Down On the Bayou
A Brief History of the Cajun People & Cajun Culture
Though it remains the common shorthand history, it’s not exactly accurate or complete to simply say that the Cajuns came from Acadia in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The truth is a bit murkier and harder to pin down.
What we do know is that in the early to mid-1,600s several hundred French immigrants settled in Acadia, a portion of the Canadian Maritime provinces near Fort Ann (later renamed Fort Royal by the British). These hard-working settlers banded together to break ground and stake their claim. But in the early 1,700s control of their land was transferred from the French to the British. Despite this shift in governance, the Acadians continued to live in reasonable peace and harmony for roughly four decades. Then, in 1755, the Acadians were forced off the land they’d toiled so hard to make their own. They had refused to swear allegiance to their British masters. Their refusal was based on both religious grounds, and on their unwillingness to fight for the British in the French and Indian War.
Forced out of the Maritime Provinces (as part of “Le Grand Dérangement”), the Acadians weren’t “banished” to the United States Gulf Coast as many believe. But the fact that other French settlers had already established a presence down south certainly made it an attractive choice for their new home. And, so it was that thousands (by some accounts as many as 70,000) of Acadian immigrants made their way to a kind of French promised land known as Louisiana.
It’s important to realize that by the time the Acadians left their home in Canadian Maritimes, they were no longer simply the descendants of French settlers. The ranks of the Acadian settlers who relocated to Louisiana included families who had intermarried with Native American and First Nations peoples (such as the Mi’kmaq and Madawaska), English, Irish, Scottish, and other settlers. While there is always some conflict on the front lines of cultural assimilation, the various peoples who had banded together as Acadians were united by their common needs in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Now they were further united by their need to resettle and start anew in an equally temperamental landscape.
This sense of community served the Acadians well in their early days along the Gulf Coast, and remains the glue that binds the Cajun community to this day. The people who became known as the Cajuns by and large learned to live off the land, sharing communal one-pot meals that consisted of seafood, game, and an abundant local shellfish known today as the crawfish. Over the next few generations, Cajuns intermarried with Creoles (whose Spanish influence taught them about paella, which later became jambalaya), German settlers (who taught them how to make sausage, which led to boudin, andouille, and other marvels of bayou charcuterie) as well as other immigrant populations. So it's safe to say that food and community are deeply rooted, and closely tied to the Cajun sense of identity.
As the Cajuns made their way into the land of Louisiana, it’s hard not to think that their maritime skills served them well on the creeks, bayous, and waterways of the Gulf Coast. Predictably, they made the bayous their own. Living in cabins and on modest floating homes known as shantyboats, Cajuns learned to manage the land along the waterways, and found ways to subsist off of the land. To this day, Cajun culture and lifestyle are closely tied to the land and watercourses of the Gulf Coast. As a result, Cajun foodways have long been a largely subsistence diet consisting of local game, easily grown local vegetables and spices, and local seafood.
Living off the fat of the land will only get you so far, and cooks along the bayou soon found themselves looking for ways to stretch their larder. In low, wet country rice is a common and easily grown staple. Thus it was inevitable that rice would find its way into the Cajun diet. Today it’s in jambalaya, Crawfish Étouffée, and is a ubiquitous filler in even top shelf boudin.
For visitors to the Gulf Coast, the only thing better than a big Cajun meal and a cold Abita beer is a night of good Cajun music.
As with everything on the bayou, Cajun music has a complex lineage of French, English, Irish, German, Scottish, Creole, and native influences. Because communal events (and the attendant dancing) are key components in the Cajun way of life, Cajun music is often up-tempo and danceable. Common instruments include, accordions, fiddles, and the harmonica. According to the folks at the Lafayette Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Acadians who first arrived in Louisiana brought few if any instruments with them. But they knew how to make music, and turned their innate resourcefulness toward making music with common household objects. Proof of this is found onstage, as many Cajun ensembles include washboards/spoons, and the triangle.
Cajun Mardi Gras
If, as we know it is, Mardi Gras is a deeply community-based and culturally specific event, then it should come as no surprise that Mardi Gras in “Cajun country”, and in Cajun communities across the Gulf Coast, reflects the local Cajun influence. The music will be Cajun in nature (accordions, washboards, fiddles, and the like). And the food will be Cajun, and less Creole-based than in other areas.
But because each Cajun enclave is a single bite of a larger dish, it’s almost impossible to say what “Cajun Mardi Gras” is. It’s better to think of it as a town (or county) specific experience. And better yet, it’s best if you just go and experience it. Try the boudin, eat the crawfish, catch some beads off the gator float, and simply have a good time.
Today, Cajun communities in Louisiana, and across the Gulf Coast, thrive, as they always have, on hard work, family unity, and pride in the food, arts, and music that make up their cultural history. For this reason, If you have the opportunity to travel through this part of the country and take the time to sit down for a meal, or kick up your heels at a dance or music festival, you’re sure to leave with pleasant memories of the diverse, complex, and uniquely American Cajun culture.
Sources (and External Links)
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research which led us to the following sources of information: