Big Fun on the Bayou
Some people have questioned why bring in the largely rural Cajun celebration of Courir to a show about New Orleans. It’s a fair question, given the frequent confusion people have about Creole and Acadian or Cajun culture. I have lived away and traveled enough to have shuddered at menus promising “real New Orleans Cajun food.” The first time I encountered this, it was a piece of chicken “blackened” by burning a coating of hot Hungarian paprika onto it. The first bite experience was not unlike the time I forgot how hot English mustard is and I slathered an Irish fry of cabbage potatoes and bacon with it, much to the amusement of adjoining tables in the pub. I would not wish such food abominations on my enemies.
The culture of New Orleans is essentially Creole, not in the current Black identity sense* but in the original sense of a people descended from the original French and Spanish settlers of the Carri bean and Gulf of Mexico region in general. There is a long running argument about which is America’s most European city, with contenders including Quebec, Boston and San Francisco along with New Orleans. I would probably give the title to Quebec without having ever visited there, but I think New Orleans is the most Mediterranean city and the most European in the U.S.
The culture here is a blend of the European sensibilities of the original settlers, adopted by the free Creoles of color as the model of how to live well, augmented by a strong influence from Africa. The African influence on foodways (the fancy term for how we cook and eat) is often overlooked outside of the world where people use terms like foodways, as much of the cooking in households was done by slaves in the antebellum period. The influence on music is widely recognized and a core part of Treme.
A large part of what makes New Orleans unique is that the influx of people over the last 300 years has resulted in the Creolization of the late comers: the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase, and the Irish and Sicilians who came in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Germans have been around since the beginning, and are a good example. The Folse most of us with that name are descended from arrived here in the late 1710s and became one of the original settlers of the Cote des Allemands. Living along side the Acadian people and the Francophone New Orleanian Creoles, they quickly adopted the French language and local customs. While in much of the United States acclimation to settlement in the United States meant moving into the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon culture. In New Orleans and much of coastal Louisiana, it meant integrating into the prevalent Creole/Mediterranean culture.
The Acadians were relative late comers, arriving in large numbers after the expulsion from Nova Scotia between 1740 and 1760 following The Great Expulsion (le Grand Dérangement). They settled along the coast and the bayous, taking land beyond the river-front plantations established by the earliest settlers. The two cultures, Creole and Acadian, flourished separately side-by-side, sharing many common French elements but each following its own traditions.
This could be as simple as both making many roux-based dishes, with the Creole cook favoring butter and the Cajun animal fat or oil, or as complicated as to the two parallel but distinct celebrations of Mardi Gras. In both cultures there is a strongly Franco-Latin sense of joie de vivre. “Work before pleasure” is a patently ridiculous concept. Work pays the bills of Pleasure as the serf serves the king. This is one of the reasons our economic development has lagged other areas of the south, but it is a foundation of life here, a main reason we choose to live on the Hurricane Coast.
And there is tension between the city and the country, the Creole and the Acadian. When my father moved from Thibodaux to New Orleans in the 1930s, he came from a bi-lingual home fronting Bayou Lafourche to Algiers, where the nuns would beat you in the playground if you spoke that ignorant country French, and the children would do the same on the playground for being a bayou hick.
As depicted in this episode, Mardi Gras is celebrated quite differently in both cultures (although the Courir is not that far off from the world of social aid and pleasure club second lines, or the Carnival krewe). And it is not observed at all just down the road in Point a la Hache where Sonny is sent to rake oysters to stay out of trouble. The obvious plot reason for sending Annie to the Courir was to provoke character tension with Davis, but it also offered an opportunity for a window into other fragile and endangered cultures of Louisiana, and it was done with the usual style and attention to detail we all expect of a David Simon production.
There were some remarks about the traditional capuchon (pointed hats) resembling those of the Ku Klux Klan, but the resemblance is purely one of style. If you follow the link above to the Wikipedia entry, you’ll see that pointed hats have appeared in both Spanish and French culture, associated in Spain with penitential flagellants. My own thought is that such hats might reference the penitential period of Lent that follows the day after Mardi Gras, but it could just as easily be mocking the genteel classes of France’s choices of headgear in the same way New Orleans Carnival mocks the concept of royalty. Somewhere someone has no doubt written their PhD in History on the conical hat and might have some ideas, but I can’t find it. All I know is there is probably no link to Klan costumes. Remember, the Klan hated Catholics and foreigners, and the French speaking Cajuns would be on the KKK enemies list.
For more information on the Courir, read Dave Walker’s weekly series on Treme Explained entry on the Cajun Mardi Gras. If you’ve made your way to Back of Town and aren’t reading Walker’s columns, you should be. To understand the slow death of the coastal Acadian culture, read the sad but excellent Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. To listen to Danse de Mardi Gras, the Cajun Carnival Time, try this link to the Balfa Brothers on You Tube. And if you find yourself contemplating ordering some Real New Orleans Cajun Food somewhere, I suggest you stick to the hamburger.
— Wet Bank Guy
* I’m not trying to turn this into a History Channel snoozer, but in brief: the most current understanding of Creole is a racial (descendents of original settlers liasons with slaves) and a linguistic one (spoke a particular version of Creole French that is all but extinct. There is supposedly a small number of elderly speakers in of all places Los Angeles, where some moved for jobs during WWII). I try not to get into arguments over the genealogical versus the Black identity/linguistic definitions of Creole, but I’ll hold up my credentials as a Creole against anyone’s. My German ancestors arrived almost 300 years ago in the first wave of European settlement and promptly intermarried with their co-religionist first wave French neighbors, and I have a few Haitian planter refugees to throw into the mix). My family’s native tongue would have been Acadian rather than Creole French.