Roots of Cajun culture
The story of the Cajun people is a story of struggle, a story for the ages.
If you spend enough time in Louisiana, at some point you’ll be touched by the sweetness of the Cajun people. Their openness, their tolerance and their joie de vivre draws you in, whether during a quiet day exploring the bayous of Cajun country or while dancing the night away in town.
Cajuns are hardy people, proud of their heritage and of the unique civilization they’ve carved out for themselves in southern Louisiana. To understand the Cajun people, you have to understand their story. It is a story of struggle, a story for the ages. They began as French settlers in the remote settlement of Acadie, on the southeast coast of Canada, in the early 1600s. For a century, they lived a simple life in relative isolation, surviving as farmers, trappers and fishermen. During this time, a particular culture and dialect began to take shape.
During the French and Indian War of the mid-1700s, the British expelled them from their homes and burned their villages, scattering thousands of Acadians across North America, the Caribbean and France. They were left destitute and suffered greatly during this exile.
Beginning in 1765, and continuing over the next two decades, Acadians began arriving in Louisiana by the hundreds, gradually coming to be known as Cajuns. Though the Louisiana climate was different, they were able to employ the trapping, fishing and farming skills they had honed in Canada. They also resumed a life of relative isolation for another century, placing their development as a people back into a cultural crucible.
It was at this point that Cajun music began to come into clear focus. Initially, the violin and ancient French folk dances handed down through generations drove the music, but Germans settling in the area brought accordions with them, and African influences entered into the mix, setting Cajun music and black Créole zydeco music on parallel, complementary paths.
A similar evolution occurred with food. Cajun food emerged from local ingredients and, owing to a no-frills way of life, tended to be single-pot meals that incorporated an array of ingredients. Louisiana has long been the leading producer of rice in the United States, so the grain naturally plays a major part in the cuisine, providing a bed for étouffée and filling for boudin sausage. Other culinary influences were cultural. Naturally, French cuisine and the French Créole cuisine found in New Orleans made some inroads. South Louisiana Indians in New Orleans introduced okra and filé powder to gumbo; meanwhile, the word “gumbo” itself is an African word for okra.
Other influences are more unique to Cajun country alone. During Spanish rule, which coincided with the Acadians’ arrival, Spanish settlers intermingled with Cajuns, and today a name like “Romero” can be considered Cajun. Jambalaya is much like a spicy paella – a Spanish dish – and may derive from this influence. Another influence came from the “Frenchified” Germans of the German Coast, upriver from New Orleans, who are known for producing the finest andouille sausage in south Louisiana.
Despite aggressive efforts in the early 20th century to Anglicize the Cajuns and school their language out of them, by then they had endured too much and forged too strong a culture to let it die. In the 1960s, a cultural resurgence began, with a renewed devotion among Cajuns to their music, culture and dialect. Today, that movement appears as strong as ever.