named for an Indian Tribe, was always a crossroads, a gumbo of cultures, trading, hunting, trapping, spices, music and food. Before Mardi Gras, a couple we met at Mamou, from Targil Spice Company of Opelousas, invited us to stop in and say hello! They weren’t available, but we stopped and found retail spices, in large and small sizes; everything from a can cooker, butcher supplies, cookie cutters to boots. Boots? You need those boots to catch things in the swamp before you spice ’em up and cook ’em, doncha know. We left there with some Seasonall that has a picture of hot peppers on the package. Compliments of the nice folks at Targils.
Next stop, Tony Chachere’s, (say Sash-sherries), a hardworking character with a penchant for success. A pharmacist who made and sold his own cough syrups, bug spray and other products. He switched to insurance, was very successful and retired a rich man. A love of cooking, with his own concoction of spices that he brought with him everywhere he went, turned into a multimillion dollar business, putting together spices and convenient food packages. His was the first cookbook on Creole cooking and it sold 10,000 copies the first week it came out. The company is huge and doesn’t do tours but Tanya Bellard, the Gourmet Sales, and Customer Service Manager said she would let us take pictures, for our blog. When we arrived, she regaled us with wonderful stories about Tony Chaschere, his irrepressible personality, trying out his recipes on the staff at the company and always involving everyone he met in food and spices, and fun.
We laughed out loud when we spotted a garbage can of popcorn and Tanya explained it was an environmentally friendly packing material for shipping their products and people call her and complain the popcorn is stale, or it didn’t have any seasoning, it was all broken…They now include a sticker that explains the popcorn is used for fill only. Three million pounds a year of raw materials go into their packaged food and spices. They sell 90 different food items and spices plus Tony Chachere’s Cajun Country Cookbook. I’m going to print a recipe from the book tomorrow, but here is a list of things you’ll find in it: Piquante Alligator Sauce, Roast Goose with Sauerkraut and Dumplings, Coot in Soy Sauce, Pork Backbone Stew, Stuffed cucumbers, Broiled Frogs, Yam Candle Cakes, Japanese Chicken-Pork Barbeque, Irish Potato Casserole, and Hot Tamales. He left no cuisine untested. www.tonytachere.com
Opelousas made their visitor’s center into a little complex of buildings called Le Vieux Village (The Old Village). They were donated and moved here to be preserved. The buildings are typical “of their time” from an 1890 outhouse to a mud and moss (boissage) Creole House from 1791, below.
An African-American Methodist Church from 1948.
Also in this complex is the Orphan Train Museum. It started with a wealthy woman who heard her parents planning her funeral while she was in a coma. She prayed that if God allowed her to live she would dedicate her life to others. And, she did, as Sister Irene with the Sisters of Charity. Immigrants were flowing into New York. Many could find no housing or jobs. Many died and left children. Babies were found on doorsteps, in alleys, toddlers were eating garbage on the streets.
Sister Irene rented a cottage. The very next day, a baby was found on the doorstep. The need was so great, the cottage grew, with help from her wealthy women friends, and eventually, the church and state, into a foundling hospital and orphanage.
There were so many children, the Foundling Home decided to reach out into Catholic Communities and ask for families to adopt or care for kids until they reached 18. It was the first foster care program in the United States.
In 1907, the first train full of orphans arrived, with numbers pinned to their clothing, to meet prospective families from Opelousas. Many just wanted to have a child work for them as indentured servants. Others wanted young children to raise as their own. The Foundling Society visited the families once a year to check up on them. Subsequent years, two more trains arrived in Opelousas.
While they wouldn’t allow pictures in the museum, volunteer Frank Lipari, active in forming the Opelousas Foundling Children Society, is the son of a foundling father. There is only one known foundling in Louisiana still living, but their descendants are now choosing to tell their stories, which was once a source of shame. Frank’s Lipar’s father tried to find out what nationality he was, he found his endentured papers. He learned that his birth mother told her child’s name as Frank Reiger, and her own name as Schoencloster. He was born in the foundling hospital in 1903. Many foundlings didn’t even have that much information, not even records of their birth or their age.
At the first meeting of the Opelousas Foundling Society in 2003, two lifelong local friends met each other, neither had ever divulged that they were children of a foundling, such was the ingrained shame of their circumstances.
The Orphan trains reached everywhere the railroad went over the years, placing 400,000 children in family situations.