ON THE BAYOU: CAJUN TRADITION, FLAVOR IN SOUTHERN LOUISIANA (2024)

Swamp water's in no hurry to get anywhere. It dawdles. It shifts lazily around the knobby roots of bald cypress trees and wanders slowly under the hanging Spanish moss. It oozes along with deliberate care, poking into every indentation along the bank. No rushing currents or white-water rapids here, but rather a sedate and sleepy pace.

Alligators, which can find no finer occupation than lying on a log soaking up the sun, like this kind of water. So do water moccasins, which can slither along its fringes in silence. So, too, do a variety of birds and animals and plants that have found that the slow and easy environment suits their needs just fine.This flora and fauna combine with the unhurried movement of the water to give the swamp an aura of timelessness. You get the feeling that the pace of change matches the speed of the water, that things are done here much the way they were a generation or so ago.

So it is on Bayou Segnette, a state park in southern Louisiana, located across the Mississippi, about a half-hour from New Orleans. The park features cabins where overnight visitors can stay. In addition, swamps and marshes of the surrounding area afford an interesting look at life on the bayou. (A number of companies offer swamp tours here.)

This is at the edge of Cajun country, an area that stretches across southwest Louisiana from New Orleans to Lake Charles. Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Delta are considered the heart of Cajun country, but the influence of the culture can be felt throughout the territory.

Much of the lifestyle is defined by the 25,000 to 30,000 miles of bayous in the area. At one time, these shallow waterways and swampy surroundings were considered worth-less.

The Cajun story begins in Nova Scotia, Canada. A group of French non-conformists settled here in Acadia, as it was then known in the early 1600s.

A century later when the territory became English, tensions began. The English were nervous about the French settlements and demanded they swear allegiance to the British Crown. The French Canadians refused.

In 1755, the English sent soldiers and ships to round up some 7,000 Acadians and deport them. In what came to be known as "The Grand Derangement" or "The Great Displacement," the Acadians, as poet Longfellow said, "were scattered like snowflakes."

A number were killed; the rest were deposited at ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They were not warmly welcomed anywhere. Many became indentured servants, some returned to France, others went back to Acadia and were expelled again.

Finally, the Spanish authorities in Louisiana, looking for hard-working settlers to give them a stronger foothold in their New World territories, invited the Acadians to take the swamps and marshes. Between 1769 and 1785 some 5,000 Acadians moved there. And it was there that the Acadian name was shortened to Cajun.

The Cajuns lived in isolation in the bayou. They continued to speak their 17th-century French and practice their Catholic religion. Even after the area was ceded to France and sold to the United States, they retained their distinctive culture, mostly making a living by hunting and trapping in the back country.

Today more than half-a-million Cajuns live in Louisiana. Though only 10 percent still earn their livelihood by hunting, fishing and trapping (an alligator permit is still issued for every 200 acres the Cajun owns), some 45 percent still speak Cajun French.

Their isolation came to an end to a large degree in the 1920s and '30s, when oil and gas were discovered in the bayous. Tourism, too, has brought in more visitors. But in many ways life has changed little.

Harold Savoie, Cajun storyteller/boat captain/guide grew up in bayous around Westwego (named, they say, because of the people who got off where the railroad ended at the Mississippi and announced "west-we-go"). "I'm glad my mama had a little Cajun boy," he says with a friendly grin. "It was beautiful growing up here."

To the uninitiated, the bayous may all look the same, and it would be easy to get lost in the narrow channels. No problem for Savoie. "I learned the bayous as a kid - I had a boat before I ever had a bicycle."

Savoie was 17 before he ever left the bayou - for a stint in the army. But he didn't stay away long. This is home. "It hasn't changed so much," he says. "You can still live off the bayou almost. It's nice, peaceful, quiet here."

You can see some evidence of the oil industry. Shrimp boats also cluster in the village at the head of Bayou Segnette, evidence of another form of income. But life on the bayou is hardly all-work, no-play.

Fishing is one of the most popular pleasures - a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

So is nature watching. Alligators, snakes, turtles, nutria, otters, herons, ibis, hawks and migratory waterfowl are common inhabitants. Moss-draped cypress trees, red-leaf maples, water hyacinths, water lilies and other plants abound.

And in the spring, when the swamp blooms and the yellow and white blossoms mix with the varying shades of green, it is a lovely sight, indeed.

*****

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Life and energy characterize Cajun culture

Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo . . .

If there is one word to describe Cajun culture, it is probably spicy. Not the hot-pepper spice you find south of the border, but an energetic, sassy, sit-up-and-take-notice kind of spice that gives life an ebullient flavor. It's true of the food, it's true of the music, and it's true of the storytelling.

Cajun food has become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason. As one chef says, "To us, food is not only on the plate; it is also in the heart. Cajun cuisine is more on the order of an art form, rather than mere food." Cajun specialties include such things as gumbo (a thick, robust soup that comes in a thousand variations), jambalaya (a kitchen sink kind of dish that features tomatoes, rice, ham, shrimp, chicken, celery, onions and anything else handy), file (pronounced fee-lay, it is a seasoning made of ground sassafras leaves), red beans and rice, blackened crawfish and boudin (hot, spicy pork mixed with onions, cooked rice, herbs and stuffed in sausage casing).

Cajun music is equally lively, featuring the sounds of small accordions, fiddles and sometimes a steel washboard. Doug Kershaw (seen on the Super Bowl half-time show in January), Jimmy C. Newman and Jo-El Sonnier are among the well-known performers. "These guys jump around so much," said one wag, "they wear their pants out from the inside."

When it comes to storytelling, few can surpass some of the Cajuns. Among them is humorist Justin (or Joo-stain, as he is known by his cronies) Wilson, who gives classic Mother Goose a definite Cajun twist:

Little Mary Plump

Sat on a stump

Eating her sausage and rice.

Along came a gator,

Who promised to ate her,

And frightened Mary Plump away, Yeah!

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Dose Cajuns' dialect is chick a block wit humor

The Cajun dialect is considered one of the most unusual and interesting ethnic dialects existing in America. One of unique facets is the innate, built-in humor that is readily detectable when and where Cajuns get together. Here's a sample, taken from the "Cajun Dictionary ," by James M. Sothern:

all patch: an oil field, as in "My son got a job on the all patch,"

alma dillon: aramadillo (also called elmer davis and ammarillo, depending on what bayou you're on). "Der's no more turtles, de alma dillons dig up all de ags."

bad: a piece of furniture used for sleeping. "He's sick in de bad."

ban: Cajun pronunciation of the French bien, meaning well, IK, all right. Usually used together with the English as an affirmative reply. "OK, ban, all, right, see you later."

bye: bayou. "Get out dat pirogue, you gonna drown in dat bye!"

cane: cannot. "Ah cane go to do dance."

cher pacan: a versatile exclamation used to evoke ridicule, doubt or amazement. "Cher pacan! You saw how she was dress--high heel shoe and pink sock!"

chock a block: very abundant, packed. "De lake is chock a block wit duck."

crease-moose: Christmas. What Santa Clause brought your for crease-moose.

View Comments

d: always used in the place of th--dem people, de car, dose apples, etc. "All dough dis is your boat, dat is my motor."

fay dodo: dance or party. "De last time we went to a fay do do, Harry play de music."

fee folay: a mysterious object usually in the form of a flaming ball, common in Cajun legend and folklore. "You better come inside or de Fee Folay gonna get you."

Juga keen: sugar cane. "Arry time dey spray du juga keen it kills de doves."

ON THE BAYOU:  CAJUN TRADITION, FLAVOR IN SOUTHERN LOUISIANA (2024)
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