The Louisiana state motto is, “Union, justice, confidence.” It is, unsurprisingly, a post-Civil War motto, adopted in 1902 at the behest of then-Governor William Wright Heard.
As far as I can tell, Heard pulled it out of his hat. I’m not sure what was going through his mind when he came up with it, but, after four days on a press trip in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans corridor, I would have chosen something else. “Louisiana: The Deep-Fat Fryer State,” would give a visitor a better idea of what to expect. Or I might go with, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” although I think that one’s already taken.
There should certainly be some mention of food, which people in the state take very seriously. But it’s not all jambalaya and étouffée. Louisianans don’t just cook things; they also grow them.
Lester and Linda L’Hoste have a citrus farm in Braithwaite, Louisiana, about ten miles southeast of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Lester took us on a tour of his orchard that made me realize how vast the chasm is that separates farmer from gardener.
The L’Hostes have some thirty-odd acres, which they’ve been farming for almost thirty years. Although they grow some vegetables, the bulk of their business is citrus: Satsumas, navel oranges, kumquats, Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and just about all their close relatives.
The L’Hoste orchard is the picture of arboreal health (at least to my untrained eye). The trees are uniform and apparently perfect, with glossy leaves and abundant fruit. Lester, a soft-spoken, circumspect man, walks through his fields as though he knows each tree personally. I suspect he’s named them all, but isn’t letting on.
We stopped at a Satsuma tree (Susan? Gloria?), and he showed us how to tell if a fruit is ripe. We all looked for specimens with a certain give in their skins, and had a snack. I’d never eaten a Satsuma (which tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a lime), so I can say with certainty that it was the best one I’ve ever had. I suspect, though, that I’d have to go a long way before I found a better one.
But it wasn’t just the fruit, or the look of the farm, that got me. It wasn’t even the presence of chickens, which predisposes me to think well of a place. It was the sense I had that Lester is really good at what he does. I find skill very compelling.
He talked with equanimity about losing his crop to frost, and fighting insects organically, and keeping deer away from his oranges. I asked him about a pile of what looked like perfectly good okra in his compost heap, and he told me matter-of-factly that his cooler malfunctioned, and he had to throw it all out because it got too cold. He seems to take it all in stride; it’s the territory that farming comes with, and good farmers prosper in the face of it. Lester is a good farmer.
I, on the other hand, am a bad gardener. This year, the blight got our tomatoes, the insects got our collards, and the weather got our fennel, cucumbers, and carrots. Certainly, some of this was outside the sphere of our control, but much of it wasn’t. That didn’t stop me from complaining bitterly about our anaemic harvest. Had our livelihood been at stake, we’d be moving into our refrigerator box right about now.
Maybe the chasm isn’t between farmer and gardener. It’s between competence and ineptitude, care and inattention, effort and negligence. While I don’t anchor the losing end of any of those scales, I could do better on all of them.
If Lester and his wife, with very little help, can grow thirty-odd acres of beautiful citrus and produce, Kevin and I damn well better be able to manage 500 square feet of garden. I’m committing to managing it better next year. I will tend my soil and my crops more attentively. I will address problems before they’re devastating. I will read books and learn things.
And I’m going to name our fig tree. I’m thinking “Eve.”