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Cajun Culture Can Be Found All Along Louisiana’s Coast

Louisiana Coast, February 2016 – For many visitors, a journey along Louisiana’s coast is like a trip to another land. It’s not uncommon to hear French – wait, is that French? – being spoken as often as English. There are unique customs, superstitions and celebrations, many of which are tied to Roman Catholicism. Red, white and blue flags can be seen everywhere, but it’s not the Stars and Stripes. Everyone here seems to have a musical gift that they’re not shy about sharing; if they’re not playing a fiddle or accordion, they’re encouraging you to get up and dance with them. And the food is beyond belief – an undeniably delicious mash-up of elaborate French cuisine and down-home comfort food. We might be in the United States, but 22 parishes in southern Louisiana are classified as “Acadiana,” a region that’s home to a distinct cultural group we call the Cajuns. This area is widely considered the most culturally diverse region in the United States; Acadiana even has its own flag, making it the only region within a state to bear such a designation.

The name “Cajun” is actually a corruption by English-speaking people who misunderstood the French word Acadiens. That was the name assigned to a group of French-speaking people who once occupied parts of maritime Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – at the time called “Acadie”), but who were forcibly deported by the British in 1755 under the pretext that the group refused to sign an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British crown. One-third of these people died, another third were deported to the British colonies and held captive, and the remaining third escaped deportation – but ended up strewn all over the globe.

As a result of this diaspora and over the course of about three decades, many Acadians ultimately ended up in Louisiana, which had been colonized by the French … so at least the language was familiar, though the climate and topography certainly were not. Upon their arrival, however, the Acadians learned that Louisiana had been ceded to Spain. They were readily accepted nonetheless, and the Spanish allowed the Acadians to speak their language, practice their Roman Catholic religion, and peacefully make their livings as farmers and fishermen. In short, the British attempt to eliminate the Acadian culture was a failure, since much of the group reassembled in Louisiana and managed to keep their traditions alive even in new and unfamiliar surroundings.

For more than 100 years the Cajuns lived a somewhat isolated life in the rural communities of Louisiana; but in the early 1900s, as roads were built to link them to other communities and as their children were forced to attend public schools and speak English, the group began to assimilate with the many other cultures of Louisiana. During World War II, Cajun men fought alongside other Americans and earned respect for their ability to translate the French language. By the turn of the 21st century, the term “Cajun” – which could once be considered insulting – was indeed a badge of honor. These days, everyone wants to be Cajun … and on a visit to Louisiana, everyone can be – at least for a day or two!

Seven of Acadiana’s parishes – Calcasieu, Cameron, Iberia, Lafourche, St. Mary, Terrebonne and Vermilion – are members of the Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition (LTCC), a group that promotes the natural, recreational and cultural experiences visitors can have along the Louisiana Coast. Vermilion Parish, in fact, has earned the nickname “The Most Cajun Place on Earth,” a testament to the fact that nearly 50 percent of its population has Cajun roots. Throughout this region, the opportunities to interact with Cajun culture abound – whether through food, music, language or special events. Below are just some of the ways a visitor to the Louisiana Coast can learn more about what it means to be Cajun:

  • Creole Nature Trail: One of just 43 “All-American Roads” in the United States, the Trail winds through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes and offers world-class birdwatching opportunities and countless chances to see alligators. Other outdoorsy options include boating, fishing and nature photography. A great starting point for a journey along the Trail is the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point, a free attraction that opened in 2015. As part of the immersive offerings at the visitor center, guests can learn about Cajun cooking and play along with a Cajun band. http://www.visitlakecharles.org/creole-nature-trail/
  • Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant: A true highlight of any visit to Cajun country is a delicious meal. The Acadian refugees adapted their French cooking styles to the foods that were abundant in their new Louisiana home – local delicacies like crawfish, rice and sugar cane. Suire’s is a family-run restaurant in the tiny town of Kaplan, part of Vermilion Parish. The drive is well worth it, according to The New York Times and other major publications. The sisters who run the restaurant take pride in all their offerings, with highlights being turtle sauce picante, alligator po-boys, crawfish etouffee and a variety of house-made desserts. http://suires.yolasite.com/
  • New Acadia Project/Projet Nouvelle Acadie: In the town of Loreauville in Iberia Parish, a group led by a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is working hard to unearth the remains of the first Acadian colony, the site along the banks of Bayou Teche where Joseph Beausoleil Broussard brought the first group of Acadians in 1765. Besides the dig, the group has plans to build a monument and park along the bayou. http://newacadiaproject.blogspot.com
  • Swamp Tours into the Atchafalaya Basin: Covering about a third of Louisiana, the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest overflow swamp in the United States. It’s home to the Louisiana black bear, American bald eagles and countless alligators. For generations, Cajuns have earned their livings here, fishing and crawfishing. Visitors can learn about the lives of all the area’s inhabitants – humans included – on a guided swamp tour, including Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tours out of Patterson, in St. Mary Parish. http://cajunjack.com/
  • Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center: In Lafourche Parish, the town of Thibodaux boasts one of six visitor centers that are part of the enormous Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve. At this location, visitors can learn about Cajun clothing, home furnishings, religion, cuisine and recreation – from a display of Cajun instruments to a full-size pirogue (Cajun canoe). Admission to the facility is free, as is the Cajun music jam held every Monday evening from 5 to 7 p.m. – guests can just sit back and listen, or they can bring an instrument and play along with the band – and the French language sessions held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday night. (Cajun French is one of three dialects of French spoken in Louisiana.) http://www.nps.gov/jela/wetlands-acadian-cultural-center.htm
  • Jolly Inn Dance Hall: At the Jolly Inn in Houma, right in the heart of Terrebonne Parish, owners Werlin Prosperie and his daughter Sonia McNamara invite guests to enjoy such Cajun fare as po-boys and gumbo and then laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll. Prosperie and his traditional Cajun band, Couche Couche, fill the dance hall with lively music and encourage guests to join on the washboard and triangle or to get out on the floor and learn to dance, Cajun-style. Guests of the dance hall quickly become honorary Cajuns and understand Louisiana’s joie de vivre (joy for life). http://thejollyinn.com/

Collectively known as the Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition (LTCC), the coastal parishes of Louisiana promote natural, recreational and cultural experiences to residents of and visitors to these parishes. The LTCC is also an advocate for the sustainable development of coastal communities and protection of the area’s fragile wetlands. For more information, visit www.visitlouisianacoast.com.

Special thanks to Warren Perrin, Chairman of the Acadian Museum of Erath, for sharing his expertise and insight.

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