By Heidi Trautmann
Let’s get together and have fun - this is one of the slogans you will meet with when you visit southern Louisiana or rather Acadiana, the country of the Acadiens – or Cajuns - the French who once were deported from Canada – Nova Scotia, their Arcadie; The majority found refuge in southern Louisiana centered in the region around Lafayette and the LaFourche Bayou country. Until the 1970s, Cajuns were often considered lower-class citizens, with the term "Cajun" being somewhat derogatory. It was not easy for them to find a niche to settle and live peacefully, among them many refugees of nobility from the French Revolution, and, it is only during the last decades that the old French ways, traditions, music, food, arts and crafts are being re-established and celebrated again; Once flush with oil and gas riches, Cajun culture, food, music, and their infectious "joie de vivre" lifestyle quickly gained international acclaim. It is also the country of Creoles sprung from interrelations of whites with coloured people, former African slaves and especially those imported from French speaking Haiti;
Another slogan, a most important one in Cajun society is: “Who’s your Mama, are you Catholic and can you make a Roux?” for example when a young man introduces his bride-to-be, and if she cannot make a roux, his choice is doubted. A roux is used to make gumbo, a hotpot, for example, with chicken and oysters, or crabs, or crawfish.
It is a must to taste the typical cajun and creole dishes, the Gumbos, the Jambalayas, the riches of the bayous, swamps and coastal regions like shrimps, crawfish, oysters and fish such as catfish, all hot and spicy when they are spread out on the table.
When we first came to Lafayette, we were introduced to these dishes; the crawfish for example or blue crabs, freshly brought in from private camps in the swamps, are boiled in huge pots over fire with the fire of lots of chili added to the liquid, and corn cobs and whole eggs and potatoes go along with it. People get a tray laden full with dozens of the goodies, beer in the bottle is handed out, and you hopefully have your hands washed, because now you will need them, and you better have a towl around your neck if you are a newcomer, because the juice is going to run down your chin.
Social and family life is written in big letters; the Louisianians are open and friendly, you meet them in the shopping areas and it can happen to you that they walk up and ask you where you got this lovely shawl from; walking in the old city centres you do only on special occasions, when there is an art walk, a festival, but usually you don’t walk for pleasure, you drive! In the neighbourhoods, that is what they call the artificially created living areas, you drive with a sort of golf cart or four-wheelers.
People meet for all sorts of occasions, poker, sports or cultural events, and everybody brings a dish along; you don’t cook, really, you get something from the fresh market, the delis, or from the drive-in restaurants; the main thing is: let’s have fun. Sports are the big thing, there are high seasons when schools play against each other, and kids and parents are driving daily to and fro from one playfield to the next, mothers cater for entire groups between the games. When important sport events are on, people meet hours before and park around the place, they call it tailgating, they come with their pick-ups, unload chairs, grill stations, and go visiting and sit on the back of the pickup, that is the important part of the fun, and when their darlings are on the ground, clad in their sports colours, the parents are jumping up and whooping and shouting and screaming, deeply involved, and you expect them to run onto the field and take over and fight the enemy. On weekends families love to go to their camps or campers stationed in the swamps or along the bayous, in summer they go out on the waterways fishing, in other seasons for hunting; hunting rabbits or even deer. Family gatherings are the rule all over the year and taking care of each other, especially supporting the young generation. Going to church is most important for the Louisianians but another slogan is: Let’s party on Friday and confess on Sunday.
Travelling through southern Louisiana means that you will need lots of time, you can take the Interstates with often bumpy wide double lanes because of the heavy traffic, meeting with the biggest lorries ever seen, proud and beautifully polished, the oversized campers, sometimes you see whole houses being moved on trailers. The country is wide and open, a huge sky above, sending liquid heat waves in summer or making one want to stop with spectacular sunsets after a hot day or a heavy downpour; but we prefer to go along the scenic roads marked by a sign with an old fashioned vehicle on it. You will then get the feeling of the countryside, park-like with bungalows in the local style on wide pieces of land, no fences, old oak trees, enormous specimen with long white beards of Spanish moss, but you will hardly see people sitting on their porches, often with two rocking chairs for decoration out of tradition, perhaps one man on a four wheeler around the house, a lawn mower, to keep the land tidy. On your way further south, you will come through wide rice fields, where the ground is moist or through sugar cane country, soya bean fields, sometimes horses behind white fences; along the navigable bayous there are some of the famous plantation houses, for example at the Teche, with turning bridges to let the ships go through, other bayous with yellow brown muddy water; the Atchafallaya Swamps with alligators and a rich wildlife, birds, I love the white egrets, and often enough, along the bayous, you expect to see ladies in long swinging muslin dresses moving across the lawn of plantation homes with white columns in the front, today museums, the scenery of famous films like Gone with the Wind.
Lafayette with art activities downtown and a university with 18.000 students, New Iberia with its small antique city centre, Breaux Bridge with its famous Café des Amis, St. Martinsville, Abbeville, all known for some speciality; out of tradition we go and eat oysters at Abbeville, we prefer them raw with a spicy sauce, and in the backyard of Dupuys Oyster Shop huge mountains of shells are building up each new season; but! Like a string of pearls they have the famous festivals; Lafayette and its Jazz Festival end of April, with music groups coming from many French speaking countries and islands, be it from the Caribbean, Africa, Canada or Europe; Breaux Bridge with its Crawfish Festival and Cajun and Zydeco Dancing, the Sugar Cane Festival, or Pepper and Rice Festivals, even the German Octoberfestival, Mardigras in Februay and March everywhere, and, you won’t believe it, the Giant Omelette Festival in Abbeville, when 5023 eggs are broken, where only members of its assoaciation are allowed in as cooks to this international event; it is said that it goes back to Napoleon times.
Not to forget the steaks which are so tender and good, the pork cracklings, the boudin which is a sausage, a mixture of rice and pork in natural casings, also stuffed with alligator or seafood.
With all the smells of food, with all the festivals around the country and over the year goes the music and dancing; it does not take much, a violin, and an accordion to play up for two steps and waltzes. I have never in my life seen so many people over 80 dance along with the young ones over the festival grounds and restaurant floors. Often, couples are invited to dance for a meal just to heat up the atmosphere. Special places are open all over the year, where people whose feet are itching can meet to madly dance away. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie by Longfellows
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o'er the ocean.
Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pre.
Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient,
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman's devotion,
List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.
Thus begins the poem told by Longfellows: freshly wed Evangeline and her husband are separated when deported from Nova Scotia, their Arcadie; she looks everywhere for him but cannot find him. Evangeline’s statue is in St. Martinsville, still waiting.