Behind the Cajuns’ joie de vivre , lies a strongwilled independence and a tumultuous past
Fred’s Lounge is a small place with a plain red-brick facade on the main street in Mamou, Louisiana. When I was there, late last December, Fred’s was packed. Members of a five-piece Cajun band took up most of the space inside and ignited the room with their rowdy fiddle music. Right in front of them a dozen couples bounced elbow to elbow on the tiny dance floor, while a waitress wove her way through, carrying trays of beer to two booths in the corner. A waist-high barrier separated the dance floor from the bar area, where patrons were clustered three-deep under drooping tinsel and plastic pine boughs, smoking and talking noisily while not being served; the female bartender was taking a turn as the band’s lead vocalist. I pushed my way through to the waitress to ask her a question, and she smiled warmly and shook her head to say she couldn’t help me. I was looking for breakfast. It was ten in the morning.
The Cajuns have a reputation for being serious partyers, and like most stereotypes, this one has more than a grain of truth to it. After all, the unofficial slogan of these French-speaking people is Laissez les bons temps rouler , or “Let the good times roll.” The area’s Mardi Gras celebrations and springtime music festival draw thousands of people every year. And the Cajun culture has been introduced to the American mainstream largely through its festive, spicy cuisine and the rollicking, danceable music that was popularized by the movie The Big Easy . After years of sampling this food and music myself in inauthentic urban settings, I thought the balmy winter holiday season would be a good time to finally go south to “Acadiana,” the Cajun bayou region of southern Louisiana, and experience the real thing.
Oddly, throughout my four-day visit I came across relatively few Christmas or New Year’s celebrations. According to Trent Angiers, editor of the region’s monthly Acadiana Profile , most Cajuns consider Christmas “a solemn holiday in the Christian religion,” so much of its observance takes place in private. In fact, despite their outward emphasis on joie de vivre , the Cajuns are a very private, industrious, and strong-willed people. And their history is a remarkable story of survival and independence.
Today’s Cajuns are descendants of a group of French Catholics who lived on the coastal canals of western France in the late sixteenth century. Fleeing terrible religious warfare, they emigrated to Nova Scotia beginning in 1605 and settled on the peninsula of L’Acadie, or Acadia. (The term Cajun is a bastardization of Acadian .) For generations they lived in relative prosperity and isolation while French and British forces battled over control of the region.
The British prevailed, finally, in 1713 and slowly became intolerant of their French-Catholic citizens. Tensions reached a tragic climax forty years later. On August 1,1755, without apparent warning, Gov. Charles Lawrence ordered the immediate expulsion of all Acadians from the area. The defenseless farmers were summarily rounded up and loaded onto ships that then randomly scattered the outcasts in cities along the Eastern seaboard. In the process communities were destroyed, families broken up, and lovers separated.
The story is told most beautifully in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem Evangeline, which traces the sad wanderings of two Acadian lovers who were divided during the expulsion:
When the Acadians were let off in colonial cities, they met with almost universal hostility. Most towns were hardly more tolerant than the British had been. As Longfellow wrote, “Scattered were they, like flakes of snow … / Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city.”
In search of a haven where they could live in peace and seclusion, the Acadians began migrating to the southern French province of Louisiana. The first bedraggled groups arrived in the late 175Os and settled in the vast, unpopulated bayou area beyond New Orleans, a terrain that resembled their ancestral French home.
By 1785 more than three thousand Acadians occupied the region Longfellow described as “a maze of sluggish and devious waters.” The bayous and vast Atchafalaya Basin bound the Acadians together, even as they isolated them from the world.
These waters still occupy the physical and psychological centers of the Cajun culture, and the public Christmas traditions that do exist are generally set around them. On Christmas Eve locals gather on the banks of the bayous to watch a series of magnificent Yuletide bonfires. The pyres are ignited at precisely 7:00 P.M. on December 24, and they can be seen for miles blazing well into the night. Also, in the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas,” Santa Claus floats through the bayou instead of the nighttime sky. As the Cajun narrator relates, in his distinctive, clipped accent:
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.