Cajuns are one of the most unique cultures and ethnic groups in the United States. Primarily located in rural Southern Louisiana, the culture is defined by its French roots which are easily seen in their own distinct Cajun French dialect, societal norms, music, and food. You'll see this culture throughout the southern Louisiana region known as Acadiana, which covers 22 parishes across the state. The Cajun culture is deeply informed by the strange and beleaguered history of the Cajun people and their ancestors, and is a culture that you must experience first-hand to fully understand.
Unlike Creoles, Cajuns do not trace their roots from the early French settlers of Louisiana who settled in New Orleans. Instead, the Cajuns are actually descendants of the Acadians, who emigrated from Northern France to colonize the eastern portions of Canada in the early 17th century. In 1710, the British conquered Acadia and attempted to force the Acadians to submit to the British crown, but the former French colonists refused. Throughout the duration of the French and Indian War, the British suspected the Francophone colonists of helping the French, and deported many Acadians from the region between 1755 and 1764. During The Expulsion (as this time period came to be known) approximately 11,500 Acadians were forced from their lands by the British, and were mostly spread out among rural communities in the British New World Colonies.
After the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758, the British started to send the Acadians to France. Many unfortunate Acadians died in route when three transports sank, but about 3,000 former colonists were eventually deported to France.
Life for the Acadians in France was difficult. The refugees lived in close quarters, and suffered a variety of diseases that spread easily under the poor conditions. In order to alleviate the conditions, a plan to move the Acadians to the formerly-French, now-Spanish, colony of Louisiana was formed by the French politician Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere. Peyroux worked with French and Spanish officials to develop the resettlement project, and despite several setbacks and difficulties, about 1,600 Acadian exiles departed for Louisiana during the summer of 1785. The Acadians settled along rural areas alongside the Mississippi River, in the Atchafalaya Basin, and in the Prairie to the west. This area eventually became known Acadiana, and it was at this point that marked the beginning of Cajun culture as we know it.
The newly arrived Acadians more or less absorbed many rural communities in Louisiana that were comprised of non-Acadian French, Spanish, Irish, and German settlers, as well as Native Americans. Through a combination of intermarriage and pure proximity, the Acadians culture eventually spread throughout the region all while taking on aspects of the initial inhabitants' varied cultures. Eventually, the French term “Acadian” became shortened to “Cadien,” and then finally to “Cajun.” This absorption of many ethnic groups into the Acadian community means that today there are many Louisiana Cajuns who have no ancestral ties to the original group of French colonists in eastern Canada, and current Cajuns exhibit a wide variety of surnames.
Rise of the Creole Language
Despite the inclusion of a variety of ethnic groups and nationalities, the Cajun people continued to speak French almost exclusively. That being said, the Cajun French language did not escape the influences of the many ethnic groups of the area like other facets of Cajun culture. Cajun French is actually a mix of the French spoken by the Acadians with the Colonial French spoken by French settlers and soldiers prior to the arrival of the Acadians. The language also took on many words from African, Spanish, Native American, and English origins as it grew and developed into its own dialect in Louisiana.
In the early 20th century, the widespread use of Cajun French began to decline as the Louisiana state government required both public and private schools to force Cajun children to learn English, even going as far as to punish children for speaking French on school grounds and hiring teachers who could only speak English. This policy led to Cajun French becoming an endangered language, and it became common for grandparents to speak only French, parents to be fluent in both French and English, and children to only know English. In 1968 the Louisiana state government changed their tune, and established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, an agency that is charged with doing “anything possible and necessary to encourage the development, usage, and preservation of French as it exists in Louisiana.” This change of stance by the state has been critical to encouraging the preservation of a strong facet of Louisiana's character, and may prove to be enough to save Cajun French as a language.
The history of the Cajun people had an impact on many of the more visible aspects of their culture, and one of the clearest instances of this impact is in Cajun cuisine. When the Acadians arrived in Louisiana, almost everything they knew about agriculture and growing food was no longer relevant due to the vast difference in climates between Louisiana and eastern Canada. Very few of the ingredients necessary for their traditional dishes were available, so the Cajuns took inspiration from Creole and Native American cooking to develop their cuisine. Crops like wheat, barley and oats that were a fixture of Acadia were abandoned in favor of corn, cotton, sugar cane and rice, which became fixtures in Cajun cuisine. While some regions of Acadiana were well suited for livestock, many Acadians who settled in the wetlands of the Bayou had little dry land to farm. In response to this, they incorporating local vegetables like okra, mirlitons, onions, and pecans.
Another aspect of Cajun life that helped inspire their cuisine was their economic situation. Due to their long, hard ordeal, many Acadians were on the poorer end of the spectrum. This lack of resources led to Cajuns adopting a number of distinctive cooking techniques in order to maximize the amount of food available. Cajun cuisine often utilizes locally available ingredients, which is then prepared in fairly basic ways. This same economic drive also encouraged Cajuns to develop a strong tradition of hunting and fishing, which continues to this day. Cajun food often features wild game, from more common options like duck and boar to more exotic meats like alligator, frog, nutria, squirrel, and even snake. Cajun cooking also puts a large emphasis on seafood, especially shellfish like shrimp or crawfish. The cuisine also is known for featuring “trash fish” like gar, black drum, croaker and bream that do not sell well in markets due to high bone to meat ratios or complicated preparation methods.
The economic system that Cajun cooking grew out of also encouraged the culture to place an emphasis on wasting as little as possible. The Cajuns used a variety of methods for preserving meats, like smoking and salting as well as the more traditional French duck or turkey confit. To make a confit, the whole bird is cooked until tender for four to ten hours at a low heat, which renders out the fat. When done cooking, the meat and fat are removed from the oven and allowed to cool, before the meat is completely submerged in the fat and sealed in a jar. This method allowed Cajuns to preserve the duck or turkey for up to six months. The Cajun “waste-not” attitude is also a communal affair. Cajun culture is known for making food an event, inviting the whole neighborhood to partake in the party. Some of the more famous traditional events include the family boucherie and the cochon de lait which involve roasting a whole pig, and the crawfish boil, where crawfish are boiled along with potatoes, onions, and corn in a variety of spices.
Cajun culture also developed a number of traditions that continue on today, based primarily on the predominant Roman Catholic faith of the culture. Cajun communities celebrate and follow the traditional Catholic observances of Mardi Gras, Lent, and Holy Week. Mardi Gras in particular is celebrated in a way that is unique to the Cajuns, and their celebrations differ greatly from the more famous Creole-style Mardi Gras seen in New Orleans. While both Cajun and Creole Mardi Gras celebrations are held before the fasting period of Lent, Cajun Mardi Gras was historically held to use up all of the foods that would not be consumed during the 40 days of Lent. Mardi Gras in Cajun culture has a distinct rural flair, with the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday Run, taking the center stage of the festivities. During the Courir, a group of people on horseback and wearing capuchon hats and traditional costumes ride up to a farmhouse and ask for something to be added to the community pot of gumbo. The farmer then traditionally allows the riders to take a chicken, but only if they can catch it. The catching of the chicken is turned into a humorous affair, with songs, jokes, and skits, and when the chicken is finally caught, it is thrown into the pot at the end of the day.
Of course, not all Cajun festivals revolve around their Catholic faith. Cajuns are famous for their joie de vivre, or “joy of living” where having fun is just as important as working hard. This spirit of the Cajun culture is often manifested in celebrations and gatherings like barn raising, harvests, or other events that help out the community. Cajuns are also known for their festivals, which include traditional fais-do-do dances, or street dances with live local music that can draw up to 100,000 revelers at a time. These dances feature traditional Cajun style music that is usually played on the Cajun accordion, fiddle and triangle, and keeps a basic rhythm with staccato notes, and often features Cajun French lyrics. More modern Cajun music has been influenced heavily by rock, R&B, blues, soul, and Creole zydeco, but still maintains the rhythms of the traditional Cajun music.
Catholicism informs many other folk traditions of the Cajun culture. One of the more famous folk beliefs is the Cajun interpretation of the French werewolf, known as the rougarou or loup garou. The rougarou legend is a common folk tale that is told throughout French Louisiana, and is described as a beast with the head of a wolf and the body of a human. The story is often told to encourage children to behave, with common variations that say the beast will prey upon Catholics who do not follow Lenten customs, or that you'll be transformed into the rougarou if you break Lent seven years in a row. Others say that the rougarou only attacks evil men and women, as well as horses that don't behave. Cajuns also practice the folk custom of the traiteur, or healer, which combines Catholic prayer and folk medicine to treat a wide range of sicknesses.
Today, Cajun culture has certainly been modernized, and the cultural gap between Acadiana and the rest of the country has become considerably narrow. Most Cajuns these days speak primarily English, although efforts are being made to preserve the use of French, and descendants of the original Acadian families have spread out all over the country. Many Cajuns were able to strike it rich with the oil and gas industry, and average wage of Cajuns has risen considerably.
Despite these changes, Cajuns remain distinctly Cajun. A substantial number of families continue to live very similar lifestyles to the original families, speaking French, harvesting food gardens and nearby farms, hunting and fishing. Many other families have almost completely assimilated into the typical American life, and the culture has only really been preserved in the kitchen, with Cajun cooking recipes and principles being passed down from generation to generation, and serving as reminders of the family's roots.
The exchange between Cajun and American culture not only brought the American way of life to the Cajuns, but introduced the Cajun way of life to the rest of America. Today, you can find “Cajun” style food throughout the country, for better or for worse. Furthermore, the overall approach to Cajun culture has shifted from that of derision to a more curious and celebratory outlook that seeks to learn about and preserve this unique facet of the American landscape. However, many Americans still do not know much about Cajuns, their way of life, or their history, and a lot of misconceptions continue to exist.
Misconceptions; Cajun vs Creole
One of the largest misconceptions that Americans outside of Louisiana commonly believe is that Cajun and Creole cultures are similar, and even interchangeable. This belief is unequivocally wrong, but you'll often find tourists in the French Quarter of New Orleans looking for Cajun restaurants or Cajun cultural experiences. Many people from across the country would be surprised to find out that New Orleans isn't actually Cajun at all, but is rather the epicenter of the Creole culture. While both cultures can trace their ancestry back to France, the two cultures each took wildly different paths to establish themselves.
The simplest way to understand the differences between Cajuns and Creoles is that the Cajuns are a product of living in the countryside, and the Creoles are a product of living in the city of New Orleans.
Cajuns made their life by scratching out a new existence after years of persecution and tragedy in a rural setting that was in many ways completely alien to anything they had ever experienced. Creoles on the other hand are descended from the French colonial settlers of Louisiana. These colonists often lived a cosmopolitan life, and many found themselves great success in New Orleans. Creole culture was increasingly characterized by the inclusion of free people of color, African slaves, and Native Americans into the society, often through marriage. As time went on, new peoples from Spain and various Caribbean colonial settles settled in New Orleans as well, adding to the mixing bowl a wide variety of new customs, words, and most of all, foods. Each of these different cultures' customs added another layer of depth to Creole society, making it one of the more multicultural ethnicities in the world, but it was a world away from the Cajuns that lived in the Bayous and prairies outside the city limits.
Cajun culture may not be as foreign as it once was, but it is still one of the more unique parts of America. Even if you think you know the history, customs, and traditions of the Cajun people back and forth, Cajun culture is something that really needs to be experienced firsthand for you to be able to understand. Many Louisianans firmly hold to the idea that the only place you can experience the true nuances of Cajun food is in the Pelican State itself. If you plan on visiting, you have to make sure to experience both the Creole culture of New Orleans as well as the Cajun culture of the country in order to get the full Louisiana experience. It will be an experience you won't likely forget.
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