French Quar­ter

While nosh­ing in NOLA, Adam Wax­man en­coun­ters a place with a rich and de­cid­edly Cana­dian past

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LOUISIANA IS UNIQUE IN THE AMER­I­CAN SOUTH. Many flags have flown over its cap­i­tal, from French, Span­ish and Bri­tish to Con­fed­er­ate and Amer­i­can, but at its heart is the fleur-de-lis. Yet, it’s not the flags that bring us here; it’s the cul­ture of food and mu­sic. What dis­tin­guishes Louisiana Cre­ole from Ca­jun has been blurred over time, but we can feel it walk­ing through the Gar­den district of New Or­leans, ad­mir­ing the grand Greek Re­vival and Ital­ianate homes lined with Live Oak, Mag­no­lias and Crepe Myr­tles; and danc­ing to Zy­deco at a honky tonk in Lafayette.

Ca­jun cui­sine, at its core, is ba­si­cally soul food: fresh and wild meats, sea­soned but not spicy, along with the Ger­man in­flu­ence of sausages, rice and gravy. Ca­jun cui­sine, ex­ported to the world from New Or­leans in the 1980s, is not what we find in Ca­jun homes of Aca­di­ana. It’s not merely black­en­ing or fry­ing, but tra­di­tional meth­ods of pre­serv­ing like smok­ing, salt­ing and brin­ing, and what­ever can be boiled or stewed in one pot over an open hearth.

Bourgeois Meat Mar­ket in Thi­bo­daux sells whole pigs for roast­ing. I sam­ple meaty boudin bur­ri­tos, and must-try-be­fore-you-die Ca­jun beef jerky. Th­ese strips of sea­soned steak are mar­i­nated for 24 hours, and smoked in a wooden smoke­house all day to ad­dic­tive smoky and savoury heights. I un­der­stand how they can sell 1,000 pounds of it ev­ery week. It’s shipped all over the world. My care pack­age is in the mail. John­son’s

Bou­canière in Lafayette sells chicken and sausage gumbo by the gal­lon. I need a taste. Gar­lic sausages and tangy in-house smoked brisket are lip-smack­ing good­ness. I’m quenched by a sweet bot­tle of Swamp Pop Pra­line Cream Ale. Sur­rounded by Ge­orge Ro­drigue’s Blue Dog paint­ings at the Blue

Dog Café, a feast of fried oys­ters, stuffed crab, stuffed shrimp, cat­fish and craw­fish is set be­fore me. I de­vour it. Avery Is­land is a short drive from here. It’s been the home of Tabasco since 1868. Those iconic bot­tles en­liven ev­ery din­ner ta­ble and ev­ery dish.

Ca­jun cul­ture is not some­thing we can read­ily see, it has to be tasted and heard, to be felt and un­der­stood. It’s in the sounds of the ac­cor­dion, pop­u­lar­ized by Ger­man im­mi­grants; and in the gui­tar and the fid­dle brought by the Aca­di­ans. Tra­di­tional Ca­jun mu­sic keeps time with a tri­an­gle, has a waltz feel and is al­ways sung in French. Zy­deco has a blues in­flu­ence and a wash­board, drops the fid­dle and can be sung in English. At Martin Ac­cor­dions in Lafayette I pick up a beau­ti­ful cus­tom­ized di­a­tonic ac­cor­dion made from curly maple wood, with a tremolo sim­i­lar to a Ham­mond B3 or­gan. Joel Martin shows me how he pushes and pulls a horn sec­tion in a box, un­furl­ing a rich gravy of har­monic sound. On the back porch of Blue Moon, the pop­u­lar Zy­deco band Wayne Sin­gle­ton & Same Ol’ 2 Step rein­vents songs from Lionel Richie to the Grate­ful Dead with pas­sion and pride. Sin­gle­ton’s ac­cor­dion is like his sec­ond set of lungs. We’re all danc­ing. The up-tempo har­monies are in­fec­tious.

The orig­i­nal name for the Aca­dian set­tle­ment, Ver­mil­ionville, is now a replica town along the banks of the bayou. Aca­dian homes show kitchens built sep­a­rate from houses to re­duce heat and pre­vent fires. Here, we learn about daily life and the Cana­dian con­nec­tion.

Nova Sco­tia is es­tab­lished by France in 1604 as L’acadie, and trans­ferred to Eng­land in 1713. The Bri­tish ul­ti­mately per­ceive the Aca­di­ans as a threat to au­thor­ity. In 1755 they launch the Grande Dérange­ment from Nova Sco­tia, New Brunswick and PEI, de­port­ing tens of thou­sands of set­tlers, over half of whom die at sea. Only 3,000 Aca­di­ans ar­rive at the port of New Or­leans. 150 years of sep­a­ra­tion from France makes their lan­guage and life­style dis­tinct—even from the French Cana­di­ans who are al­ready es­tab­lished there. They can­not re-as­sim­i­late, and so con­tinue their jour­ney fur­ther in­land along the Ver­mil­ion River where they adapt to a new and iso­lated life in the re­gion now known as Aca­di­ana. “Lâche pas la patate!” They en­cour­age each other; (lit­er­ally: don’t drop the po­tato) “Don’t give up eas­ily!”

CA­JUN FRENCH IS REM­I­NIS­CENT OF an old French di­alect, while Cre­ole French in­cor­po­rates vo­cab­u­lary and gram­mar from West Africa. When English ed­u­ca­tion be­comes manda­tory in the 1920s, all French speak­ers are forced to speak English. Con­se­quently there are mis­con­cep­tions around those who iden­tify as Cre­ole or Ca­jun and their con­nec­tions to the French lan­guage in which they’re born. Apart from a few dis­tinc­tions, cuisines, too, are iden­ti­fied as both Ca­jun and Cre­ole, de­fy­ing clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

The French Cana­dian con­nec­tion to New Or­leans pre­dates the Aca­di­ans by more than 100 years. As fur trap­ping ex­tends down the Mis­sis­sippi river, the jour­ney home be­comes pro­hib­i­tive. Two broth­ers from Mon­treal, Bienville and Iberville, learn from the na­tives that the river emp­ties into the ocean. France com­mis­sions them to set up ports in what would be­come Mo­bile, Alabama; Biloxi, Mis­sis­sippi; and Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, for ship­ping di­rectly to Europe. Bienville es­tab­lishes La Nou­velle-or­léans as the cap­i­tal in the area now known as the French Quar­ter. It be­comes the melt­ing pot for French speak­ing groups from France, French Canada, West Africa and the Caribbean, as well as Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Those who are born in Louisiana, Ro­man Catholic and French, Cre­ole or Span­ish speak­ers, are called Cre­ole, mean­ing “na­tive to the colony.” Un­til the Civil War, those char­ac­ter­is­tics com­prise a na­tional iden­tity that sets them apart from the Amer­i­cans. As a Latin-based iden­tity, “Cre­ole” is about lan­guage and cul­ture. For An­glo-sax­ons, iden­tity is about race and eth­nic­ity. Af­ter the Civil War, Cre­oles are Amer­i­can­ized into ethno-racial iden­ti­ties. White Cre­oles be­come Amer­i­can, Cre­oles of colour be­come flag bear­ers for Cre­ole­ness, and Aca­di­ans be­come Ca­jun.

Cre­ole cui­sine is so­phis­ti­cated and com­plex with di­verse in­flu­ences, recipes and in­gre­di­ents. New Or­leans is one of the world’s great din­ing cities, best ex­em­pli­fied by in­no­va­tive modern-cre­ole restau­rants like Chef John Folse’s R’evo­lu­tion and Chef John Besh’s Au­gust Res­tau­rant. And yet the clas­sic Cre­ole restau­rants, where wait­ers wear tuxe- dos, have re­mained au courant for cen­turies. Com­man­der’s

Palace (1880) launched the ca­reers of famed Chefs Paul Prud­homme and Emeril La­gasse. Dishes like quail lac­quered in sug­ar­cane-rum vine­gar and stuffed with charred chili and pop­corn rice boudin are art­fully plated and boldly flavoured to en­rap­ture our palates. Mar­ti­nis are 25 cents. We each se­lect three of their five sig­na­tures, “Cause that’s enough,” reads the menu. Ar­naud’s (1918) is the home of the Mardi Gras Mu­seum. Its dizzy­ing ar­ray of oys­ters in­cludes my favourite, Bienville, baked in white wine with shrimp, mush­rooms and herbs. Del­i­cately sautéed sea­sonal fish is crowned with sweet Louisiana crab. Tur­tle soup is am­brosial, lux­u­ri­ously tex­tured and fin­ished with sherry. Any trip to New Or­leans must in­clude break­fast at Bren­nan’s. We be­gin with the sig­na­ture sweet and frothy Brandy Milk Punch. Egg yolk Carpac­cio with plump Gulf shrimp and a scrump­tious stack of crisp spun sweet po­tato is bril­liant. Poached Eggs Sar­dou with choron sauce, crunchy ar­ti­chokes and Parme­san-creamed spinach is pure deca­dence. No meal is com­plete with­out the Bren­nan’s-in­vented flamed Ba­nana’s Foster. Brad Bren­nan tells me, “When you walk out of the res­tau­rant, and you’re so stuffed, but you look over at your friends and say ‘where are we go­ing to eat next?’ That’s when I know I’ve got ya! You’ve been Cre­olized.”

The “Cra­dle of Jazz” rocks ev­ery night. From soul-sear­ing tra­di­tional jazz at Preser­va­tion Hall, through the ca­coph­ony of Bour­bon Street with my cock­tail-to-go in a sou­venir gold cham­pagne bot­tle from the

Bour­bon O Bar at Bour­bon Or­leans Ho­tel, to the laid back rhythms of a rag­time quartet at 21st Amend­ment, it’s all cel­e­bra­tory and un­pre­ten­tious. We’re wel­come every­where, and the mu­sic never stops. Lais­sez les bons temps rouler!

“We’re wel­come every­where, and the mu­sic never stops. Lais­sez les bons temps rouler! ”

Louisiana crab and craw­fish

Martin Ac­cor­dions; Laura Plan­ta­tion (below)

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