The Cajun Culture

The Cajun Culture
The southwest part of Louisiana stretching from the Texas border as far as the Mississippi River is Cajun Country, and traveling through the bayous and rural back roads of the small towns, we experienced the real thing. Approximately 700,000 Acadians, or Cajuns, live in this lowland area of swamps, bayous, lakes, and dense vegetation, descendants of the French who settled in Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1604 and who were later exiled by the British in 1755. After three decades in exile, they found a home in Louisiana, settling in the spongy swamplands south and west of New Orleans, where the local Indians taught them to fish, hunt, trap, and catch crawfish.

What makes a Cajun a Cajun is open to debate. It is all those descended from the exiled Nova Scotians, but some would also include other immigrants to the area (Africans, West Caribbeans, Spanish, Anglos, Yugoslavians, Italians, Filipinos, etc.). Although it is open to debate, many would say that it is culture, and not just blood, that makes a “Cajun.” The Cajuns are the country’s largest French-speaking minority. And although many of today’s young people don’t speak French, their grandparents probably did. Most Cajuns are Catholic, as can be seen from their cathedrals, cemeteries, and statues of the Virgin Mary in front lawns. Many Cajuns have rural ways, and even those that live in town often have rural values. The Cajun joie de vivre characterizes their work and play, and the “fais-do-do” dance halls still host live Cajun music on the weekends, when several generations dance and party together.

The Cajuns are most widely-known for their cuisine and their music, both of which are world-famous. The Cajun cultural mélange has contributed greatly to the region’s unique and varied cuisine, which is some of the best in the country. Only in Louisiana will you find everyone talking for hours about their cuisine (just like in France!). Invited into people’s homes, we feasted on homemade jambalaya, boudin (pork and rice sausages), shrimp and crawfish etouffee, seafood bisque, raw and live oysters, crawfish, and, of course, the king of Cajun cooking – gumbo (a spicy, thick soup based on okra and file powder).

Gumbo can be seen as a metaphor for bringing many different cultures and flavors together in one bowl. Like the cultural mélange in southern Louisiana, the gumbo is a combination of any or all sorts of meat: turkey, chicken, sausage, shrimp, oyster, crawfish, etc. Many different groups have contributed to the evolution of gumbo over the years: enslaved Africans, French, Spanish, Germans, Choctaw Indians, and others. The term “gumbo ya ya” can be interpreted as “everyone talking at once.” And everyone has his or her own recipe for the perfect gumbo. As the “Louisiana Life” magazine very aptly puts it: “…there are as many recipes for gumbo as there are bayous that crisscross the state.”

Like their cuisine, their music is also a source of pride for the Cajuns. Listening to live music is very much a part of the culture, and live bands play in bars all over small-town Cajun Louisiana. With the large mix of settlers from many different cultures, three distinct musical traditions have come from Louisiana’s prairies. Traditional Cajun music is a combination of old Louisiana French music with the addition of the German accordion. Zydeco music was created by the Creoles (those descended from African or West Indian slaves) from an association of the blues with the same early Louisiana French music. And in the 1950s, swamp pop came together from the sounds of blues, rock and roll, and Louisiana French music.

Largely because of the geography of the bayous and swampland, the Cajuns lived until recently in relative isolation – not only from the Anglos, but also from each other. Although their Acadian French (an old French dialect) unites them, there is no single language, but rather, many regional dialects.

A lot of Cajuns have a small-town mentality and provincial outlook. Most of them had never been outside the state, and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to travel so far. Many had absolutely no interest in traveling beyond their hometowns and said so in as many words. Even when we tried to explain to them our reasons for traveling, most couldn’t come close to understanding it.

Here’s a good example that our friend Lane gave us. He had been hanging out with friends one day when one of them mentioned how everyone has a character flaw. Lane asked his friend what he thought his flaw was, and his friend replied, “Well, you’re just weird.” When asked why, he responded, “Well, you’ve been to France!” as in, “Why in the world would anyone want to go all the way to France?” I laughed and laughed when I heard that story. I must be REALLY weird; I actually MOVED to France!

To read about our experience in celebrating Mardi Gras (that most famous of Louisiana festivals) in a small Cajun town, be sure not to miss “Mardi Gras in Cajun Country.”