I intended this to be a 2-part series, but after I began answering questions, I saw the need for three parts. Today is a history and culture lesson. On Wednesday, a lexicon of Louisiana and Cajun French phrases and words.
A Louisiana Q& A
Who are Acadians? French Catholic colonists who settled along the Bay of Fundy in the early 1600s. The area was called “Acadie” (French) or “Acadia” (English) and is now Nova Scotia. The Acadians were expelled from the colony circa 1755 in Le Grand Derangement (the Great Expulsion). The deportment was ordered by English Governor Charles Lawrence. To Acadian descendants, Governor Lawrence is held in the same contempt at William Tecumseh Sherman is held by the people of Atlanta. In 2005, Queen Elizabeth II sent a formal letter of apology to the Acadians’ descendants, many of whom resettled in south Louisiana.
What is a Cajun? Cajun is a colloquial term for Louisiana’s Acadians.
Family names from the colony of Acadie include Arsenault, Aucoin, Bernard, Blanchard, Blaquiere, Bourque, Buote, Cheverie, Chiasson, Cormier, Daigle, DesRoches, Doiron, Doucet, Downing, Gallant, Gaudet. Gautheir, Gautrea, Landry, LeBrun, LeClair, Longuepee, Martin, Pineau,Pitre, Poirier, Richard, Roussel
What is the story behind Evangeline, the beloved poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Longfellow’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, told him a story about the Acadians one night at dinner. Longfellow was moved to write about it and so were born the luckless Evangeline and her beloved, Gabriel. However, he never visited Acadie and most of his facts are wrong. Some people believe the inspiration for Evangeline was a real woman named Emmeline Labiche and her real beau was Louis Arceneaux. This remains a hot topic for debate. When “Evangeline” was published, it was a sensation. People stopped Longfellow on the street to praise him. He was a rock star among poets.
Who are Creoles? Creoles are people who emigrated to Louisiana. During the colonial people, these immigrants were of European descent. The term creole differentiated someone born in their home country (Spain, France) from someone born in Louisiana. Because its colonial period include such a broad mix of emigrants, one of Louisiana’s nicknames is the Creole State. Slaves who were born in Africa or the Caribbean are considered Creole because they came to Louisiana, albeit unwillingly, but were not native born. Today, many Creole Louisianians retain strong tied to their ancestral cultures.
What about native Louisianians? Native American tribes include Sabines, Choctaws, Houmas, Caddo, Natchez, Point-au-Chien, Tunica.
What was the Louisiana Purchase? Thomas Jefferson gets credit for purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte brokered the deal. The asking price was $18 million. It was easily the largest land acquisition purchase in American history, and an excellent bargain. At that time, Louisiana had changed hands so many times between France and Spain, folks thought being “American” was just another passing phase.
What is the primary religious affiliation in Louisiana? Roman Catholicism. Two famous churches are St. Martin de Tours in St. Martinville, which is the home parish for the Acadians. In Jackson Square in New Orleans, the St. Louis Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is a popular tourist attraction.
What is Mardi Gras? Fat Tuesday is the last and biggest day of Carnival season, which ends at midnight before Ash Wednesday. The parades in New Orleans are organized by social clubs called krewes. The famous parades like Endymion, Rex, Bacchus, Zulu, are big and bad, but countless smaller communities have their own parades in the two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday. The local parades are generally family friendly, but a few communities have more daring traditions with riders on horseback playing pranks. Drinking may or may not be involved. Food is always involved. So is costuming. I used to dress up as a princess to attend Mardi Gras parades. My grandmother (Grom Tit—see Wednesday’s language lesson for an explanation) had a cow costume. Everyone knew my grandmother, and that she always wore a cow costume, so we caught a lot of beads and throws.
What is a prayer corner? A corner in a home where a person kneels and prays. There may be a kneeler, candles, a shelf with statues or images of Jesus (usually with the Sacre Couer/Sacred Heart), Mother Mary or a favored patron saint, prayer cards, a rosary blessed by the priest. In Louisiana, a decade means a section of the rosary, not 10 years on the calendar.
Why is there a cross with Jesus over the doorway in a home? It is a tradition for a new home to be blessed by a priest by saying a prayer and sprinkling holy water, and a cross that has been blessed is hung over the doorway.
What good luck charm hangs from the rear view mirror in a car? A Saint Christopher Medal.
Why are statues of Mary, Mother of Jesus in the front yard under a brick arch? Mary, Mother of Jesus, is much beloved by Cajuns. A statue of Mary is usually painted blue or white/blue and put in the front yard as show of devotion. An arch of bricks protects Mother Mary from the elements.
Why does it smell like bread up and down the bayou on Friday? Friday is traditionally the day for baking bread. When I was a child, devoted church women brought hot bread to the priest. (By “devoted church women” I’m talking about my grandmother, of course.)
Is voodoo evil? There is black voodoo and white voodoo. If you have a voodoo doll, a pin with a black head will bring bad luck. A white headed pin means good luck. A spell or charm is called a gris-gris. “Don’t put a gris-gris on me” came long before “Don’t Tase me, bro” but means the same thing, sort of.
Does the RC church approve of voodoo? Not officially. Unofficially, most priests look the other way unless a beheaded black chicken appears on their front porch as a warning. Then they call the cops like any normal person would.
What is a traiteur? A traiteur is a traditional healer. Healers use herbs and tonics and other homeopathic remedies. They also use the power of the mind for healing. If a woman has a migraine, a traiteure might massage her head while reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Does the migraine fade because of the massage or the prayers? A traiteur would say it’s both.*
What are some random facts to know?
~ The state bird is the brown pelican, hence Louisiana’s official nickname as “the Pelican State.” It’s also known as the Creole State and Sportsman’s Paradise. Other creatures of note are alligators, herons, egrets, tree frogs.
~ “You Are My Sunshine” is the popular state song. It was written and recorded by Jimmie Davis in 1939. Jimmie Davis became Governor. There is a Sunshine Bridge in Napoleonville named after the song.
~ Le Petit Paris is a nickname for St. Martinville. After the French Revolution, aristocrats fleeing the guillotine emigrated to south Louisiana. The small Cajun towns were gentrified by the aristos and “le petit Paris” became a hub for the displaced French families.
~ The state musical instrument is the accordion. People go to dance halls for a fais do do (a dance—literally, “make dance”) and listen to accordion music.
~ The state dog is the Catahoula cur, which is an ugly creature but a great hunter.
~ The colors green, gold, and purple are associated with Mardi Gras.
~ The state’s symbol is the fleur de lis, which reflects the French heritage.
~ A “boil” is a seafood boil, either crabs, shrimp, or crawfish. Into the boil pot might also go corn on the cob, red potatoes, onions, sausage, and hot dogs. A crawfish is a crawfish, not a crayfish. I don’t know what the hell a crawdad might be.
Here’s a very simple dip recipe for a boil of any kind:
Ketchup + Mayonnaise + Garlic powder + Onion powder + Worchestershire sauce.
Add Cajun seasoning—Tony Chachere’s if you have it, Old Bay if you must, generic if you are desperate. Add Tabasco if you want a l’il kick.
The dip should be pink. That’s the only measurement. Good luck!
*I wrote a flash fiction story called “Traiteurs” which was published in 10KToBI.
Coming on Wednesday: A Louisiana Lexicon.