Three short days is all we had in our crazy April road schedule to tour Cajun Country. Once Mr. Bond was safely ensconced in a quaint but soaked-with-April-rain campground in Poché’s RV Park & Fish-N-Camp in Breaux-Bridge, St. Martin Parish, we wasted no time to begin the exploration in earnest.
Cajun Louisiana had been on my bucket list of places to go for a long time now. April is indeed a rainy and stormy time of year to visit, but it also means less tourists and a chance to meet more locals! With vaccination rate on the increase, Louisiana has recently relaxed some Covid restrictions such as eating in restaurants, but has withheld mask mandate for the state. People seemed happy to just be able to socialize again! (Who can blame them!)
For someone like myself, who was born and raised in French-speaking Montreal, the tragic story of the Acadians exiled to far away Louisiana made a strong impression on my young mind. I’ve also been fascinated with language accents and dialects all my life — which might explain why I’ve enjoyed my few visits to Nova Scotia and Northern New Brunswick where les Acadiens still live and where French is still widely spoken. Needless to say, I was very excited to discover Cajuns in Louisiana for myself!
(Btw if, like me, you’re curious about derivative language terms over the years, see how the term Cajun came to be… (Acadian Cultural Centre, Lafayette, LA)
Cajun names like Benoit, Breaux, Broussard, Boudreaux, Hebert (with a lost ‘accent aigu’), Landry, LeBlanc, Guidry, Thibodeaux (and many more) still abound among Cajun modern families. “We’re all related” confided one man I spoke to while waiting in line for my plate of Cajun food. I asked the few people I met if they still spoke French, but alas, no one could or would, though they were all mighty proud of their heritage. Christian Benoit, a coffee roasting business owner I met at a local farmer’s market in Lafayette told me that young people like himself (in his twenties) were ‘rediscovering’ French again.
Of the many things I’ve learned in my 3-day immersion in Cajun Country, this is by far the more significant and for me the most American in its essence: the story of the Cajuns is intricately woven with the diaspora of the Creoles, Indians and Africans, Frenchmen and Spaniards, slaves and free people of color—all contributing to the historical tradition of cultural diversity of the region. In delving into this slice of history, I began to distinguish “the Cajun story” from some of the myths I had heard or read about.
About debunking some myths — Here are two widespread assumptions:
1) that New Orleans is the seat of Cajun culture (few Cajuns actually live there);
2) that all Cajuns inhabit some sort of floating shacks in the swamps (though a lot of the best Cajun food joints are actually “shacks in the swamps”—but more on that later.) These days, from what we were able to notice driving around, Cajun families live in big modern homes, many in housing of a style known locally as French provincial.
The State of Louisiana has cleverly exploited its rich and complex history, from New Orleans to Cajun and Creole) cultures. Bottom line, like any other high traffic tourist region, one has to be weed carefully through commercial attractions sported by the slogan “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (a word-for-word calque of the English phrase “Let the good times roll”).
Early Cajun people were clever farmers and simple folks. They tamed marsh lands into productive crops and food for their cattle. They had to learn to plant new crops in subtropical Louisiana and acquire agricultural techniques from neighbouring indigenous tribes and creole settlers which they did with great success.
Contemporary Cajun folks seem to share with their ancestors a love of hospitality and a preference for simple places. There is no shiny castle-on-the-hill here… Cajun restaurants that are most popular with locals often do look like swamp shacks, are open from 10 am to 2 pm daily with people lining up early to get in!
A local named John Thibodeau whom we met at Chez Tante Marie in Breaux-Bridge recommended a few of these places… and thank goodness he did, because I’m sure we would have missed a great occasion to eat crawfish étouffée (a sort of a stew), baked catfish, fried bay shrimp, boudin blanc ou rouge. All extra spicy-seasoned of course!
Breaux-Bridge calls itself the “Crawfish Capital of the World” with an annual festival in early May, though the festivities this year have been curtailed due to Covid. My Dad absolutely loved crawfish but I must confess that I passed on the boiled crawfish offering though I did enjoy the flavoured crawfish rice.
Cajun Music – Just like bluegrass music is representative of American roots music originally from the Appalachian region (anyone remembers the dueling banjos track in the movie Deliverance?!), Cajun music is rooted in the ballads of French-speaking Acadians of Nova Scotia, mixed with Creole-based zydeco music blending blues, country, and yes, a bit of bluegrass thrown in there too. With recent ease in Covid-imposed restrictions, local bands are lined up again to play in bars and restaurants and outdoor impromptu events at Farmers’ Markets for instance.
The Bayou Teche (pronounced “Taich”, with a soft ch, no ‘e’ sound at the end), is a 135-mile-long waterway of great cultural significance in south central Louisiana in the United States. It meanders throughout the region… you’re never too far from Bayou Teche. The word ‘BAYOU’ was first used by the English in Louisiana and is thought to originate from the Choctaw word “bayuk”, which means “small stream”. The first settlements of Acadians in southern Louisiana were near Bayou Teche and other bayous, which led to a close association of the bayou with Cajun culture. Indeed, wherever we went, the Bayou Teche was never too far. It is a splendid sight from wherever you see it.
The Legend of Evangeline
There is a young woman whose ‘presence’ permeates Cajun Country: Evangeline. Throughout our visit, she was everywhere it seems, from a state park dedicated to her in St. Martinville to countless names of restaurants or hotels or even drinks!
Who was Evangeline?
In 1847, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Evangeline as a tragic but fictional account of two lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, who were separated on their wedding day during the expulsion of the Acadians from Acadie. In 1755, the English Governor of Canada issued an ultimatum to the Acadians to swear allegiance to the British Crown and forsake their Catholic faith or be exiled. They refused and were forced to leave behind everything and be herded onto ships without any regard to family ties.
Several earlier versions of this sad story exist. There is even an immensely popular 1929 Hollywood rendition of Evangeline. After all, who doesn’t like a tragic romantic tale?!
Of course, none of these stories can be authenticated. But even if Evangeline did not exist, there were plenty of women who lived, suffered and died like she did. It is likely that the legend perseveres because of its romantic appeal and its testimonial to the enduring spirit of the Acadian people.
Avery Island: Home of Tabasco
Mark and I love hot sauces and needless to say, we were in spicy Heaven! We made a point of driving to New Iberia to pay a visit to Avery Island, home of world-famous TABASCO brand of pepper sauce, manufactured by McIhenny Company on the very site where it was invented in 1868 by Edmund McIhenny. Even today, the company is owned and operated by descendants of the family. The factory tours weren’t running (Covid oblige) but the museum was open and most interesting. Even the obligatory exit through the Gift Store was a pleasant surprise! Funny tidbit: Each visitor gets a small bag of Tabasco ‘goodies’ – in our case, between Mark’s goody bag and mine, we now own 20 mini-bottles of Tabasco. Looks like we’re all set for Christmas stocking stuffers this year!!
Revisiting the history of the Cajun people reminded me that, sadly, forced exiles and diaspora have existed since the beginning of times — unfortunately most often due to religious intolerance, racial hatred or political power excesses (and at times all three at once!). It made me thing of the most recent mass movements of people, from North-African migrants fleeing their war-torn country to Europe to people from Central America seeking asylum in the United States to get away from criminal gangs and environmental disasters, to today’s Great Divide between Left- and Right-leaning Americans that often dictates where people can and cannot live and increasingly where they can and cannot vote.
Will we ever learn to co-exist?… I hope so.