About Cajun Food
For two decades, Cajun cuisine has drawn millions of visitors to Acadiana. It is widely believed that this cultural institution was imported into the area by Acadian exiles fleeing British tyranny nearly two and a half centuries ago. Stubbornly resistant to change, the exiles and their numerous descendants carefully safeguarded these cultural treasures until they were “discovered” by an appreciative American audience. In 1987, a north Louisiana eighth-grader penned perhaps the best encapsulation of this widespread belief: The Acadian “way of life stayed the same. Their culture, the cooking, their heritage went almost unchanged. The Cajun people, who live mainly in the southern part of the state, gave us their great cooking specialties, such as jambalaya, boudin, gumbo, and many other spiced foods.”
This conventional wisdom, however, is mistaken. Any serious investigation of these claims quickly reveals that Cajun cuisine -like Cajun music- is a product of the twentieth century, the result of extensive cross-cultural borrowing by the diverse ethnic and racial groups that have coexisted in the Bayou Country since the late eighteenth century. Anyone who has traveled to the Canadian Maritimes in recent years and sampled such “traditional” modern regional Acadian delicacies as fricot or poutines rupees needs no further persuasion.
The evolutionary tract followed by Acadian cuisine in North America was shaped by the variety of available foodstuffs, the accessibility of gradually improving cooking technology, and by the population’s pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new modes of food preparation. The last characteristic is a rather pronounced part of their French cultural legacy, bequeathed to the Acadians by the pioneers who settled the Bay of Fundy Basin in the seventeenth century, fleeing the religious wars that had devastated their native western France.
The French settlers of eastern Canada sprang almost exclusively from the peasantry. At the time of their arrival in the New World, the French peasants’ diet consisted primarily of soups—France’s national dish in the seventeenth century-and whole-grain breads. Like their counterparts throughout Europe, French peasants only rarely consumed meat, a characteristic reflecting European dietary trends of the late Middle Ages and early modern era among the working classes. In France, the monarchy’s monopoly on salt, the principal preservative agent before the age of refrigeration, further limited the accessibility of meat, for the crown charged usurious rates for the commodity. As a result, most French pioneers in Canada (and, later, in Louisiana) exhibited the symptoms of chronic protein deficiency.
Because of the ready availability of fresh meat, fish, and shellfish on the Canadian frontier, the diet of the pioneers and their children changed radically as pork, poultry, fish and wild game found their way onto the table. Contemporary observers have noted that the Acadians were exceptionally fond of pork, especially salt pork, which they ate “twice daily.” In fact, eyewitnesses maintained that they preferred pork to such delicacies as rabbit and partridge, which, in Europe, would have been reserved for aristocratic tables. In 1692, French immigrant and future Detroit commandant Antoine Laumet, alias Lamothe Cadillac, observed that “there is also much poultry” in the Acadian settlements, suggesting that eggs and chickens (presumably roosters and unproductive hens) were important dietary components. Fish, particularly shad and gaspereau (sheepshead) caught in tidal pools, frequently graced the tables of Acadians residing along the Minas Basin. Mutton, consumed only rarely, was evidently a delicacy prepared for honored guests, despite the fact that predispersal Acadians maintained large sheep herds.
Other than the infusion of meat into the Acadian diet, the settlers’ culinary traditions changed very little. Because their cooking technology remained unaltered, their foods were prepared and consumed in the traditional manner. Like their French ancestors, the Acadian settlers used two basic types of pots to prepare their meals. The first was a cauldron, suspended by hooks in the hearth. Cooks regulated temperatures in these cast-iron pots by simply raising or lowering the cauldron above the fire. Cauldrons were used to slow-cook foods, and their raison d’étre in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was soup production. In the seventeenth century, Frenchmen commonly ate soup for breakfast. In fact, at the time of their forced expulsion from the Canadian Maritimes in 1755, the favorite Acadian food was reportedly soupe de la toussaint, a turnip and cabbage soup sometimes containing pork. The second major vessel used in Acadian cooking was a deep skillet. Without a lid, this cast-iron pot was used for frying, particularly fish and eggs. Covered, the pot was transformed into a Dutch oven used for baking the whole-grain breads that remained a staple of the Acadian diet until the terrible diaspora of 1755, commonly known as the Grand Derangement. Most predispersal breads were made with the wheat and barley produced in great quantities in Grand Pre and other major predispersal Acadian settlements.
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Acadian cuisine thus bore little outward resemblance to its modern Louisiana descendant. Similarly, the taste would not remind a modern-day Louisiana gourmand of any dish in the present Cajun culinary repertoire. French historian Paul Lacroix, writing in the 1960s, noted that “the dishes of the 17th century were very plentiful, very varied and very complicated, but they were neither delicate in flavour, wholesome, nor appetizing.”
Acadian cuisine began to acquire some of its modern characteristics following the establishment of approximately three thousand exiles in the Bayou Country between 1764 and 1785. Wheat and barley were poorly suited to lower Louisiana’s subtropical climate, as the exiles’ initial attempts to cultivate them repeatedly demonstrated. The immigrants were consequently compelled to cultivate maize, a crop virtually unknown in their Canadian homeland. Although unfamiliar with maize, the Acadians’ destitution forced them to plant the seed grain provided by Louisiana’s colonial government following their arrival.
Corn served as the staple of the Acadian diet in Louisiana until the early twentieth century. Rice, which supplanted corn in the 1920s in many parts of south Louisiana, was a marginal crop in the Acadian parishes until the late nineteenth century, when midwestern immigrants introduced steam-powered irrigation into the prairie country.
Sown in lowlands subject to springtime flooding, providence rice (so named because of its dependence upon rainfall for irrigation) was used primarily as an insurance crop for years, such as 1785, in which the corn crop failed.
Corn and rice production was complemented by the cultivation of large vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. Before the Grand Dérangement, Acadians grew “every kind of legumes and pot herbs, especially headed cabbages, which reach there an extreme size without requiring more than a little trouble.” In addition, the typical Acadian farmer maintained a large apple orchard of at least thirty-five trees, used for the production of both fruit and cider. Acadian men also brewed spruce sprout beer.
The Acadian exiles reestablished the broad lines of these agricultural endeavors in late-eighteenth-century Louisiana. As in their predispersal homeland, Acadian farmers in Louisiana produced crops large enough to permit small-scale export. Writing on January 1, 1786, Louis Judice, commandant of the Lafourche des Chetimaches district, reported that local Acadian settlers cultivated the following food crops: “The settlers’ principal crop is corn, very little rice, lima beans, English peas.” Judice also noted that the Acadians raised a remarkable variety of fruit trees, including “several varieties of peaches—white peaches, yellow peaches, a type of apricot, French-dried plums, pears, apple trees, three types of figs—French figs, black figs, and Provence figs; three types of plums: the blue plum variety from New England, white plum, and wild plum; pomegranates; and pecans.” Finally, Acadian farmers cultivated several varieties of grapes, including the native muscadine. All of these foods made their way into the Acadian diet on a seasonal basis.
As in Acadia, the bounty of the harvest was supplemented by the fruits of the hunt. Reduced to a diet consisting of “a little gruel” during the starving years immediately following their establishment in Louisiana, Acadians were forced to place increased reliance upon fish and game taken in the streams, woods, and swamps bordering their farmsteads. Eighteenth-century Louisiana records indicate that the exiles and their descendants hunted indiscriminately, killing and eating—as the popular joke currently maintains—everything that did not eat them first. This practice persisted through the Great Depression, when legions of Cajun boys were sent out daily into the woods and fields with a single bullet and an admonition to “bring back supper.” Thus hunting activity initially had a limited impact because of the small number of Acadian woodsmen as well as the remarkable fecundity of the region’s indigenous fauna. Over the course of the following century, however, sustained hunting by the burgeoning Acadian population severely depleted this once abundant natural resource and, by 1900, numerous species including many game birds, such as the Louisiana prairie hen, had been hunted into extinction. Fishing eclipsed hunting in importance during the Lenten season, and, as early as 1780, groups of young Acadian men were organizing fishing expeditions to productive freshwater fishing holes, such as those at Cow Island in modern St. Martin parish.
From Stir the Pot – The History of Cajun Cuisine by Marcelle Bienvenu, Carl A. Brasseaux & Ryan A. Brasseaux
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