Jodi Shields. South Arkansas Native.
That’s the first thing I asked my new neighbor when our family of three relocated to South Louisiana from South Arkansas in the fall of 2019. We thought Louisiana would be the easiest transition. It’s just like Arkansas, right? We soon found out that only applies if you live above I-20, maybe even I-10, depending on who you ask. That first Christmas, I gifted my husband and daughter expensive coats. Winter 2020 came and went, without a mere mention of anything resembling sweater weather. It didn’t take long for us to realize more than just the climate is different.
Our hometown in Arkansas had about 3,000 people. In fact, the whole county is smaller than the city of Zachary in terms of population. Traffic jams only occurred during harvest season when a farmer blocked the two-lane road with his combine. Driving behind log trucks was a daily occurrence, so the absence of them here was something to get used to.
Going to the grocery store and not recognizing a single face took a lot of getting used to. I love being able to run into Rouse’s quickly and not having to stop for a 20-minute convo on the latest gossip. Another noticeable difference was how nice people are in South La. Having grown up in Arkansas, I was accustomed to southern hospitality, but I was not prepared for the extent it’s expressed here. Less than 24 hours at our new address, we had friends. We found bourbon dads, Lunchable moms and plenty of free-range kids who wanted to play with our daughter. I’m fairly certain she only came home to sleep for the first few months. There was no shortage of Americana Mama group messages wanting to know who had eyes on a kid or who fed them last. In fact, it was our Zachary pod that helped us get through one of the most uncertain times of our lives. Many miles of “wine walks,” early morning porch coffee and some cutthroat cornhole games in the spring of 2020 allowed us to forget, for a fleeting moment, that Covid raged around us. Now, I know you think I am overlooking the most obvious difference between Arkansas and Louisiana, but I’m getting there. Saving the best for last, if you will.
Arkansas is the Natural State. Known for it mountains, lakes, rivers and prairies. But it’s definitely not a culinary Mecca. Arkansas doesn’t really have its own cuisine. We are pretty decent at BBQ, have more than our fair share of Mexican restaurants, and we will even throw a little Tony’s on it and try to call it Cajun. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? No? Moving on then.
Not that I need to tell you, but South La. food is top-notch. They definitely don’t cook like this north of I-20.
My husband is spending all our savings on cast iron and Magnalite because gumbo just doesn’t taste the same from a Rachel Ray boiler. Even my daughter, who survived solely on burgers and tacos for years, expanded her palate to include local staples like jambalaya and gumbo.
Arkansas also has one of the largest concentrations of dry counties in the country. What’s a dry county, you ask? Dry counties do not sell alcohol at all. It’s illegal to buy or sell inside the county lines. They even limit the amount you can transport in at one time, lest you be considered a “bootlegger.” Prior to our move to Zachary, we would have to make a 65 mile trip to Monroe just to have a glass of wine with dinner. So having a pretty great daiquiri store one mile down the road is the epitome of “moving to town.” Shoutout to you, Coconut Willie’s, and your delicious Miami Vices.
Our move to Louisiana surprised us at every turn. We have learned to cook amazing food, visited beautiful landscapes and made best friends we hope to keep for a lifetime. Arkansas will always be home, but South Louisiana is a perfect place to call “home right now,” despite the lack of appropriate “sweater weather.”