My favorite part of Louisiana is a place I have visited only by listening to its music, Cajun Country. Southwestern Louisiana is a sort of country cousin to New Orleans. It is inhabited by a mixture of Cajuns (French Acadians who were expelled from British Canada in the mid-18th century and who became peasant farmers in the South) and the descendents of Black Creoles. Their culture and music are a remarkable blend of French, American, African, Native American, and Island influences. Most of the Cajuns speak English, but a number of residents, particularly older ones, speak French dialects as well.
My main contact with this area is a radio program called Le Rendez Vous des Cajuns, staged weekly in Eunice, Louisiana. The program is hosted by Barry Jean Ancelet, a professor at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette). It airs partly in English but mostly in Cajun French. It showcases the two major music styles of the area, Cajun and Zydeco (an outgrowth of Black Creole music).
Ancelet grew up speaking French at home and has raised his five children in French. He explained in the introduction to the book Cajun Music and Zydeco by photographer Philip Gould (1992, LSU Press) that he only discovered the music of his region while studying in France. A non-Cajun musician who played “la musique de la Louisiane” in Nice counseled the young Barry Ancelet to go home and talk to Dewey Balfa, a legendary Cajun fiddler. Ancelet took the musician’s advice and has been involved in promoting Cajun and Zydeco music ever since.
The Rendez Vous began in 1987. It is part of a revival of French language and culture in southern Louisiana outlined by Barry Ancelet in two journal articles, “Negotiating the Mainstream: The Creoles and Cajuns in Louisiana” in The French Review (Volume 80, number 6, 2007) “Cultural Tourism in Cajun Country: Shotgun Wedding or Marriage Made in Heaven” (Southern Folklore, Volume 49, number 3, 1992).
The struggle of French speakers in Louisiana mirrors a larger debate about what it has meant to be an American. In the early 1900s and particularly beginning around World War I Louisiana and the nation as a whole experienced a wave of nationalism that tried to force all Americans into a single mold, to define what it meant to be an American by sameness. As my grandmother used to say, if we were all the same, we’d all wear the same hat—and wouldn’t that be boring? Or as Ancelet wrote more forcefully in The French Review, Teddy Roosevelt (one of the leaders of the “one America movement”) and his ilk do “not seem to have understood that people from all over the world came here to America to participate in a new experiment based in part on allegiance by choice.”
French-speaking children Louisiana schools were not only taught in English but forbidden by law to speak French anywhere on school grounds. Over the decades this bilingual culture started losing a great deal of its identity.
Beginning after World War II and most strongly since the late 1960s southern Louisiana has seen a revival of popular and official interest in French culture and in the music and folk practices that gave much of this colorful area its personality.
According to Barry Ancelet, when the Rendez Vous des Cajuns was first planned no one was sure whether the program would be in French or in English. “Ultimately it was done in French because I was the host and I did what I wanted to do once the microphone was turned on,” he recalled in Southern Folklore. “It might not have worked, but it did.”
All was not settled on the first night, he went on to explain, particularly since the program received funds from the National Park Service. “At a meeting held specifically to address [the language] question, one Park official commented that the program’s federal funding required that it communicate to Americans. Cajun musician and cultural spokesman Dewey Balfa retorted, ‘But we are Americans. In fact, this two-hour show every Saturday night is one of the only indications I have that the money I turn over to Uncle Sam every April 15th is coming back to me in anything but interstate highways.’”
Eventually, the question of language for the Rendez Vous was settled resoundingly in favor of French, although no one is a purist, and English is smattered throughout the broadcasts. The music played is in some ways new to northern listeners and in other ways familiar because of its multicultural and folk roots. Listening to it is like being invited into a new neighbor’s living room and being enchanted to find that you have a lot in common with each other—but also a lot to learn from each other.
With Mardi Gras just around the corner I wrote to Barry Jean Ancelet to ask whether he by any chance cooked. He certainly does! In fact, he boasted that he won his wife with his Shrimp Creole. For Mardi Gras he shared his mother Maude Ancelet’s recipe for Mardi Gras Gumbo—as well as the following story:
We make large quantities of this recipe (x10) for those who gather together to eat after our traditional Ossun Mardi Gras Run, a procession of revelers in masks and brightly-colored costumes that winds its way through the rural neighborhood visiting, singing, dancing, and collecting the ingredients for the gumbo. Some households contribute rice, onions, parsley or sausage, but ideally the offering is a live chicken that the revelers are expected to catch in the open fields. This is not easy to do, and the hilarity resulting from grownups and children alike running through ditches, over barbed-wire fences and under barns is part of what the households receive in return for their generous gifts. The procession is typically about 12 to 14 miles long with 15 to 20 performances. By the end of the day, the revelers have developed a mighty appetite and are eager to eat the fruits of their labor.
I wouldn’t want to try replicating the Ossun, Louisiana, Run in Hawley, Massachusetts, where the snow would definitely cramp the style of revelers. I love the way in which food, music, terrain, and celebration mingle in this story, however, and I think anyone who lives in the country can identify with the community spirit behind the Ossun Run.
I encourage readers to explore the world of Cajun and Zydeco music for themselves. Listen to the Rendez Vous des Cajuns live via the internet one Saturday on KVRS-FM. Buy a CD of Dewey Balfa, Iri Lejeune, Clifton Chenier, or any one of the other wonderful musicians Cajun Country has spawned. An LSU website devoted to Cajun and Zydeco music is a good place to start looking.
YouTube has many clips of these musicians. It also offers an authorized clip of the film Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras by Pat Mire, which depicts a Mardi Gras Run—as well as link to the site on which you can view the entire film.
While you’re listening to your music OF COURSE you’ll need something to eat. Here is Maude Ancelet’s gumbo recipe to get you dancing.
Maude Ancelet’s Mardi Gras Chicken & Sausage Gumbo
3 onions, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup oil
1-3/4 cups flour
1 gallon warm water
1 4-to-5-pound fryer, cut up (Ancelet notes that an old hen makes a good gumbo but takes 1 to 2 hours longer to cook!)
1-1/2 pounds fresh pork sausage
4 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons red pepper (Cayenne)
black pepper to taste
green onion tops, chopped
parsley to taste, chopped
First, make a roux using 1/2 cup each of the onion and bell pepper, 1 stalk of celery, and 2 cloves of garlic along with the oil and flour. (Save the remaining vegetables for later.)
According to Barry Ancelet the roux is the most important part of the gumbo. I have used a lot of his words in the instructions that follow because they reflect his passion for the cooking process. This basic roux recipe can be used for stews and sauces piquantes as well as gumbo. If you want more roux flavor in your gumbo, you may increase the amount of roux, but be sure to observe the same proportions: always start with more flour than oil.
Set the roux vegetables in a bowl by the stove. They need to be ready to throw into the pot to “stop” the cooking at the crucial moment.
Heat the oil in a heavy pot. When the oil is very hot, add the flour. Keep the fire on medium. Constant stirring is a must. Don’t answer the door if there’s a knock. Don’t answer the phone if there’s a ring. A roux needs your undivided attention. Your eyes should be riveted to the inside of the pot the whole time.
About halfway through the cooking process the roux will become more liquid, but it will thicken again to paste consistency as it nears completion. Making a roux shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes. Remember, stick with your stirring spoon. It’s easy to burn a roux but just as easy to succeed with diligence and patience. As you become experienced, you will find that you can cook with a fairly high fire, but at first it is safer to reduce the heat until you get a feel for what is called “stopping the roux.” This involves recognizing the desired color (a rich brown for gumbos, a golden brown for sauces); adding the chopped onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic; and removing the pot from the fire, still stirring all the while. The heat of the roux cooks these ingredients and gives the roux a seasoned taste.
After you have added the vegetables and removed the pot from the heat, you are ready to continue with your gumbo.
(Unused roux can be stored in the refrigerator for at least 2 months. Barry Ancelet cautions readers to be careful to remember what it is, adding that children who mistake roux for chocolate are in for a disappointing experience.)
Slowly add the gallon of warm water, stirring. Return the pot to the heat and bring it to a boil. Lower the fire and let the mixture simmer for 15 minutes. While it is simmering, in a heavy skillet brown the pork sausage well. Remove the sausage, and cut it into bite-size pieces. Add it to the gumbo. Drain the grease from the frying pan, and add about a cup of water to get up the residue from the sausage. Add this to the gumbo for flavor. Add the remaining vegetables and the chicken, plus the salt and the pepper(s). Let simmer for 35 to 40 minutes. Add the chopped onion tops and parsley. Make the gumbo ahead of time so the flavors can steep. Serve over hot rice.