On The Bayou

PrintPrintEmailEmail ’Cuz dere on de by-you We’n I stretch ma’ neck stiff Dere’s eight alligators A-pullin’ a skiff, An’ a fat little drover Wit’ a long pole-ing stick, I know rat away Got to be Ole St. Nick.

Lafayette is the recognized capital of Acadiana, which spreads out to include twenty-two parishes, or counties. Although December offers perfect walking weather, the region can’t be properly explored without a car. Mamou, for example, is about forty-odd miles northwest of Lafayette. St. Martinville lies twenty miles in the opposite direction. It was here that the fictional Evangeline was said to have waited for her lover, under a giant oak tree on the Bayou Teche. There is, in fact, a huge, spreading oak here, and a statue of Evangeline stands in the courtyard of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Chuch, a white clapboard structure of 1832 that is dappled in the pastel-patterned light from its stained-glass windows.

At night, in search of the legendary cuisine, I drove several miles again, to the famous Prudhomme’s Cajun Café in the town of Carencro and, on another evening, to Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge. While both offered fine, casual Cajun food, they clearly catered to the tourists. My favorite restaurant was a little spot called the Crawfish Kitchen off the highway past Mulate’s. This roadside cafß—with rickety vinyl chairs and turquoise Formica tables—served up a wonderful all-you-can-eat crawfish buffet for $9.95. The place was filled with groups of lively Cajuns, speaking in an incredibly rapid French dialect.

The dialect is a testament to the Acadians’ effective isolation for more than a century. After establishing their colony, they kept mainly to themselves, farming rice and sugarcane, harvesting shrimp and crawfish, and hunting alligators. As the nineteenth century progressed, some wealthy planters came to the area, bringing scores of African slaves. The Creoles—people of a mixed European, African, and West Indian heritage—also came and melted into the Cajun culture.

Still, Cajun life remained largely unchanged throughout the nineteenth century. The era that affected the Cajuns most profoundly was the 1930s, when the twin forces of Huey Long and the oil industry brought sudden modernity to the region. Long’s systems of bridges and highways opened Acadiana to the outside world, while oil attracted thousands of new workers and satellite industries. The subsequent changes were radical, and Cajuns watched their quiet, isolated world come alive with modern activity.

The oil industry almost completely disappeared in the 1980s, and the Atchafalaya was strangely quiet when I saw it, from the “ponton” boat of McGee’s Atchafalaya Basin Tour, based off the levee past Breaux Bridge. To my surprise, the space was vast and airy. The stretches of sky and water shared the same dull blue-gray color, and skeletons of cypresses and black willows rose out of the water with a feathery delicacy, their leaves and dense Spanish moss gone for the season.

On either side of us mobile homes, wooden shacks, and, in one case, a renovated silver bus floated on huge wooden rafts. These forlorn “houseboats” are primary dwellings for some, weekend getaways for other locals.

The scene was the opposite of Fred’s Lounge, and in many ways it seemed a fitting end to my visit to Acadiana. In the swamps and bayous—away from the bustling dance clubs, commercialized cafés, and modernity that came with the oil industry—these private Cajuns can live most comfortably with their past.

—Catherine Calhoun TO PLAN A TRIP