This past Friday, as we returned from an art pilgrimage to the Alexandria Museum of Art, we visited an old favorite, Lea’s Lunch Room (est. 1928), located in the tiny town of Lecompte, Louisiana. It was ten years or more since my last visit.
We lived in Lafayette in those days and traveled by car each fall on book tour. Lea’s was our last stop before reaching home after weeks on the road, and I spent that final hour balancing eight pies on my lap, lest they slide or turn over in the backseat.
Although still a destination for many, the place really hopped in the 1950s before and after LSU games, when Highway 71 was the major road between Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Famous for their pies and ham sandwiches, Lea’s attracted not only football fans, but also preachers, politicians, and generally anyone looking to hold court.
“You got enough pictures so I can start eating this pie?” asked Wayne Fernandez.
“My dad grew up with Lea,” writes Teri Welch. “He drove a Stutz Bearcat down the gravel road that ran along Bayou Boeuf and was quite a figure. In later life, with his white hair, he resembled a slimmer Colonel Sanders. He also grew roses and orchids for a hobby. I remember them on the tables at the diner.”
After our sweet taste of central Louisiana, we took a slow ride south to Opelousas for lunch. On the way we passed the magnificent Seven Brothers Oak, just west of Washington on Hwy 103.
“You ever painted that?” asked Wayne.
“Nah, it’s too confusing,” replied George, as he coaxed in vain my sandaled feet towards the tree for a photograph. (I kept my distance, recalling my recent near-death experience in a Georgiana, Alabama graveyard.)
Speaking of graveyards, you can bury me here, I announced, as we wandered through a seductive cemetery in Washington, a Southern statement made all the more beguiling with its Confederate flags, massive oaks, plastic flowers, and blue-washed, crumbling tombs.
“These are the same tombs we sold,” explained George, recalling his family’s tomb business in New Iberia.
“We advertised them as air-tight; but it was a problem, because they floated up during the floods. In high school, my daddy sent me out with a sledgehammer to knock the corners off. Needless to say, they never popped up again.”
Ready for the next meal, we drove to Opelousas and the Palace Café, “Serving Fine Cajun Cuisine Since 1927.” The men dined on chicken fried steak and crawfish bisque, while I enjoyed my once-a-year po-boy (fried catfish, dressed).
As I paid the $26 bill, the guys flirted with our waitress, a pretty gal sporting Mel’s Diner attire and royal blue eye shadow.
“Have a Blue Dog pin,” offered Jacques.
“I don’t get it,” she replied.
“It’s by an artist from New Orleans.”
“Never been there. I don’t have a car,” she explained, as I added $20 to the tip.
From The Palace Café we drove to Joe’s Dreyfus Store and Restaurant, an old favorite in Lavonia. Regrettably, we couldn’t eat another bite, so we settled instead for photographs of the Christmas decorations, wreaths and icicles, lights blinking at the steady crowd of customers.
“Not too many of these places left,” said George, although after our morning, none of us believed him.
As we turned towards New Orleans, he paused one last time.
“Now you’d never know it,” he said, “but this started off as a nothin’ place.”
I rolled down the window for a picture.
“Sure wish I had one of those pies,” said Wayne.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)