That’s my conclusion after spending a week in the Deep South of Louisiana with people who identify themselves as Cajuns. All of us can learn from their food, their music, and their generosity of spirit.
Cajuns or Acadians have a history of persecution. In the 1600’s, France established a colony in L’Acadie (Acadia), what is now Nova Scotia, Canada. This strategic and fertile colony was highly coveted and, in a treaty agreement in 1713, it was turned over to the British and renamed Nova Scotia. When the capital of Halifax was established, many Acadians moved to French-controlled territory in Canada. That wasn’t enough for the Brits who believed the remaining French Acadians posed a threat. In 1755, the British seized the Acadians’ lands and possessions and began a mass deportation known as the Great Upheaval. Over the next 10 years, the Acadian nation was decimated. More than 10,000 Acadians were lost at sea or died of disease or starvation. By 1765, only 1,600 Acadians lived in Nova Scotia, their fertile lands stolen; their culture in tatters.
Those who fled were cast to the wind. Some Acadians retreated to the woodlands of Canada. Today some of their descendants live in Quebec, a Francophile province where French is the first language and French foods, from foie gras to duck confit, are common fare.
Other Acadians went to France or England or to American colonies. Those who made it to Louisiana—an estimated 2,600 to 3,000 — created the rich culture we know today as Cajun.
More than Alligator Hunting
If you’ve never visited Louisiana, it’s likely all you know about Cajuns is what you’ve seen on so-called reality TV shows like “Swamp People.” Yes, alligator hunting is part of Cajun culture, but there’s more, so much more, to the Acadian people and their culture. (Cajuns should not to be confused with Creoles, African-American/Caribbean people of New Orleans who are descendants of French settlers.)
To understand how Acadians built a vibrant community in Louisiana, it’s important to know a little something about the place Acadians landed more than 200 years ago. Imagine a people stripped of all their worldly possessions, weary and probably sick from a long sea voyage. These were refugees in search of a homeland. What they got wasn’t exactly the Garden of Eden.
In south Louisiana, it rains 55-65 inches a year and the hot, humid air can be as thick as pudding. It’s criss-crossed with wetlands that represent about 40 percent of the wetlands in the continental United States—7.8 million acres of swamps (watery forests), bayous (shallow rivers), and wetlands (water covered by carpets of plants). These watery lands are filled with alligators and poisonous snakes. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) the most hospitable place to put down roots and make a life.
Despite their fearsome nature, these wetlands are also filled with abundance—fish, crabs, crawfish, oysters, birds, and alligators and other game. Desperate and resourceful, the Acadians exploited the richness of the waterways to create what we know today as delicious Cajun cuisine. (Creole cuisine is urban, mostly New Orleanian, and based on classic sauces. Or, as one Cajun told me, “Creole is city food.” In contrast, Cajun cuisine is country food that utilizes available ingredients. It’s truly “living off the land cuisine.”)
Using what they found or could grow in the wetlands of Louisiana, Cajuns developed dishes like crawfish boil, sausage, crawfish, corn on the cob, and potatoes boiled with spices; étoufée, shrimp or crawfish in a spicy roux (flour, fat and water) with onions, peppers, and celery (known as the Cajun Holy Trinity) that’s served over rice; jambalaya, a dish similar to Spanish paella that features chicken, spicy Andouille sausage, rice, shrimp, celery, and spices; gumbo, a thick soup-like dish made from strongly flavored stock, okra, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and celery, bell peppers, onions and garlic; and boudin (pronounced boo-dan), seasoned pork, rice, and vegetables stuffed into a sausage skin. They also grilled, boiled, and fried fish, crabs, and oysters.
And the Cajuns welcomed the influence of other cuisines. Cajun chef John Fosle has identified the pillars of Cajun cooking: boiled seafood from Native Americans; okra from African Americans; one pot, rice-based cooking from the Spanish; roux from the French; and sausage from the Germans. He says Cajuns blended these all together to “form the rich gumbo that is our people.” The Cajuns embraced others and something even more wonderful was born.
Dance to the Music
When the Cajuns arrived they had few, if any, musical instruments. They had to make and even invent them. They built little hand accordions from whatever they could find. On a swamp tour, “Alligator Man” and Cajun musician Black Guidry showed us a hand built Cajun accordion that was made from desperate parts like baby pins, chair feet, and old telephone microphones. The music that squeezed out of it was like nothing I’d ever heard—both fierce and wildly joyous.
Cajuns adapted everyday items like simple washboards to become rhythm instruments. They made fiddles and other stringed instruments out of local wood and gut. And the music world was never the same.
Cajun music and its cousin Zydeco (a synthesis of traditional Creole and Cajun music, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel), sung in both French and English, became as hot and spicy as the climate from which they were born. The toe tapping sounds are infections and, in Cajun country, everyone—old, young, white, black, rich, poor—dances the simple Cajun two-step.
We had dinner at Bayou Delight, a local little place in Houma that backs up to a bayou where alligators float in the murky water. On a hot steamy August night, a single Cajun musician accompanied his snappy songs with a hand accordion and electronic synthesizer. At least half the restaurant, including a number of people in their 90s, two-stepped across the vinyl dance floor long into the night.
The Cajuns, perhaps because of their history of hardship and the hard scrabble life they built in the bayou, adopted a philosophy of “live hard, play hard.” This joie de vive (love of life) is evident in their quick embrace of parties and festivals. With more than 100 festivals, Acadiana is the festival capital of America. Even the smallest towns in Cajun country boast dozens of festivals. They provide a group method for Cajuns to “laissez les bons temps rouler” (“let the good times roll”). If they can’t find a reason to celebrate, they simply do it anyway.
Join the Cajun Family
For Cajuns, part of their joy in life is embracing family. While they deeply love their kin—and many can trace their lineage back a half-dozen generations or more–they don’t limit family to just blood relatives. Everyone can become part of the Cajun family. Sharon Alford, executive director of the Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, talks about how her Cajun father welcomed everyone, including the UPS delivery man, into the house and invited them to eat. “He’d holler, ‘Come on in. Have you eaten yet?’”
During dinner at Bayou Delight, several of the couples we watched trip the light fantastic on the dance floor stopped by our table to talk, shake our hands, and even kiss us on the cheeks. We were welcome; we’d become part of their Cajun family just because we were there enjoying the Cajun food and music.
A writer friend who is interested in writing about the lifestyle of Cajun shrimp fishermen approached a man in a pickup truck and began talking with him. As luck would have it, he was a shrimper and he spoke with her at length about his lifestyle. He even invited our whole group to join him on his boat so we could experience the life of a shrimper first-hand. You won’t find that kind of generosity and openness everywhere.
For Cajuns, food, music, working and playing hard, dancing and celebrating, and warmly embracing others is all part of the Cajun way of life. Clever and resourceful, they make do with and celebrate what they have and they readily share it with others.
All of us can learn a lot from the Acadians. The world would be a kinder and happier place if we were all just a little bit more Cajun. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor