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Big Fun on the Bayou

June 6, 2011

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.

  1. Virgotex permalink
    June 6, 2011 8:28 pm

    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,

    Which, along with the Cornell’s uncle, might well be revisited if/when Treme gets it’s 5year run and deals with the BP oil spill

  2. June 6, 2011 8:31 pm

    This is a really excellent essay by Lolis Elie on the origin myths associated with Creole food and what it means to be “Creole”:

  3. June 6, 2011 9:10 pm

    Visitors also sometimes associate the masked mounted captains of various old-line city krewes with the Klan. I’ve always thought that if anything, the Klan was imitating them, not the other way ’round. Or more likely they’re both imitating the same thing.

  4. adrastosno permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:42 pm

    @Bart: I think they’re both mimicking the mythic Arthurian knights who have little to do with the actual grubby dirty men on horseback.

  5. June 6, 2011 11:26 pm

    I’m thinking about writing something about Acadian all the way from the orogeny (Paleozoic mountain-buildung event that was partly responsible for the Appalachian mountains) to the Cajun present, mostly because I have drawings. Thanks for the history lesson.

  6. Mistlehrush permalink
    June 7, 2011 4:54 am

    When I saw the costumes with the conical hats and masks it put me in mind of the mummer plays in England and the wren boys in Ireland. I loved seeing the contrasts between the way Mardi Gras was celebrated.

    I also love reading everyone’s posts and insights on this amazing show–it’s illumination that makes everything that much better about a show that works hard to be several cuts above the ordinary. Thanks, you guys.

  7. June 7, 2011 6:50 am

    I am currently completely engrossed in Ned Sublette’s book, The World that Made New Orleans. An absolutely remarkable book, it explains the great ships full of gold, the French/Spanish politics, the Haitian revolt (I need a whole book just about that), and the evolution of the African influence on music and dance (even explaining how that tree branch blossomed differently in Cuba vs. New Orleans.) By his definition, and over many years I’ve heard many different definitions with Sublette’s being the one most often cited in well documented historical books as opposed to tour books or the backs of menus, a Creole was anyone who was second generation-born here by god-regardless of skin tone or nationality of parents. So Spanish Creole (who no doubt spoke French as the population stubbornly refused to switch to Spanish during their rule), French Creole, Free Person of Color Creole, German Creole–all these terms would be applicable. If Mom was French and Dad was Spanish, but you were born here, you were Creole. (The term was also used throughout the colonized Antilles.) Dad was a free man of color originally from Africa but bought his freedom from the Spanish and Mom was a slave of French/Spanish/African descent, then you were also a Creole as was your Mom.

    As for “Real New Orleans Cajun Food”–I’m so glad you wrote this piece. In most places outside of here, Creole and Cajun ARE the same thing, and the food is also considered the same. Whole lotta folks think “blackened” whatever is just like that chicken they put on a too hot barbecue, you know, black on the outside raw on the inside. I guess given that definition, I’d have to say I’m a fan of “blackened hot dogs.”

  8. June 7, 2011 7:13 am

    Ray, thanks for the link to the Lolis piece. I remember reading it when I was prepping for my State of the Culture panel at Rising Tide two years ago but had lost it.

    And yes I hope our visits to Plaquemines and Acadiana are foreshadowing of a fifth season about the spill. I can’t get Steve Earle’s powerful celtic lament The Gulf of Mexico. “Come and gather round me people and a tale to you I’ll tell/Of my father and his father, in the days before the spill…” and it’s image of the blood red water.

    If you don’t have his current album you have a major hole in your music collection you rectify immediately.

  9. wigatrisk permalink
    June 7, 2011 7:13 am

    Pat Mire’s 1993 documentary “Dance for a Chicken” can be livestreamed from the roots culture storehouse Folkstream (,168). It’s low budget but sincere, local and offers some plausible interpretations of the origins of particular, very localized Cajun Mardi Gras customs. Complete with stalking horses and conical hats, mumming has long roots here in Newfoundland, and famously studied by Herbert Halpert (Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, 1969) and much since. It’s much in revival lately here in North America’s most European city St John’s…. hehe

  10. June 7, 2011 11:05 am

    I have read in many sources that the KKK was mistakenly modeled on a society Confederate white supremacists found in the historical romances of Walter Scott, called The Holy Vehme. The most detail of this society was in Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein. You can find a description of the origins and function of this secret military society here.

    Scott is also where the KKK supposedly found the fiery cross.

    As far as the conical hats go some say from Scott also, but not likely. Also, the KKK had a lot of different robes and head coverings. The conical hat is merely one of them — and maybe that was an entirely Hollywood invention, as is so much of our history that everyone knows? Like the mafia and gangstas everywhere, the KKK started believing its Hollywood mythology and imitated it? It would be kind of hard to hard gallop in the dark night dressed in robes, carrying torches, lynch ropes and the other tools of your terrorism. with one of those silly things on your head — it would certainly interfere with your vision.

    Scott has been blamed for all this and far more, including responsibility for the Civil War. Myself, I adored Scott’s novels growing up and I still do. As an avid lover of historical fiction he, with Dumas, is our founding father. That a bunch of people who read like the unspeakable ADD blowhard from Alaska got him all wrong is not his fault or his responsibility!

    Love, C.

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