December 14, 2010

Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana

We stopped in Lafayette to check out the National Park Service's Acadian Cultural Center. Lafayette is considered the economic and cultural center of the Cajun/Creole cultures. It is an area that still has native Cajun French-speakers and authentic Cajun food. We stopped at a local place where we were able to get a really interesting Cajun buffet that allowed us to sample everything the regional cuisine has to offer. That included gumbo, crawfish etouffee, seafood jambalaya, blackened catfish, stuffed blue crab, fried alligator, and frog legs, among others. Yes, I tried alligator and frog legs. It sounds like such a cliche, but they really do taste like chicken.

An old fashioned sugar boiler

Kettles to separate the compounds at different temperatures to make sugar crystals, molasses, and syrup.

Hilina trying sugar right off the stalk

At the cultural center, we watched an interesting movie discussing the forced removal of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the British in 1755. They were dispersed across the various colonies of North America and the Caribbean, as well as, directly to England where they were left to rot in detainment camps or live in squalor, unable to get jobs or own land, due to discrimination by the local colonists. However, some 1/3rd of all Acadians never even made it to their place of exile, since they died in transport on the ships due to disease or occassional ship sinkings.

Finally, the French government was able to negotiate their release in 1763 and most of them were sent back to France or to French colonies. But, after 100 years of separation from their motherland, their language and culture had changed significantly enough that they did not really fit in there either.

Model of a palmetto-roofed temporary structure

Then, word began to spread about room to spread out in Louisiana. The Spanish, who had just taken over the region from France, invited these Acadians without a homeland to Louisiana to settle the "empty" swamps no one seemed to want.

Model of a cypress-shingle permanent home

The Acadians moved there from all over and this region, now called Acadiana, developed its own cultural and food. The word Cajun is simply a changed term of Acadian.

We spoke to the park ranger who said that many people from France come in and speak French to the volunteers and native speakers of Cajun. The French complain that Cajuns sound weird, like something hundreds of years old. That is because it is. In many ways, Cajun French is little changed to the French that was spoken in the 1600's. So, while French was evolving in France, the Cajun language essentially remained stagnant, except for the new words and creole influences of African slaves, Spanish aristocrats, and the Native Americans of the region.

Anyways, it was definitely interesting to visit a region of the country that isn't quite as homogenized and Americanized as the rest. There has been a significant decline in Cajun culture as media influences every corner of the country. For about 30 years, Louisiana refused to allow French to be taught in the classroom and students were punished when they spoke Cajun to each other. But, those ignorant eras are over and today every child starts learning French in grade school. The Cajun culture and history is alive and well and still producing amazing food!

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