Opelousas, La.– The dance floor at Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki is jumping. The wooden square in the middle of the dark, low-ceilinged dance hall is bouncing up and down like a trampoline. Zydeco star Keith Frank is screaming his own name, and the sweaty dancers in cowboy hats and belt buckles big as turkey platters are screaming it back as they sway close and stomp fast to the rhythm of the accordion, rub board, drums and bass guitar.
Anyone who can’t keep the beat–that would be the white couple, namely my husband and me–gets a jarring double-bounce from the floor, a pop to the soles of their shoes that gets them back in the groove.
It’s Saturday night in Cajun country, and from Baton Rouge to Lake Charles, Cajun and zydeco dance halls are crammed with two-steppers, waltzers and dirty-dancing hip-grinders. The clubs are in modest cinder block or clapboard buildings, on faded main streets, off two-lane rural roads, or next to crawfish ponds and sugar cane fields. And on Saturday night, things are just getting warmed up: After church on Sunday, the good times keep rolling in Cajun clubs with names like Smiley’s, Chilly’s and Guidry’s Friendly Lounge. Couples, many of them in their 60s or older, tip-tap and knee-slap on wide-board floors, breaking for smokes and swigs off 10-ounce cans of cold beer.
And that’s just the music in this nonstop, region-wide party. I haven’t even gotten to the food yet.
Although I have lived in New Orleans for 18 months, a trip into Cajun country, or Acadiana, still feels like a journey abroad. The land, flat and dotted with brick ranch homes and falling-in shotgun shacks, could at first be mistaken for South Georgia or parts of Alabama. But the fields are full of sugar cane, not peanuts or cotton, and the ponds contain not catfish but crawfish, and sometimes rice. Planning a roadtrip in Cajun
And then there are the vast and mysterious swamps that seem to engulf the landscape in the blink of eye. Some are wide open, the surface a vibrant mix of blue water and silvery-green algae. Some are dark and closed, with moss-covered cypress trees shooting out of the water like witch’s fingers.
But it’s the music, the language, and the justly world-famous cuisine that make this area of about 22 parishes (or counties) a world apart even from the rest of Louisiana.
Cajun country is the Deep South with a French accent, a larded-up Loire Valley, where a seven-course meal consists of a six-pack of beer and a link of boudin, the Cajun sausage. Southern hospitality meets Old World gentility here: Nowhere have I been offered a place to stay or a home-cooked meal as often as I have on my visits to this openhearted land.
Everywhere is evidence of a heritage not lost in homogenization but rather zealously guarded. That heritage is being celebrated all year with Francofete, commemorating the 300th anniversary of French influence on Louisiana. Festivals and other events will emphasize French language and culture to mark this anniversary of the founding of a military camp at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras in 1699. The biggest event will be an Acadian family reunion, opening Aug. 1 in Houma, that’s expected to draw tens of thousands from around the world for two weeks of events across the state.
Cajuns feel fortunate their heritage has survived this long. After decades of discouraging children from speaking French, the schools in the 1960s reintroduced the language and the state started promoting Cajun culture and traditions.
Of course, if you’ve ever heard a Cajun speak French, you know it’s not exactly the Parisian version. A.F. “Pete” Olivier, a Cajun from Sunset, La., said he was recently entertaining some Belgians when he realized his French wasn’t quite being understood.
“None of us read or wrote French growing up–we just learned it from our great-grandmas,” he said. “So if she mispronounced a word, we did. While the Belgians were here, I managed to tell them to put on condoms and put testicles around their necks.”
What he meant to say was, “put on your raincoats” and “wear Mardi Gras beads.”
Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians, exiled to the swamps and prairies of Louisiana in 1755 from French colonial Acadia, now Nova Scotia. Since then, their culture has mingled with and evolved alongside that of Native Americans, Africans, Caribbeans and immigrants from France, Spain and Germany.
The Atchafayala River basin, the largest freshwater swamp in the country, kept Acadiana isolated long after other parts of the country were connected to each other via highways and airports.
In 1973, the most expensive interstate ever built in the United States rose out of the swamps and connected Cajun country to the modern world. Ever since, Cajun and zydeco music and Cajun and creole food have been exported and enjoyed worldwide, and tourists have visited.
Things have changed, of course. Cajuns trade on their heritage somewhat, with “Cajun” this and “Cajun” that used in sales pitches. Wal-Mart and the fast-food chains are here, as are satellite dishes and video poker machines.
But the Cajun traditions of good music, good food and good times have endured. Although tour buses roll through small towns and tourism bureaus stay busy, this remains a rural, working world. Music and food are a way to blow off steam after a hard day planting sugar cane, climbing around an oil rig, checking crawfish nets or slogging through a rice field.
So come hungry, bring your dancing shoes, and be prepared to leave with recipes, new friends, and a new waistline. Don’t worry: You can always diet when you get home.