Remember the famous words attributed to “Mark Twain”—“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” I’d like to paraphrase that quote, “The most fun I ever had in one year was a week I spent in Cajun Country.”
First of all it was a “work” week and I think we did work a few daylight hours. I was sent to Lafayette, Louisiana (and surrounding countryside) in 2006 to work with the local sales rep, Paul. I admit most of the “workday” was sightseeing for yours truly. Between visiting a few customers we would stop at local unique places. I guess the weirdest thing was seeing all the “drive-through” bars. That’s right…in this part of the country you can order a Daiquiri and it’s served at your car window in a paper cup and straw.
They also bury the dead above ground because of the low sea level
Here’s a typical cemetery in Rayne, Louisiana (called the Frog Capital of the World)
When the work-day ended (early), Paul couldn’t wait to show me what it meant to be a “Cajun” and to live the Cajun lifestyle. A lot of their culture centers on music and food. I bought into that culture immediately. I tried to tell him I already was a Cajun because music and food is me. But then I heard new wonderful music and ate new delicious food and cursed my Irish heritage of potatoes and Guinness.
A quick history of the Acadians: They were very much like the Pilgrims, a group of French settlers looking for freedom and they found it on the edge of eastern Canada in 1604. There was abundant fish, wildlife and fertile fields. They thought they had found heaven on earth and called it Arcadia or “Acadie” in their language. They spent 100 glorious years there and their colony prospered and grew. In 1713, the English, after war with France, took over the settlements. The Acadians struck a deal with their new rulers and promised to remain neutral; all they wanted was to be left alone. This lasted until 1755 when a new power-hungry governor demanded the Acadians swear allegiance to the Crown of England. The Acadians asked once more to be left alone and remain neutral. The governor retaliated and took their land and ordered them into exile. Some went back to Europe, some moved into the French-speaking parts of Canada and others sought refuge in the English colonies to the south.
In 1765 a band of 200 Acadians arrived in New Orleans. None of them liked the “city life.” They moved on west to start a New Acadia in the land that is now one of my favorite places, Breaux Bridge. Their leader was Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil. They built a wonderful new culture and became known as Cajuns.
In 1901, oil was discovered in Louisiana and the Cajuns were no longer isolated as the oil workers poured onto their lands. By 1921, the local schools demanded that English only had to be spoken and small Cajun kids that uttered a single word of French on the playground were spanked. However, the authorities couldn’t silence the Cajuns from playing their distinctive music. In 1928, the Breaux family recorded a song called “Jolie Blonde” and it eventually was called the Cajun national anthem. Check out one of the original Cajun music heroes, Nathan Abshire playing Jolie Blonde.
The English repression and the American intolerance failed to destroy the Acadian culture. In 1968 the Louisiana legislature created The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. A Cajun Renaissance happened in South Louisiana with teachers from France arriving in the state to teach the language to school children.
In 1980, Mulate’s Restaurant opened in Breaux Bridge, dedicated to the preservation of the traditional food, music and dancing of the Cajun people. Paul and I ate at Mulate’s and I loved the Fried Alligator, Etouffee and Praline Supreme. It was a Monday night and every one of the 200 seats was taken by 7pm. When Jay Cormier and his Cajun band started, I was the only one left seated. I’ve never seen anything like it. Old and young were packed on the dance floor for every song.
We probably went to another 10 dance halls that week and they were all packed and everybody was smiling and dancing. These were all week nights, not weekends. I can’t imagine how these places could get another body inside their walls on weekends.
I remember the Bonefish Grill, Zoe’s Kitchen and the great Prejean’s Cajun Cuisine. Thank you Paul, my Cajun buddy and thanks you all the great musicians I enjoyed.