Don’t Call It 'Cajun'

Melanie Acevedo

It is a damp autumn night just outside Lafayette, Louisiana. On the bare wooden bandstand at Randol's Restaurant, the accordion takes up the double-time beat of the washboard and guitar. As fiddle bow scrapes against catgut, a singer steps up to the microphone. From the depths of his thorax comes what sounds like either a primal cry of ecstasy or a howl of pain. "Oh-yiiiiy!" he cries against the music. "Oh-yiiiiy!" On the crowded dance floor just below, a woman in floral calico, with a cherry-red baseball cap atop her silver curls, glides and spins. The spring in her step and the sparkle in her tiny eyes are a joyous defiance of both her wispy frame and her advanced age. "Oh-yiiiiy!" the singer cries again. "Oh-yiiiiy!"

The dancers are framed by simple wood-slat chairs and checker-clothed tables laden with food. There are baskets of Louisiana blue crabs, their spiny shells turned bright orange-red in the restaurant's mammoth steampots, in water zapped with hot-pepper sauce, lemon, and salt. There are platters glistening with rosy crawfish tails cooked in their own juices with onions, cayenne, corn, and potatoes; plates of oysters and shrimp that have been dusted with cornmeal and fried to a turn; and bowls of rich brown gumbo teeming with more crab and shrimp, or with boldly seasoned sausage.

Together, this food, this music, and these dancers, undulating counterclockwise around the floor like some unstoppable force of nature, form a kind of gumbo of their own. They all spring from a culture that began to grow more than two centuries ago along the spongy coastline bayous and upland prairies of southern Louisiana, in a region whose boundaries start somewhere west of New Orleans.

This is Acadiana, named for the lineage of its ancestors, many of whom began to settle in Louisiana in the 1750s, exiled from the first significant French colony in the New World—Acadie, once a vast region spanning the present-day provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island in Canada, and part of what is now the state of Maine.

Over time, the word Acadian (preferred by many) got shortened to Cajun—and the term came to embody a caricature of rough, raucous, Louisiana folk with names like LeBlanc and Robichaux and Broussard and Dugas—good-time types who consume blistering-hot food and dance to homespun "chank-a-chank" and black Creole zydeco music.

That caricature in turn has spawned a thousand ersatz Cajun restaurants, from Key West to Nome, and a fascination for Louisiana's little-understood indigenous musical styles. Today, curious tourists are drawn by Cajun fantasies to Lafayette, Acadiana's unofficial capital, and to surrounding towns. If they're lucky, they'll find the real thing.

The modern-day Acadians' laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler ("let-the-good-times-roll") image is strikingly ironic in light of the tragic events that drove their ancestors to Louisiana in the late 18th century. Although there's some controversy in academic circles over the exact figures, it is estimated that, by 1755, the French colony of Acadie—founded a century and a half earlier—had between 10,000 and 18,000 inhabitants. When the British wrested control of the Canadian territories from the French, they demanded that colonists of French descent swear an oath of allegiance to King George II of England. The Acadians' stubborn refusal to do so led to their expulsion from Acadie in 1755, an act which tore hundreds of families apart and sent thousands of Acadians into exile, in search of a new homeland. Some returned to France. Others went to the seaports of England, to various British colonies (from Maryland to Georgia), and to the French West Indies. And, from 1756 to 1805, somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 Acadians—again, the figures are disputed—found their way to Louisiana. (Among these Acadians was my ancestor, 26-year-old Joseph Bourg—a descendant of Alexandre Bourg dit Bellehumeur, who had been the French king's notary at Grand Pre in Acadie. Bourg settled in Bayou Lafourche, where my parents grew up.)

Louisiana had been the largest of France's colonies in the Americas, and the local citizenry remained sympathetic to the French (and kept speaking their language), even after France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762. Even so, it was probably difficult for those first Acadian settlers to adapt to their new home. Accustomed to Canada's blizzards and rocky terrain, they must have been shocked to discover Louisiana's steamy climate and iron-flat landscape. Wondrous sights awaited them: alligator snouts poking up from the primeval soup of coastal marshes; snowy egrets preening in beds of giant palmettos; gently flowing streams brimming with finfish, crab, and shrimp. Instead of Canadian maple, fir, and spruce, they found dense and majestic groves of cypress, their sun-bleached branches festooned with Spanish moss, rising from swamps made bright green by billions of tiny aquatic plants.

The earliest Acadian exiles settled upriver from New Orleans in St. James Parish. Later waves traveled westward to the banks of Bayou Teche, and then roamed to Bayou Lafourche, just southwest of the city, and along the thousands of inlets forming the vast Atchafalaya Basin. On the region's lush prairie, the Acadians found rich tropical soil just waiting to be turned into fields of rice and sugarcane, or into kitchen gardens to grow the vegetables and herbs that flavor roux-based gumbo—tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, bell peppers, and celery. Acadiana today runs along 300 miles of coastline and extends northward, occupying roughly a third of the state of Louisiana.

If you know French, you'll understand the banter of older generations, who still speak the ancient Louisiana-Acadian patois, a linguistic gumbo of its own. "Hiya doin', cher?" is a warm hello, and cher is pronounced "sha." A typical conversation mixes the dialects of 17th-century France (catin, not poupee, for doll), 18th-century Canada (the Native American-derived boucane, not fumee, for smoke), and 19th-century Louisiana (gris-gris, a charm against evil, probably from the African Mandingo). New usages and words emerged—char (cart) for automobile; tac-tac for popcorn.

Further enriching the spoken language are terms from other tongues—including Caribbean languages and Spanish. Today, the culture is still in flux. An organization called CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) has made young Acadians aware of their roots by offering French language classes to students still in elementary school—a mixed blessing, as it threatens to abolish use of the distinctive Acadian patois in the process.

In the midst of this cultural melting pot, real pots bubbled away. Acadian cooking had its roots in the French farmhouse style of its Canadian ancestors, but its flavors were enlivened by the richness of local ingredients—okra from Africa, cayenne from the Caribbean, Native American corn and ground sassafras leaves (file), and more.

Either okra or file—never both—are used to thicken gumbo, the most famous of all Acadian specialties. There are as many gumbos in Acadiana as there are cooks. Perfected on thousands of stovetops over tens of generations, gumbo evolved as a succession of newfound ingredients and techniques reshaped Acadian cooking. In one excellent version, served at Black's Oyster Bar in Abbeville, oysters are plopped into the pot well after the crabmeat and shrimp are cooked, preserving the oysters' tenderness and keeping their flavor from overwhelming the other ingredients. My favorite gumbo, though, is the hand-me-down chicken file gumbo—with a lightly seasoned yet robust brown broth, flecked with green from a pinch or two of crushed (not powdered) sassafras—that my mother, Louise Adams Bourg, placed regularly on our family dinner table.

Until the mid-20th century, Acadiana remained isolated, socially and economically, from the American mainstream. Today, Lafayette is resoundingly contemporary, flaunting its strip malls and rambling mansions (dating from the Louisiana oil and gas boom of the 1970s). Before the automobile, though, a farming or fishing family's nearest neighbor might have been hours away by wagon or pirogue (a hybrid watercraft—part flatboat, part canoe). When neighbors and extended families did come together, the feasting was serious indeed. In early winter, the excuse might be a communal pig roast, often a two-day affair. Or a boucherie, where a hog would be slaughtered, then reincarnated as chops and charcuterie. Or a gathering at a fishing camp on the bayou, fueled with turtle sauce piquante, boiled shrimp, and seafood courtbouillon. These celebrations sparkled with a joie de vivre that even now, after a dozen or more generations, remains intact—as infectious as it is heartfelt.

Starting midway between the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico and Lafayette, and extending all the way to the Texas border, are vast rice fields first planted by westward-expanding Europeans in the late 1800s. Louisiana is today the third largest rice producing state in the country, after Arkansas and California, and rice is central to Acadian cooking. What would gumbo, jambalaya, or boudin be without rice?

Between Lafayette and New Orleans, the fields are sugarcane. At massive mills along bayous Teche and Lafourche, the juice of sugarcane pulp is processed into granules destined to sweeten morning coffee or the egg-rich custard tart called tarte a la bouillie. At C. S. Steen Syrup Mill in Abbeville, the cane's thin sweet sap is cooked down to a thick shiny brown and bottled, to be used in cake batter for gateau au sirop; or drizzled onto couche-couche, a breakfast cereal of steamed or fried cornmeal; or spooned onto pain perdu—"lost bread"—the Acadian French toast. At my own house, we always ate popcorn balls on rainy days—popcorn stuck together with cane syrup "glue."

One of the few remaining old-fashioned meat markets in Acadiana is Hebert's, off Highway 38 on the edge of Abbeville, due south of Lafayette. Pork is central to Acadian cooking, and Hebert's is a temple of pork. Here, the chopping, grinding, seasoning, and cooking take place behind a glass-front refrigerator case, its top piled high with huge clear-plastic bags of gratons—shamelessly caloric cubes of pork skin and fat, fried in lard. Inside the case are such wonders as pans of spicy hogshead cheese; chunks of the intensely flavored pork jerky called tasso; patties of onion-flecked ground pork encased in caul fat; whole calf's and pig's stomachs bulging with zestily seasoned ground pork, to be baked and sliced as a rustic terrine. In various parts of the shop are a gastronome's ransom of earthy sausages—andouille, chaurice, boudin blanc and boudin rouge. Hebert's is a living lesson in the history of Acadian charcuterie.

There's no such thing as a Cajun restaurant," says Andre Begnaud, former sous-chef to Emeril Lagasse at the noted Emeril's restaurant. "Cajun's what you eat when your mama cooks." Begnaud's roots are in Carencro, near Lafayette. Just a bit further south in Maurice, another legendary Acadian food figure named Hebert, Widley Hebert, Sr.—"Soop" to his friends—owns the next best thing to mama's cooking: Soop's Seafood and Steakhouse. Run by Soop and Doris Hebert's nine daughters, in what looks like an oversized house trailer, Soop's is an Acadian classic.

While Garth Brooks on the jukebox wails "Calling Baton Rouge," Soop's roomy kitchen hums with loose, sisterly camaraderie. Rachael Hebert, who has been at the stoves since she was a 10th-grader, turns out a gloriously thick and rich gumbo of quail and sausage; boned chickens stuffed with crawfish; and bacon-wrapped shrimp coated in seafood stuffing, then batter-fried and served with melted cheese on top. The bright-red sauce piquante at Soop's is the real Acadian thing—but the cubes of alligator meat it contains, flavorless and stringy, lend credence to the theory that Acadian chefs only cook alligator for tourists.

Breaux Bridge, northeast of Lafayette, is the self-styled Capitale Mondiale des Écrevisses, or Crawfish Capital of the World. Another kind of almost-mama's cooking happens here in a lofty, old, converted general store, now the Cafe des Amis. Ask proprietor Dickie Breaux about Acadian gastronomy, and you'll end up qualifying for a doctorate. He'll argue that instinctive techniques are more crucial than recipe measurements, recalling the time he asked an aunt, a legendary cook, how much cayenne she was adding to a pot. "Just enough," was her terse response. Cayenne, he continues, is traditionally favored on the Acadian prairie, while black pepper is the choice south along Bayou Lafourche—and the ubiquitous Tabasco sauce, made with the Mexican pepper of the same name only a few miles away on Avery Island, is a relative newcomer, having become widely accepted in Acadiana only in the last 100 years.

Breaux, his wife, Cynthia, and his son, Brett, have perfected the classic crawfish etoufee in the Cafe's kitchen: Springy-firm crawfish tails are immersed in an opaque reddish sauce, assertively seasoned with Acadiana's holy trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper—along with garlic, paprika, cayenne, and black pepper, a combination of intense ingredients that somehow marry to bring out the sweet flavor of the crawfish.

The color of the Breauxs' gravy-thick turtle soup is brown wanting to be black—a clue to its rich earthy taste. Their hearty chicken and sausage gumbo is accompanied by little bowls of slightly sticky rice and semi-pureed potato salad; either or both are to be spooned right into the gumbo—a practice common throughout Acadiana. The Breauxs are also resurrecting such bedrock Acadian dishes as couche-couche and the dark and luscious Gateau au Sirop.

Seemingly worlds away, but really only a few miles from the plain-faced storefronts and luncheonettes that constitute most of Acadiana's restaurant population, Le Rosier in New Iberia takes on the suave demeanor of its antebellum neighbor, the restored 1830s plantation house, Shadows-on- the-Teche. The same kind of refined dishes, based on local ingredients, that 28-year-old chef Hallman Woods III prepares at Le Rosier, might once have graced a banquet table at Shadows. On snowy linens in Le Rosier's dining room are served such Woods creations as fried oysters en brochette with spinach, grilled leeks with garlic-chive cream, grilled duck breast with wild-rice-and-tasso dressing, and a textbook pecan pie.

In chef Keith Boulet's kitchen at Broussard Bistro, a Victorian-style cottage in Broussard, a few miles south of Lafayette, the food is similarly creative. Dishes like pork pate with mushrooms (with just the right Acadian oomph), rabbit tenderloin in a stock reduction with a hint of cream and the zip of mustard and green peppercorns, and poached salmon in a sauce studded with oysters and bits of lemon-basil and bacon, all resonate with influences from Boulet's childhood in Larose, on Bayou Lafourche, and his training in Europe and in good New Orleans restaurants.

Marcelle Bienvenu lives in a storybook house on the Bayou Teche in the storybook town of St. Martinville, the setting for Longfellow's "Evangeline" (which helped to establish the Acadian mythology). Generations of her family have run newspapers and sugarcane plantations here. In her charming Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, And Can You Make a Roux?, this journalist and food expert shares both recipes and tales: "I walked through my childhood believing everyone enjoyed the pleasure of preparing and consuming jambalaya, crawfish bisque, and stewed okra."

When Bienvenu isn't fussing about in the tiny kitchen of her tiny house, she often recounts a folksy anecdote from a lifetime in Acadiana. She tells about sharing a pew at St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville one Sunday with a friend. As the organ boomed and the choir's voices rang out, the friend, seemingly deep in prayer, suddenly leaned over and said in a loud whisper: "Marcelle! I've got to talk to you!" Bienvenu lowered her head and tried to ignore the interruption, but her supplicant wouldn't give up. "Marcelle! Chere! I've got to ask you something about oyster patties! How do you keep the bottom crusts from getting soggy?"

In Acadiana, when an issue like the crispness of a crust hangs in the balance, even God himself sometimes has to wait.