In fact, if we still cooked in the “authentic” Acadian way we’d be eating New England boiled dinners. That’s how the Acadians cooked before coming to
Louisiana, and they may well have kept cooking that way if it weren’t for a few other influences.
As Carl Brasseaux points out in a study of early Acadian settlement in south Louisiana, “Age-old Acadian cooking techniques remained fundamentally unaltered throughout the 18th century, despite radical changes in the immigrants’ diet. In
Acadia the diet had revolved around the seasonal fruits of agriculture, fishing and hunting. During the spring and summer months (in Canada) wild game and fish provided ... a steady source of protein, while the ... family garden yielded peas and a large variety of other vegetables. In autumn, surplus livestock – particularly hogs – was slaughtered and though some beef and pork were consumed immediately, most of the meat was salted for use during the approaching winter months. Seventeenth and 18th-century observers consistently reported the Acadian affinity for salt pork, noting that the Bay of Fundy area settlers preferred bacon to wild game.”
The Acadian diet changed when they reached Louisiana because different ingredients were available here, but the way of cooking didn’t. For example, we very seldom ate roasted porcupine or seal fat cookies in Louisiana. Corn was easier to grow in Louisiana than wheat, so cornbread replaced wheat bread on Acadian tables. Turnips and cabbage were staples in Canada, but not so much in Louisiana.
Catholic Acadians didn’t eat meat on Friday in either place, but crawfish and shrimp replaced the lobsters that were caught in old Acadie and local species of fish replaced the cod caught in cold Atlantic waters.
Luckily, the early Acadians had neighbors who knew how to cook and how to use practically everything that comes in abundance in Louisiana.
Gumbo, which is so identified with the Cajun culture, isn’t Cajun at all. Its name comes from gombo, an African word for okra, which was introduced into Louisiana by black people from the West Indies. Many of the other slow-cooked, well-seasoned dishes now associated with Cajun cuisine were introduced into Louisiana by black cooks.
Even our slow-cooking technique came about as much by necessity as by design. Meals were cooked for a long time over a low fire because the old hens that the Cajuns cooked were too tough to cook any other way. Cajun beef cattle ran wild and ate prairie grass, producing stringy, tough meat that also required long cooking. Salt pork had to be cooked for some time to purge the salt.
In modern times the crawfish has become the symbol of practically all things Cajun and visitors cannot claim to have had an “authentic” Cajun experience unless they’ve been to some semblance of a crawfish boil.
The Crawfish Festival and regular promotion of Louisiana crawfish has had something to do with that. Even though the critters have always been here in abundance, it is only in relatively recent times that they have become a south Louisiana institution and that chefs began to devise all sorts of new ways to serve them.
And, of course, there are good Louisiana oysters which have become something of an institution also.
Some people claim that the bravest man in the world was the first man ever to eat a raw oyster, and that may be. But there are plenty of us who are thankful that whoever he was made that pioneering swallow.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.