It is rare to find a place within a six-hour drive of Paris that I haven’t explored. Lafayette and the surrounding Cajun country of SE Louisiana was one of those. It beckoned with its unusual French past and foot stomping music. The recommendation by a friend of a historic bed and breakfast finally got us there.
Maison Madeline, owned by Madeline Cenac, a true Acadian descendant from the original Canadian French settlers, had the vision for the B & B. She purchased an 1840 Creole home in the countryside and transported it to a lovely setting near Lake Martin to be restored. Her historic interior design specialty was in the 1800’s French Cajun style and the home is filled with antiques as well as modern pieces and paintings of family members offering a more eclectic experience.
Besides the hearty breakfast, Madeline and her husband, Walt, provided ideas, directions, and restaurants to fill our time in the area. Madeline had specific stories about her family history as did Vicki and Hubert Herbert, our instructors for the chicken and sausage gumbo cooking lesson.
They had all lived in the area for many decades sporting the accent to prove it. When I asked Vicki and Hubert if they still spoke French, they began chatting with each other in the Cajun French dialect. I recognized “je t’aime” ( I love you) but not much more. Visitors from France say the Cajun French feels like a language and accent from the past.
Madeline insisted we should visit the Arcadia Culture Center in Lafayette and it was there I finally got the story straight about the settling of the area by French Canadians. Their ancestors had lived in the French controlled eastern Canade before being expelled by the English when they took over. They were loaded on ships, some sent along the coast of the United States and some returned to France.
The continental French wanted to return to the New World. In 1755, the first Canadian French settlers came to Louisiana. Many landed on the shore of the Bayou Teche in St. Martinville where a tree still commemorates the poem, Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Louisiana was a far cry from Canada, but they embraced it and many became prosperous sugar farmers. Sugar cane still dominates this rural area. On a map in the cultural center, visitors were asked to place a sticker on the towns they were from. There were many from Quebec and Ontario and France was covered up with dots, meaning this area of the United States is well visited by the French today. (As an aside, Paris, Texas had no dot and I put us on the map).
Another notable proof of the French influence is the large number of Catholic churches with sizeable diocesan residences. Street signs are in French in many communities including downtown Lafayette. And food is as important to the Cajun people as it is to the French today. They love to cook. French recipes have been handed down including the pain perdu (French toast) served us one morning. They also incorporated the foods of the new world into creative recipes. Okra, crawfish and grits have become entwined while the traditional French bread is used in local bread pudding.
Thanks to Madeline and Walt’s suggestions, we visited area small towns made famous by author James Lee Burke, checked out the Tabasco bottling plant, drove and walked through gardens and even had a swamp tour replete with alligators. Our young guide on Lake Martin grew up around the lake and told amusing stories of climbing into the trees and using a rope swing to jump in the swamp water. He assured us alligators weren’t interested in us, proved by the miniscule number of fatal gator attacks each year in the U.S. – 1 or 2. His ability to identify a gator by just the size of the head poking out of the water was a mystery until he instructed us to mentally measure the number of inches between the eye and the bulb on the nose. Each inch represented a foot in length.
Lafayette had just finished their Acadien and Creole Festival and the town seemed to be recovering. An unexpected appearance of the large puppet, Little Amal, brought a crowd. She has visited many countries, representing the plight of the millions in refugee camps around the world. A small band led her as she made her way down Rue Jefferson.
We had every intention of finding some zydeco music, that unique Cajun dancing sound that highlights the accordion and washboard. But music early in the week proved impossible to find. We had to settle for a CD. I don’t often return to places I visit but I just might to Cajun Country for the music (and the food and the history and the ambiance).