Les Vieux Temps

Driving around Acadiana after hurricanes Gustav and Ike and seeing so many small fires in people’s yards reminded me of the importance of smoke to people.

At first I thought that the main purpose of the fires was for the burning of branches and leaves, but when I talked to neighbors they pointed out that another reason was that smoke was used to drive away those awful and plentiful mosquitoes. Aerial spraying and pesticides were unheard of in olden times so the first line of defense against mosquitoes was smoke.

Smoke was also used by our elders as a source for preserving food. Almost every farmer had a smokehouse to prepare bacon, sausages, hams, chickens, fish, alligators, and wild game. Even today we enjoy our smoky barbecue meals.

Beekeepers learned long ago that smoke calms bees. The bees, like humans, realize that when there is smoke there may be fire, so the bees go on a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. Without the use of smoke, the beekeeping industry would not be what it is today.

Smoke signaling is one of the oldest forms of communication for mankind. It was used in ancient China along the Great Wall to warn of impending enemy attack. Guards were able to transmit messages as far away as 300 miles in a few hours. Smoke signaling was used in religious offerings in Israel as early as the 5th century BC. It is still used in religious ceremonies today. The use of incense dates back to biblical times. It was used by the pharaohs to neutralize unpleasant odors, to drive away demons, and for other religious purposes.

We all remember old Western movies where the Indians communicated via smoke signals. Most tribes would have a short code or two that conveyed a predetermined message. Most messages usually contained a few puffs of smoke and were done by adding wet grass to a fire and removing it. The blanket as seen in the movies was seldom if ever used.

Smoke signals are still in use today. In Rome, for example, the Vatican uses a smoke signal to indicate whether or not a new pope has been selected. Eligible cardinals conduct a secret ballot until someone receives a vote of two-thirds plus one. Black smoke indicates a failed ballot; white smoke means a new pope has been elected.

One of my favorite songs is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” written by Jerome Kern and performed by Irene Dunne in a 1935 film co-starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The song was also made very famous by Nat “King” Cole in the mid-1940s and became a number one hit in 1959 for a singing group, The Platters.

Smoke is so popular with the people of South Louisiana that each year there is a Le Festivale de la Viande Boucanee, better known as the Smoked Meat Festival, in Ville Platte, where delicious food coming from clouds of smoke is enjoyed by locals and visitors from all over the world.

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