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Munchies

Learning How to Survive on the Cajun Swamp

I left city life behind to try to live alone—with my dog—on a houseboat on the disappearing Cajun swamp, where living conditions involved finding cottonmouth snakes in my bed, no neighbors or grocery stores, and a lonesome propane tank to cook my meals.

by Rachel Nederveld
May 2 2014, 5:27pm

Photo by Rachel Nederveld

Imagine leaving city life behind for an existence on a floating boat in the middle of nowhere. The place where living conditions—translation: no toilet or grocery stores—are simpler, the hazards are high: finding deadly cottonmouth snakes in your bed, and no access to technology or neighbors, and you've already learned more about Rachel Nederveld's new installment series on living on the disappearing Cajun swamp. Enjoy.

I was living in New Orleans, my birthplace, when I decided to fulfill a longtime dream of spending a month on a friend's Acadian-style houseboat, located in South Louisiana in the Atchafalaya Basin, a.k.a. Cajun Country.

Despite the high crime rate NOLA is known for, I never heard a gunshot when I lived there, so I had to laugh when, that first morning on the boat, my eyes popped open to the explosive sound of shotguns. It was full on hunting season in early December around the Atchafalaya Basin, the area you've seen embarrassingly portrayed in movies like Adam Sandler's Waterboy or the reality show Swamp People. (Elizabeth, the only female hunter I've seen in my limited viewing of Swamp People, is actually known around here as a phenomenal hunter, despite having to prove herself for the show's producers.)

Photo by Rachel Nederveld

Back in the day this area was filled with thriving fishing communities. Large trade boats with cumbersome automotive motors moved merchants from one water-locked town to the next, exchanging the fishermen's catches for goods—nails, clothes, toiletries, and the like. But with the rise of the outboard motor, fishermen were able to outfit their own boats to quickly jet along the water. With a way for the fisherman to commute, families moved inland closer to modern conveniences, and the houseboat communities disappeared. The last surviving water-locked community in the area, Bayou Chene, was as wild west as you can imagine. There was a story about a man around 1910 who went around telling everyone he was going to kill his rival's family, "from the bald one to the baby." Word spread so wide that by the time the man reached his rival's home in his pirogue (a canoe-like boat), the rival was waiting and shot him first.

Unfortunately, in the early part of the twentieth century, the Army Corps of Engineers redirected the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin, forcing the river's sand and sediment to wash away Bayou Chene once a year. The community slowly tired of rebuilding itself, and by 1955, the last residents had moved away. What remains of Bayou Chene is now buried under 18 feet of sand.

Photo by Rachel Nederveld

Photo by Greg Guirard Harold, Myrtle, and their dog. Photo by Greg Guirard.

Other legendary figures from the area, and role models for my adventure, were Harold and Myrtle Bigler, the last people who lived in a place accessible only by boat. They would leave their home near Morgan City, LA once every four or five weeks and take the motorboat to a store at a nearby landing to stock up. For water, they used rainwater collected in cisterns, and apparently their immune systems didn't suffer from the abundant "wiggly worms," or mosquito larvae in the water. Myrtle outlived Harold by five years and, unable to operate the boat, she would place orders with the nearest store owner who also conveniently ran fishing lines near their home.

Today, houseboats are primarily used as "camps," or temporary places to stay when people are hunting for things like squirrel, deer, or ducks on land they lease or own. It was these hunters who woke me up that first morning from their duck blinds, scattered around the lake I was living in.

Like Harold and Myrtle, I'd have to use a boat to get what I needed from the store. But I only had a canoe, so I was prepared to paddle over two miles to where my car was parked and then drive to the nearest store. With a canoe weighted down by gallons of water and whatever else I'd buy—along with my very spastic dog, Pilgrim—it would surely be a full day's trip, and one dependent on the weather, to boot.

Photo by Rachel Nederveld

Photo by Rachel Nederveld My kitchen on the houseboat.

Such an outing would have to happen sooner than later because while packing, I was so preoccupied with logistics, like having enough water, staying warm, and how to properly dispose of my poop, that I somehow left necessary items behind like plates, silverware, and seasonings. Oof.

My first several meals were lame: peanut butter and apple butter on crackers, glorious Satsumas (which were locally in season), and cold fried chicken livers I had picked up on my way there. When I finally set out to cook my first proper meal, I assembled my $20 gas grill (as crappy as you think) and threw on a catfish fillet I'd purchased from a couple down the way. It was in this moment I realized the only seasonings on the boat were fancy salts. I had sold or given away almost all of my stuff before leaving New Orleans to prepare for this move and ended up with frivolous items like truffle oil, truffle salt, celery salt, and my great-grandmother's jars filled with grains.

Photo by Rachel Nederveld

Catfish fillet with cous cous

I grabbed my small cast iron skillet and made a gravy out of water, beef broth powder, oil, and "Wild Porcini Sea Salt." After the fish seared on the grill, I threw it in the pan with the gravy for a few minutes while I made couscous, an essential for my kitchen because its short cooking time saved me propane. It was a total pain because the single-burner propane stove's lowest setting was far from low. But when I sat down to try this first meal, it was heaven. I was finally living on a houseboat, sitting on the back deck watching the stars reflect in the water, and nothing could taste better.

Check back later this month for her next installment.