I think most Americans are familiar with vague references to Cajun-ness in our culture, but who really knows anything about these misrepresented and supposedly very angry people? I went to Lafayette, a hotbed of Cajun culture, to find out just that.
First of all, the word Cajun is simply an Americanization of the word Acadian, which refers to a small group of French pioneers that settled in the area that is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1604. They got along relatively well with the indigenous populations, and essentially minded their own business in isolated but prosperous settlements there until the British just could not stand it anymore and kidnapped and expelled them to various other colonies/back to France in 1755. Because of the established French presence in the Isle of Orleans* many Acadians eventually made their way to the region just west of New Orleans, and by 1785 over 1000 families had settled here, and the current Acadian culture took root. After over 150 years of isolation in the swampy areas of southwest Louisiana, Acadian culture has become very distinct and extremely proud, and there are countless programs promoting French language, local music styles and cuisine, and their particular way of life in general.
After extensive research into a way to get to Lafayette, I was left the options of hitchhiking or taking Greyhound, and as thunderstorms we're forecast, I resigned myself to my fate. Luckily, the trip was only an hour, and I walked directly from the station to the Blue Moon Guesthouse and Saloon.** This place is a landmark in Lafayette, and famous for their fabulous local music from Wednesday through Sunday. As it was only Tuesday, and the next train was Friday, I knew I would have three nights to soak up all the zydeco, crawfish and Spanish moss that I possibly could.
My first day in the town involved a visit to the Lafayette museum, where I learned the single creepiest thing*** I have ever heard about Catholic nuns. Apparently, in this region in the 18th and 19th century, when a women took their vows and became nuns, they shaved their heads to be covered by their habits. Interesting, but not creepy, right? Wrong. After cutting their hair, they would send it to New Orleans to be woven into an intricate floral ornament that would surround a portrait of the newly confirmed nun in her new duds. There were various examples of these in the museum, such as this one.
I also found a toy train from the 1860s, which was much less disturbing.
I then partook in my first po' boy sandwich ever, at Old Tyme Grocery. When I ordered I told the waiter that it was my very first experience with this famous sandwich, and as I went to a table to wait I heard him yelling back to the cooks,
"Now this is her first shrimp po' boy folks, so you better give it yer all! Make it count!"
That is what I call service.
That night there was no zydeco to be found in the whole city, so I went to a terribly dull Christmas concert in the lovely cathedral in the center of town. No amount of inspirational religious architecture could keep me awake during the performance, however. I promised I would make it up to myself by hearing locally renowned zydeco prodigy Cedric Watson play the next night.
*Which was a French colonial possession from 1699 until Louis XV gave it to King Charles III of Spain in 1763 because he lost a bet or some other ridiculous scenario, and was ultimately bought from Napoleon in 1803 by the U.S. (under Thomas Jefferson's advice) for $15 million.
**A homey, welcoming place that is super cheap and offers free grits! And as a guest you can see the musical acts for free and even get a complimentary drink ticket. Highly recommended.
***Granted, I do not know much.