Unfolding the Map
We cross into Louisiana with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) on his journey across the U.S. almost 30 years ago. I'm sure that the rural communities of the area have changed since then. For the better? You decide as we explore disappearing cultures. To see where Ville Platte is located, click on the map thumbnail at right. And go out and get some Cajun food to excite your humors!
"I switched on the radio and turned the dial. Somewhere between a shill for a drive-up savings and loan and one for salvation, I found a raucous music, part bluegrass fiddle, part Texas guitar, part Highland concertina. Cajun voices sang an old, flattened French, part English, part undecipherable."
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 9
Ville Platte, Louisiana
I remember the second time my wife and I drove into Louisiana. The first time we drove into Louisiana was to make a trip to New Orleans from San Antonio, where we were living at the time. We had three friends with us and conversation with them took up the leisure time in the car. But the second time, it was just me and her. We were heading to Breaux Bridge (which was visited by LHM and will be covered in a future post). Near Breaux Bridge, we were meeting some friends who were living in in the Midwest and we were going camping out in the swamp along a bayou.
So, with just us in the car on a six-seven hour trip, we had time to listen to the radio. And it was there, in the middle of Cajun country, that we heard a DJ speaking in that patois known as Cajun French. My wife, who had French lessons in high school and could recognize a lot of words, listened for a moment and then said "That is unlike any French that I've ever heard - I can hardly recognize a word." To me, it sounded like French as if spoken by a person out of the American South or perhaps Texas - with a kind of twang.
We had heard Cajun music before. I was introduced to the high energy accordion, fiddle, bass and drums with the distinctive rhythm when I lived in Milwaukee, but it wasn't until driving through Louisiana on the interstate and truly listening to the radio did I hear the dialect in its full glory.
Later, when I lived in New Orleans, Cajun was still a novelty. New Orleans is not really a Cajun town, even though you might think it is. Rather, New Orleans is a Creole and immigrant town and the food and music reflect this. Jazz, blues and creole cuisine were the norm, not Cajun music, though you could find Cajun music around town. Tipitina's on Napoleon Avenue had Fais Do Do's on Saturday, I think, where you could go dance to Cajun music. The patois you were most likely to hear was something called "Yat," which when I first heard it sounded almost like a New York, Brooklyn accent. But it wasn't. In fact, I grew to love the Yat way of speaking. So I didn't hear Cajun spoken often, except on Sunday afternoons. The independent local radio station, the wonderful WWOZ, had a DJ on Sunday afternoons named Johnny. Johnny was a Cajun and played Cajun music, and he had a great Cajun tone. Lot's of "Oooooooh - weeeee's." He'd play something he liked, and he would belt out "Johnny like dat!" I understood that Johnny lived across Lake Pontchartrain and would commute in to the station, but I wasn't really sure if that was a rumor or not.
However, Cajun did permeate my life. We have good friends with whom we still stay in New Orleans, and Brenda is from a small town down in Cajun country - St. Rose. You could hear her accent in her speech, and when I met her father who was a tried and true unwatered-down Cajun, you had to strain to hear him because he talked softly but it was a sweet and melodic Cajun lilt. In New Orleans, Cajun cooking could be found in the backyards where occasionally, you could participate in a crawfish boil, where a picnic table is covered with butcher paper and then a steaming pile of crawfish, seasoned in crawfish or crab boil, with corn and potatoes mixed in, is dumped on the butcher paper. Everyone gathers around with their Abita Ambers and dig in, mouth burning from the seasoning as we "pinched dem tails and sucked dem heads." There has never been anything in my experience quite like it.
As LHM alludes to later in this chapter, Cajun culture is coming under assault on all sides. The bayous and wetlands that provided them with a way of life are disappearing, first human activities like dredging and building shipping channels for extracting oil out of the area. Extraction activities led to the massive BP oil spill, which damaged wetlands, killed the animals living there, and hurt shrimp and oyster industries that provide many Cajuns with a livelihood. Such activities also weaken the natural defenses against natural disasters, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita showed. I once heard a statistic that a football field of wetland disappears from Louisiana's coastline each hour. The one time I went on an airboat ride, the person who took us on the tour said that areas where he used to hunt and fish have vanished so that he does not recognize them any more.
Numerous analyses post-Katrina and the oil spill have talked about fragility of Louisiana wetlands. Less focus has been given to the potential loss of a unique culture that depends upon those wetlands. The Cajun culture and way of life should be treasured and protected, not left to die in the name of progress and energy efficiency. As for me, I look forward to going back to Louisiana in March where I hope to make myself fat on one treasure they have given us - their cuisine.
If you want to know more about Ville Platte
Next up: Opelousas, Louisiana