This expression of welcome and wishes for a good day is a common greeting here in south-central Louisiana where our pilgrimage to here has brought us. This is a place where life has been blended and mixed together so thoroughly that it is hard to define one single “authentic” definition of anything. We have learned so much about this mysterious and spirit-filled place that is continuing to evolve so dramatically as it mirrors changes in the land, the culture, and the people.
The history of the terms we have heard to describe people who came to this part of the country – creole and Cajun – exemplifies this blending and mixing. We have been told that the term creole, for example, emerged in the early 1800s when Louisiana ceased being either a French or Spanish colony and became part of the United States. At that time, “creole” identified anyone born in the new world – and not the motherland of Spain, France, Africa, Germany, or the Caribbean – and once here, they mixed with one another and the native Americans. That distinction has continued to evolve over the centuries so that it is now known in the vernacular as an adjective describing the customs, the food, and the music.
The term Cajun is an Anglicized version of the original term, Acadian, which referred to the French-speaking people from the part of Canada now called Nova Scotia. In the later part of the 1700s, these farmers and craftspeople were pawns in a battle of European power and were exiled from their homes when the British took over and forcibly relocated them to parts of the colonies or French Louisiana. Some made it back to France, the place they had left generations before.
Many of them settled in this land of bayous, coastal marshes, and prairies and carved out a way of life built in isolation on the rich natural resources of the Mississippi delta. Their dialect of French, in part preserved by their isolation, is distinct from present-day French as we learned when we met a few couples from Poitiers, France who were travelling to Eunice, Louisiana. When they spoke with the musicians who were performing traditional Cajun tunes for us, they could understand the general context though they said that many of the words were not understandable. Kind of how I am with French!
The land here is itself an example of the thin veil between what many would consider habitable. We are camping in a campground where the elevation above sea level is just 16′. We are surrounded by lush stands of palmettos, tupelo trees, and magnolias. This is the Mississippi Delta and the land itself is in constant motion. As I write this, we are being inundated by rain – over 4 “ of it – and we know that somewhere, new channels in rivers and marshes and bayous are being formed. This land is in motion. We found this quote that sums it all up: this place is “… a restless interplay of land and water, treeless marshes, slow-moving bayous, forested natural levees, freshwater swamps, and barrier islands”. It is not difficult to image how this dynamic has, and will continue, to impact the lives of its people.
What surprised us? As we toured the area we saw thousands of acres of rice and sugar cane, the two crops that we discovered are perfectly suited to this climate. The rice grows in sunken fields, which can easily flood in weather like we are getting today. The sugar cane, which creates lush green landscapes of astounding uniformity, is one of the crops that brought this region great wealth and contributed to the traditions of cuisine that are particular to this area. One of the local favorites here is thick slabs of bacon basted with cane syrup and broiled – that might be for the next trip.
We have fallen in love with the cuisine – flavors and spices and mixes that are so phenomenal. Many start with a Cajun version of the French tradition of roux – a mix of some flour and either lard, butter, or shortening. Peter spent some time with a chef who was preparing seafood gumbo for us. He learned about the staple of the recipe – the roux – to which he added the “trinity of Cajun cooking, onions, green peppers, and celery” – traditional spices (salt, chili pepper, garlic) and tiny, sweet Gulf shrimp. The entire stew cooked for a couple of hours and was served over white rice. Can you imagine this?
These folks love their remoulade sauce and now, so do we. We’ve had it on the Cajun version of “grinder”, which is called a “po boy” here. Think crispy fried shrimp, sliced tomatoes, julienned lettuce, some remoulade sauce, served on grilled French bread. Hmmm. So much to try, and so little time!
And then there is our experience with the music. We had two evenings of live music and the second one was a magical evening attending a live radio broadcast of Cajun music from the historic Liberty Theater in Eunice, Louisiana. Folks have been gathering at the Liberty on Saturday evenings to hear live music and to dance for the past 29 years. The night we attended, they were dedicating the dance floor to a local couple who had been coming for the entire time. Four generations of their family were in attendance for the dedication of the dance floor. After the presentations, the band (Jesse Leger and Friends) kicked into a spirited tune and the patriarch took to the dance floor first with his daughter, then later a grand-daughter and eventually, carried a great grand-daughter, all the while dancing the Cajun two-step with variations that demonstrated his breadth of experience. It was awesome to witness.
Our pilgrimage to here continues to present surprising, simple, and profoundly beautiful moments like this.
Peter and Liz are on a pilgrimage to here, traveling to Louisiana and across the U.S. in their Airstream.