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A country called Cajun.

Marsh grasses, fields of sugar cane and rice, impenetrable swamps, and gnarled oaks dominate the landscape. Signs, menus, and conversations peppered with a lively French patois dominate the local culture.

The landscape? South Louisiana's flat bayou country. The people? A clan called Cajun (derived from the word "Acadian"), whose French-Canadian ancestors migrated here in the mid-1700s after the British drove them from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

No longer isolated along the serpentine meanderings of small waterways, Cajuns still relish the convivial joie de vivre that characterizes their culture, one of the few in the United States defying assimilation.

The Journey into the heart of Cajun country, once made from New Orleans only by priogue (a boat Cajuns say "can float on a heavy dew"), can now be made by car in a few hours. The most scenic route is along U.S. 90 and Louisiana 182, through small sleepy towns where moss-draped oak and cypress trees overhang shimmering bayous. Although Cajuns dwell all over southern Louisiana-as far west as Lake Charles, all the way to the capital city of Baton Rouge, and deep in the marshy mouth of the Mississippi River-Lafayette (pronounced laugh-yet) is the unofficial capital of Acadiana.

The industrious Cajuns play just as hard as they work. All year long, festivals celebrate their way of life and allow visitors to participate in their customs. Hardly a week goes by without wild and sometimes unruly paeans to crawfish, alligators, rice, cotton, yams, boudin, gumbo, andouille, cattle, horses, pigs, music, dancing, pirogue racing, pecans, red beans, and rice-all the necessities of bayou life. The gregarious Cajuns even celebrate their own version of Mardi gras.

One of the heartiest revels is Festivals Acadiens (Lafayette, September 19-20), a combination of Cajun music, dancing, food, crafts, art, film, history, storytelling, and generally good times. The festival begins unofficially at Fred's Lounge in Mamou at 8:00 a.m. Saturday with a family-style dance called a fais-dodo.

Cajuns dance their waltz and two-step every night someplace or other, usually at a restaurant and dance hall like Mulate's in Breaux Bridge. The traditional foot-stompin' music--lusty or sad songs bellowed in French to the cacophonous tune of fiddle, accordion, and triangle (often ruined for purists by the addition of guitars)--is now a recognized form of indigenous American music.

Such young musicians as Michael Doucet, who has played with his band, Beau Soleil, at Carnegie Hall and appeared in the film Belizaire the Cajun, keep the tradition alive, as do such old-timers as Hector Duhon and Octa Clark, who have made music together for 50 years.

Another popular celebration is the boucherie, a community slaughtering ritual that may include a feast of couchon du lait (roast suckling pig), the savory andouille (ahn-dou-ee: Cajun sausage with been, and boudin (boo-dan: the pork and rice version).

The crawfish boil is also ubiquitous in Cajunland. When the beloved "mudbugs" or "crawdads" go into the pot, any number of delicious dishes result, because there are almost as many ways to cook crawfish as there are ditches and swamps to catch them in. Crawfish is served up boiled or tied in gumbo, bisque, etoufee, jambalaya, pies, or patties. (Cajuns claim the delicacy is a lobster worn to a frazzle after following the Acadians from Canadian waters.)

Alligator, second only to mudbug in swampland gastronomic passions, has left the endangered species list and entered the cooking pot. Now it's made into gumbo or dressed up with sauce piquante. Such authentic Cajun fare, found at informal little restaurants all over southern Louisiana, is gaining world-wide attention as a distinctive regional cuisine.

Live gaters appear in Cajun country, too, among a wealth of other critters . Annie Miller's boat tour through the eerily beautiful cypress swamps near Houma is a safe way to closely encounter these creatures. Near Henderson, two other boat operations, McGee's and Whiskey River, explore the wild Atchafalaya River Basin.

A scenic ramble to such places as Grand Coteau, Avery Island's Tabasco factory and bird sanctuary, Jefferson Island's gardens, Abbeville, the shrimpboat harbor at Delcambre, and Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation in New Iberia reveals not only today's Cajun lifestyle but also the past's rich history and legend. Acadiana's most famous tale (Longfellow's Evangeline) has its roots in St. Martinville, where the tomb of Emmeline Labiche and the ancient oak where she waited for her lover, Gabriel, stand alongside the Bayou Teche.

A few miles from Lafayette, Acadian Village, a relocated and restored 19th-century Cajun community, simple and serene, illustrates the qualities of the proud Gallic individualists who were determined to keep their customs intact-and do so to this day, adding a piquant ingredient to our country's ethnic gumbo.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:South Louisiana's bayou country
Author:Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1987
Words:775
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