Friday, March 7, 2014

Cajun Prairie Revisited - Part 1

From the Florida Panhandle, we said goodbye to the ocean and made our way west to Louisiana to visit the Cajun Prairie.  I visited this area in 2000 when I spent a week bicycling thru the area.  You can read my blog entry about our trip at Louisiana Cajun Prairie May 2000.  Physically, this area of Louisiana is flat and nondescript.  With its rice field and craw fish ponds, it could be any flat farming area of the country.  But culturally, it is very very different.

The Cajun Prairie is on the west bank of the Mississippi and I-10 cuts right through the middle of it.  When people think of French Louisiana they often think of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but the real Cajun areas are on the west bank of the Mississippi.  This area was explored by the Spanish in the early 1500's, but is was settled by the French.  It was under French control from 1682 to 1762 and then again in 1802-1804 when Napoleon sold it to the US (Louisiana Purchase).  Spain held it briefly from 1763 until 1802, but they pretty much left it alone.

In 1763, The Treaty of Paris, which settled the Sevens Years War between Britain, France, and Spain, petty much evicted France from North America.  It ceded areas east of the Mississippi to Great Britain and areas west of the Mississippi to Spain.  Beginning in 1750, Great Britain wanted the French people in Canada to sign an oath of allegiance to England. When they refused, the English started deporting the French Acadian people from Canada.  Many relocated to France and French populated areas in the 13 colonies.  Great Britain still controlled the east bank of the Mississippi, but Spain controlled the west bank and were indifferent to the existing French settlers who were already there.  For this reason, many French Acadians migrated to the west bank of the Mississippi.  Acadian or Acadienne was sometimes shortened to Cadian and if you pronounce it with a short A in the first syllable and say it fast, you'll see where the word Cajun came from.

This area embraces its French heritage and culture.  Many of the towns have French names, many of the road signs are in French and French is freely spoken in many public areas.  The food is also different.  There's gumbo, etouffee, and my favorite - boudin sausage (smoked sausage made with rice).  
Many of the Cajun recipes use a spiced smoked ham called Tasso as a seasoning in their dishes.  Here's a picture of part of the menu from Pont Breaux's restaurant in Breaux Bridge.  The menu is in English with French subtitles.  You won't find grilled alligator or frog legs on the menus back in New England.

You'll hear Cajun music on the radio, which has its roots in french folk music, and usually sung in french.  There's also Zydeco music which is a version of Cajun music that has drums and rhythm with a rub board. While in the area is was a treat to listen to KBON radio which plays all Cajun and Zydeco music.

Hush Puppys
Lafayette is the largest city on the Cajun Prairie, but the small towns that surround Lafayette are where you find the real Cajun culture.  We spent our first night in Breaux Bridge, staying at the Pioneer Acadian RV Park.  The park is close the highway and pretty basic with gravel sites, but the owner was super friendly and the facilities are the best I've ever seen in a campground.

While in Breaux Bridge we visited Pont Breaux's restaurant and dance hall.  It was called Mulattes when we visited in 2000 and, other than the name, it hasn't changed in 14 years.  For dinner, we went for the full Cajun experience.  Mine was hush puppy's for an appetizer, a Zydeco salad garnished with grilled catfish, andouille sausage, and smoked duck, and home made pecan pie a la mode for desert.  The Mrs. had alligator bites for an appetizer and a bowl of gumbo.  It was all delicious.

Dancing is part of the culture on the Cajun prairie.  The Cajun music is easy to dance to if you know how to waltz or two step.  Cajuns have their own versions of these dances, which are very informal.  And everyone dances.  Most local restaurants have a band playing and a dance floor.  At Pont Breaux's, the after dinner entertainment was dancing to Lee Benoit and the Bayou Stompers.  Here's a sample of the band playing at a dance hall in Lafayette.  Lee is a great musician and singer.

At Pont Breaux's, Lee played a Cajun version of Boogie Shoes had most of the lady's get up and line dance to it.  It was a lot of fun.  Here's a short clip of the song and dancing.

Here's more pictures from our first day.
Lee Benoit and the Bayou Stompers

Bayou Teche
Road signs in Breaux Bridge
Store Front with Mardi Gras decorations

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