You may have had a chance to visit one of those restaurants or clubs in which the owner proudly displays photos or cartoons on the wall, depicting the famous people who’ve preceded you there. Usually they’re autographed by the celeb, or sometimes just the signatures and a little message are scrawled there.
Well, I’ll have you know that MY name appears on the wall of one establishment. It’s not a swanky steak joint or some $15-a-drink bar. It’s a dark, remote, and somewhat garish little roadhouse, closer to a swamp than to civilization.
I was pleased and proud that the proprietors of Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, asked me to write, “Ted Landphair, Voice of America” for all to see. That’s because, along with its catfish and alligator just pulled out of the nearby Atatchafalaya Swamp — and then breaded and fried and served with hush puppies and a bottle of red-hot pepper sauce — that old Cajun honky-tonk serves up something that money can’t buy: Acadian joie de vivre.
Breaux Bridge and its generally soggy surroundings are home to trappers, fishermen, rice and sugar-cane farmers, oilfield workers, and families who raise crawfish — a tiny but tasty freshwater crustacean. This is “Cajun Country,” named for French-speaking Acadian people who were driven out of eastern Canada by the British governor in 1755 during the French and Indian War.
Thousands of Acadian exiles migrated all the way to swampy Southwest Louisiana, where they could hunt and fish in peace. And many Cajuns still keep to themselves — close to the old folks who’ve never made peace with the English language and English ways. Close, too, to the Gulf of Mexico, where their shrimp and fishing boats are starting to sail again now that the massive oil spill triggered by the April 20th explosion of the BP-licensed Deepwater Horizon rig has been largely stanched.
The 22 (of Louisiana’s 64) parishes, or counties, that informally make up Cajun Country are just regaining an economic pulse after deadly blows. Literal blows, from two hurricanes. Not the infamous Katrina that nearly wiped out New Orleans and much of the Mississippi coast in 2005. That storm just brushed Acadiana. But Rita cut its own swath through Southwest Louisiana less than a month later. Then Hurricane Ike leveled many a home and store there in 2008.
This September, the Associated Press reported from the heart of Cajun Country that the little town of Cameron had three grocery stores before Rita. “But it has none today. The drug store is gone. So are one of two banks and one of two gas stations. The town’s post office and a restaurant operate out of trailers. Many residents are still living in mobile homes. The town has seen its population shrink from roughly 1,500 to 280 since Rita.”
As recently as 35 years ago, Cajun Country was even more desolate — cut off by wetlands from big-city Houston to the west and New Orleans to the east. To find Breaux Bridge, you really had to want to go there. And people did. Even then, when only a twisting, two-lane highway reached this “wide spot in the road,” people from Texas, Mississippi, as well as Louisiana made a point of going there every evening for the music and spicy food.
But ever since a high-speed, coast-to-coast interstate highway was completed across a causeway over the Atatchafalaya Basin in the late 1970s, hurricanes are about the only thing that keeps busloads of tourists away. They explore the bayous, get a close-up look at alligators — which the guides know, or pretend to know, well enough to call by name — and learn about Acadian culture. They go hear Cajun music, eat crawfish and ’gator stew, and try dancing in the happy-go-lucky fashion of the Acadian people.
At Mulate’s — pronounced MULE-otts — Carol and I took a turn or two around the floor, to the tune of a Cajun street dance called the Fais do do. But we had the most fun simply watching old men and women twirl about the floor with young grandchildren while laughing and having a good time.
I don’t speak a word of French, but I did that night. Three words, while listening to the lively band play the accordion, fiddle, and washboard: Joie de vivre!
That’s not to say that life in Acadiana is all mirthful dancing and singing and peeling boiled crawfish. Far from it. Life is hard in Louisiana’s back country. Even the most famous Cajun song of all — “Jolie Blonde,” vintage 1929 — is a tearjerker. The English translation doesn’t come close to capturing the pathos:
Pretty blonde, look at what you’ve done,
You left me to go away,
to go away with another, yes, than me,
What hope and what future am I going to have?
Still, many Cajuns who were once mostly solitary and suspicious of outsiders have come to enjoy visits by curious strangers. They haven’t had a lot of choice. To survive, they’ve embraced tourism as an income source. Many make a decent living giving tours of the eerie cypress swamps, in which stumps of trees that were once wantonly harvested for shipment to Europe remain as underwater obstacles.
Carol and I ventured into those swamps, too. It’s easy to get lost in this primordial, misty, mysterious place. One can only imagine how scary it would be at night, with owls hooting, water snakes sliding past in the dark, the moon passing behind the silhouettes of trees, and spooky stories about voodoo rituals seeming all too real. I say “imagine” how it would be, because we sure didn’t stick around to check it out.
Though I lived five wonderful years in New Orleans, and Carol and I have enjoyed two or three Mardi Gras festivals in “The Big Easy” since, we’ve yet to experience Mardi Gras — French for “Fat Tuesday” — or the rest of pre-Lenten Carnival season in French-speaking Southwest Louisiana.
From what Karen Collins, the fiddler for the Cajun band “Squeeze Bayou,” told me, Carnival in Acadiana gives the average crawfisherman, rice farmer, or housewife — rather than some big-shot celebrity or business leader — a chance to be king or queen for a day. Families ride old wagons door-to-door, gossiping and gathering ingredients for Mardi Gras gumbo stew.
“The people dress up in costumes, and they go around and beg for chickens and stuff to put into the gumbo,” Karen told me. “At the end of the route, they make a big gumbo for the whole community to eat. And they have king cake to go along with it.” King cake is an oval-shaped sweet pastry, often filled with cream cheese and doused in sugar colored the yellow, green, and purple hues of Carnival.
In a tradition brought from France, a trinket — often a little plastic baby — is baked into the cake. Long ago, finding the trinket in your slice meant that you would host the next Carnival meal; nowadays, it means that the finder buys the next cake.
King cake is commoner fare, of course, as is most Cajun food. It’s true that Paul Prudhomme and other famous “Cajun chefs” from Acadiana opened restaurants in New Orleans, and their highly seasoned — often blackened — dishes became world-famous.
But true New Orleans dishes are saucier and subtler — more aristocratic. Real Cajun food is heavily seasoned, though “red hot” only if the diner makes it so by adding fiery pepper sauce. Cajun gumbos and jambalaya and etouffees — and simple red beans and rice — are created in big, black, cast-iron pots. Most start with the three humble ingredients that make up the “Cajun trinity”: onions, bell peppers, and celery. What else you t’row in the pot is up to you. I suggest a shrimp, crawfish, smoked sausage, some alligator if you can find it — and a generous splash of imagination.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Bayou. A sluggish stream feeding or fed by nearby swamps, particularly in U.S. Gulf Coast states.
Etouffee. An Acadian-French dish featuring seasoned shellfish or chicken over a bed of rice. The term comes from the French word for “smothered.”
Garish. Flashy, gaudy, loaded with ornamentation.
Jambalaya. A spicy mélange of chicken, sausage, shellfish, peppers, onions, celery, rice — and sometimes, in Louisiana “Cajun Country,” alligator.
Joie de vivre. The carefree enjoyment of life.
Primordial. Aboriginal, existing from prehistoric times.