by Mary Gallagher
Perhaps some people feel comfortable everywhere and anywhere but I’m not one of them. Although some parts of the south have not always treated me real well, my visits to Louisiana have been wonderful.
Many tourists focus on New Orleans and I’ve enjoyed some of the attractions there but by venturing just across the river to the smaller cities of Jefferson Parish, we found interesting American history, hospitable people, historic architecture, fishing, the gulf, wonderful food, beautiful parks and nature.
From the City of Gretna, you can look across the Mississippi at the skyline of New Orleans. This picturesque town with a population of around 18,000 is in the center of the New Orleans Metropolitan Area and the Jefferson Parish (County) seat. Many people like the quiet small town atmosphere of living in Gretna with a quick ten minute commute by car or ferry to New Orleans.
Gretna is strategically located and ready to expand its tourism, business and industrial development.
Personable and handsome, multi-term, Mayor Ronnie C. Harris is a driving force behind the planning and ideas to expand this cities business and industrial base. Geographically situated for easy access on US Hwy 90 and less than five miles to I-10, the area is also served by six railroad companies, a multitude of trucking companies, the Port of New Orleans, Intra-coastal Waterway and the Mississippi River.
While exploring, on foot, the area around our first hotel, the Holiday Inn New Orleans West Bank, I discovered a time capsule, the Oasis Motel on the West Bank Expressway. Great to view but not recommended by the locals to stay at.
Several buildings from the same era are in Gretna including Bourre’s Bar B Que & Spirits on Lafayette.
These buildings aren’t on the historic list yet but classics from a later period and could easily be used in a movie set. Near the Holiday Inn was a little strip shopping center with some of the funkiest inexpensive clothing shops I’ve seen in a longtime. I’d go back in a minute.
My first experience with the hospitality of the south was the kind maintenance man at the Holiday Inn who tuned up a few things in my room, gave me great directions and an overall pleasant welcome to Jefferson Parish. As someone who stays in many hotels, I’d say the maintenance people are the best ambassadors any property has. I certainly remember the assistance and kindness from many of them, all over the world, all too frequently over and above the rest of the staff.
We were able to visit the headquarters of Gretna’s world famous New Orleans style food business Zatarain’s. The marketing staff prepared many recipes from their products for our hearty and enthusiastic sampling including Nouveau Rice Pudding and Louisiana Gumbo.
Originally founded under the name of the Pa-Poose Products Company in New Orleans they also operated with various Zatarain identities. I always wondered just exactly what a Pa-Poose was – a baby or the Native Americans back pack style baby carrier – but never thought of red beans and rice! Merriam Webster says it’s the young child. In 1963 the family sold the business to a New Orleans businessman who moved the company to Gretna and by 1967 they were using only the Zatarain’s name.
In 1889, Emile A. Zatarain, Sr. obtained the company’s first product trademark and started to market root beer. Then mustards, pickled vegetables, and extracts. Through their expertise in blending spices, the company established a reputation for creating authentic New Orleans-style products and the demand for more items grew.
Still privately owned, Zatarain’s prides itself on great taste, high quality and a near fanatical dedication to New Orleans cuisine. It is the nation’s leading maker of New Orleans-style food products with over 200 items ranging from breadings and coatings to a variety of spices, dehydrated vegetables, rice mixes, olives, seasonings, condiments, sauces, and other products based on authentic New Orleans-style foods and seafood preparation.
Many people find their taste buds dull with age and time but mine seem to have done the opposite and spicy food is becoming intolerable. New Orleans, Creole, Indian and other peppery cuisines are a tough go but I still use many of Zatarain’s products easily adapted for my taste by adding more rice or using half the seasoning. Others like to crank up the heat! The Creole seasoning mix that comes in a sprinkler package is great for everything you would expect but I like it on cottage cheese, scrambled eggs, French bread instead of garlic butter and it makes a fantastic popcorn seasoning.
Some of my fanatical seafood eating friends swear by Zatarain’s shrimp and crab boil seasonings. I ate enough shrimp, crab, gumbo, and jambalaya to float a battle ship on this trip. People in Louisiana know how to work hard and sustain that energy with some pretty impressive recipes. The big “news” in the food industry is how no one has time to cook from scratch anymore. The many mixes and seasonings available from Zatarain’s make short work of the long preparation and cooking times for traditional recipes. Creole seems to be the current “in” cuisine with many chefs all over the US.
Zatarain’s has a very comprehensive and easy to navigate web site with interesting links that include recipes for Alligator Chili, Mirliton Pie and lots of eggplant ideas. I really like the New Orleans live with BourboCAM covering sites and events including the parade!
As not all stores around the country will carry all 200 plus products, the online shopping is helpful and products are sold by the case. If it’s one of your favorites, a case won’t last long or share with friends. Perhaps a Mardi Gras party anytime of the year.
1 package Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix
1/2 pound meat, choice depends on what you’re stuffing or skip for vegetarian.
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp sage
1 tsp Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning
2 tbsp oil or margarine
Sauté meat in oil until browned. Add celery, onion and garlic. Sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add rice mix and water according to directions. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to set for five minutes. Add sage and Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. Cool slightly and use as stuffing for pork, poultry, beef, game or vegetables.
Gretna is a walker’s city with one of Louisiana’s largest national historic register districts. We hit quite a few of the highlights but did not have enough time to really walk neighborhoods as I would have liked. Of course, this is southern Louisiana and the afternoons can get a little warm and steamy. Walk in the morning, wear sunscreen and a large hat.
Our first stop was the Official Visitor’s Center located in the Southern-Pacific Freight Depot (1906) along with a 1951 Illinois Central Caboose. Here you can pickup a Historic District Attractions map and brochures and take your photo waving out the back of caboose. The staff is extremely knowledgeable including recommending restaurants, bakeries, specialty food stores and more.
Map in hand, here are some of the places we visited.
Another landmark is the Texas-Pacific Depot for passengers in the early 1900s. The trains came to Gretna by crossing the Mississippi River on a barge. Then exited onto the Third Street track in the eastern part of Gretna known as McDonoghville and continue until it arrived in Gretna. This was the last stop going west in those early days. Later you’ll hear about the next going west stage and the town of “Westwego”.
The St. Joseph Church and gardens (1927) were amazing. Built in a Spanish Baroque style and an exquisitely renovated structure. The interior was so beautiful and like new with stunning stained glass windows, statues and loads of gilt.
The lush peaceful gardens (not many snowfalls or freezes here) with amazing plantings made it difficult to leave. The ladies of the church treated us to little homemade cookies and I purchased a small imported triptych in their tiny gift shop.
A traditional St. Joseph Day Altar is held every March 19 with all its ceremony and symbolism. Small bags are given as keepsakes to all who visit the altar. Each bag may contain a blessed medal, holy card, fava bean, cookies or bread.
The gift of the blessed fava bean is the most well known of the customs associated with the St. Joseph’s Altar. During one of Sicily’s severe famines, the fava bean thrived while other crops failed. It was originally grown for animal fodder, but because of its amazing resilience, it became the sustaining food for the farmers and their families. The dried bean is commonly called the “lucky bean”. Legend has it that the person who carries a “lucky bean” will never be without coins. I was given a blessed gold fava bean and told to keep it in my coin purse.
I rank St. Joseph Church high on the “for sure” list of places to visit in Gretna no matter what your religion or available time.
When looking at a map of southern Louisiana it becomes quite obvious that a predominant portion of towns have French names but Gretna was settled by German immigrants in 1836 hence the German-American Cultural Center.
This was truly experiencing the best of any small town in America or the world for that matter. Members made a wonderful German lunch, feted us with old songs that I remember my mother singing when we were little. Although some I don’t quite recall of German origin and my mother is almost 100 percent Norwegian.
In general every place in Gretna like the German-American Cultural Center is really happy to see you and will roll out a red carpet welcome.
Ok so how, in this predominantly French influenced area, did the Germans got here? It turns out they were contracted by John Law to colonize Louisiana after the Duc d’Orleans, Regent of France, granted Law permission to charter the Company of the West. Settlement started in 1721, when they moved into the German Coast or La Cote Des Allemands, about 36 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
The original Germans were absorbed into the French culture and many of their names were changed from Heidel to Haydel, Himmel to Hymel, Zweig to LaBranche. Descendants of the colonists still inhabit adjacent parishes.
Throughout the 1800s, New Orleans was a major port of entry for German immigrants, many of whom went to Texas (see our story on Fredricksburg, TX) and the mid-west. By 1850, there were more Germans than French in New Orleans.
The dedicated staff and volunteers at the center have done a great job in assembling a large number of artifacts, historic photos and developing this attraction including special events. They have a calendar on their website – hopefully soon to be updated. The site was developed in cooperation with Jean Lafitte National Park & Preserve.
I was astonished to see photos of that great old cowboy star Lash LaRue, who was from Gretna! What a true Hollywood name Lash LaRue.
Gretna Historical Society Museum Complex
* The Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop has live blacksmith demonstrations. I thought it was pretty interesting that you can have your wedding here or reaffirm your vows. Maybe have those custom leg irons made for the groom! The clanging sound of a blacksmiths pounding can be heard a long way, just like church bells!
Then we could cook the reception food on his fire with iron skillets… knew I should have been a wedding planner. The blacksmiths actual working schedule can be checked at the visitor’s center. It was quite entertaining and young children would be interested for a while with all the fire and noise.
* The Louisiana Fire Museum is housed in the David Crockett Fire Company No. 1’s 1859 firehouse, and proudly displays its “pride and joy,” an 1876 steam fire pumper that was pulled by men. The museum includes quite a number of artifacts from around the State. Most importantly, it is the oldest, continuously active volunteer fire company in the United States.
* As you can see some of us are still dreaming of being a firefighter even if the cap was supposedly purchased for a young son! We were lucky enough to have a guided tour from one of the volunteers who filled us in on old time fire fighting techniques and explained the operations of various pieces of equipment.
* We also visited the Kittie Strehle House and Ignatius Strehle House for a glimpse into the real lives of people during the 1840’s and later.
Our next stop was the Mini Military Museum located in the Gretna Gun Works. This is an eclectic collection of unique and historic memorabilia of American, English and European origin in a very plain but secure one story building.
The collection started with a few pieces and just keeps growing. Free to the public and located in half of a retail gun store, tourists mingle with regular customers. The Museum traces the development of firearms from the flintlock to modern rifles and pistols of WWI & WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and Desert Storm. When not waiting on customers, the staff will assist in explaining some of the highlights of the collection and if this is your interest you’ll find many interesting pieces.
The museum is rapidly outgrowing the space. I realized that I had never been in a retail gun store before and found the regular stock of accessories quite interesting. Look for the Bourre’s restaurant across the street.
Walk into the Gretna City Hall after you’ve first walked around the block to admire this historic building. Built as the Jefferson Parish Courthouse in 1907 when streets were still mud and then in the mid sixties leased by the City of Gretna from the parish to become the city hall.
Like all historic properties (spoken by someone who lives in one) restoration and maintenance of the building is constant. Its splendid architecture is highlighted with a small photo history of the city and its famous people on the main floor. You can also pop in and say hi to the Mayor!
This is the only remaining courthouse in the State out of three built on the same design.
After leaving the City Hall follow the median through the arch and walk down to the river to enjoy a roundtrip ride on the Gretna-Jackson Avenue Ferry for excellent views of the Mississippi and a variety of river craft from pleasure to working barges.
When possible, I always like to buy things that are local; crafts, art, food products and plants. We stopped just a few blocks from city hall at Cajun Treats where they carry a variety of local products and a few local crafts.
I bought beignet mix, sweet potato everything including biscuit and pancake mix, Zapp’s Tabasco sauce plus a variety of small items for gifts. I was also happy to see that local products not available outside the area were represented in addition to those nationally known. We sampled a few local “treats” and saw examples of the great gift baskets owner, Fran Mills, produces for individual and corporate customers. She has many products available at her web site.
Gretna even has a cyber café at Common Grounds serving gourmet coffee and tea, breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine and spirits, newsstand, shoeshine, computer terminals.
Sources in order of mention.
Holiday Inn New Orleans Westbank
100 Westbank Expressway
Gretna, LA 70053
504 366 2361
(877 553 1235 toll free reservations
70 Westbank Expressway
Gretna, LA 70053
Bourre’s Bar B Que & Spirits
237 Lafayette Street
Mon.-Sat. 11:00 AM – til
Official Visitor’s Center
Median Huey P. Long Avenue at Fourth Street.
739 Third Street
View outside only, not open to the public
St. Joseph Church and Gardens
610 Lafayette Street
Monday-Friday, 8:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M.
except during daily 12:10 P.M. Mass
The German-American Cultural Center
519 Huey P. Long Avenue
Gretna, LA 70053
(504) 363 4202
Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop
Louisiana Fire Museum
Kittie Strehle House and Ignatius Strehle House
At the Gretna Historical Society Museum Complex
Mini Military Museum
In Gretna Gun Works
230 Lafayette Street
Monday-Saturday, 8:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M.
City of Gretna City Hall
Median Huey P. Long Avenue at Second Street
P.O. Box 404 Gretna, LA 70054 – 0404
Phone: (504) 363-1505 – Fax: (504) 363-1509
701 Second Street C
New Orleans, Louisiana 70053
Toll Free: 1-888-77CAJUN
Fax: (504) 367-7773
Common Grounds Cyber Coffee Shop
335 Huey P. Long Ave.
Mon.-Thu. 7:00 AM – 10:00 PM
Fri.-Sat. 7:00 AM – Midnight