Cajun Country

Zydeco and étouffée still reign in western Louisiana, where the zesty gumbo known as Acadian culture has simmered since 1764

At Cafe Des Amis in Breaux Bridge
At Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, breakfast comes with zydeco music and dancing on the side, a tradition begun in 1998. Melding "pragmatism and adaptability," says historian Carl Brasseaux, is typically Cajun. Tyrone Turner

It's saturday morning in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (pop. 7,902). My bloody mary sports a dilly bean, my eggs share a plate with crawfish étouffée and my flatware is bouncing around like a Mexican jumping bean. This is the zydeco breakfast at Café Des Amis, a 20-table eatery in a former general store that dates to the 1920s and still wears its original moldings, pine floors and stamped-tin ceilings. Those who aren't standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in are dancing to Lil' Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers; the floorboards bounce to the beat. This is Cajun country, where traditions trump all—even in the face of natural disaster. (The region largely escaped Katrina in 2005, but Hurricane Rita hit the Cajun coast hard a month later.)

Yet the zydeco breakfast goes back only to 1998, when local boosters asked Dickie Breaux, the restaurant's owner, to play host to some French tourists. Someone had the idea of bringing in a zydeco band, townspeople showed up to dance and the breakfast took on a life of its own. Of course, the impulse behind it is quintessentially Cajun. "You're looking at a group that has distinguished itself for its pragmatism and adaptability," says Carl Brasseaux, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "For two and a half centuries, Cajuns have shown tremendous flexibility without compromising core values."

Cajun Louisiana—often called Acadiana—consists of 22 southwest Louisiana parishes, or counties, about a third of the state. The region is home to most of the 400,000 or so descendants of French Canadians who headed south after Britain took control of Canada in the 1760s. The city of Lafayette, two hours west of New Orleans, serves as the Cajun capital. Here street signs read "rue"; radios blare accordion music. Forget two widespread assumptions: that New Orleans is the seat of Cajun culture (few Cajuns actually live there) and that all Cajuns inhabit floating shacks in the swamps. These days, far more live in subdivisions, in housing of a style known locally as French provincial.

But swamps, eerie and haunting, indeed form the heart of this country—anyone driving west from New Orleans crosses the vast Atchafalaya Basin on an 18-mile causeway. Not that long ago, I floated the bayous in a 24-foot, low-draft crawfish skiff, navigating waters green with algae, with guide Bryan Champagne, 43, who was born just a few miles away and whose patter slips easily between French and English. He's been a swamp guide for eight years. "This is not that easy," he says of navigating with clients. "We're sort of down to earth and slow-going here," he says. "You get people from other states, and they're always going 100 miles per hour." At least the landscape takes some of the edge off. "They like the layout of the land. It's so flat, and there's so much water." As we chug along, heron, ibis and white egrets take wing. Champagne points out a yellow-bellied turtle—"There's not too much we can't eat here in Louisiana," he says—and veers up a side channel, bumping the skiff into an overgrown bank. Nearly hidden in the grasses lies a nest of more than two dozen alligators, not yet a week old, Champagne tells me. Each could easily fit in my hand.

The ancestors of today's Cajuns migrated from France to then-French Canada in the early 1600s, establishing agricultural communities on the Acadian Peninsula (today's New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). When British troops seized control of Canada a century and a half later, the Acadians fled inland to northern Maine or south to the West Indies and Louisiana.

The first 20 (the term "Cajun" is a truncated version of "Acadian") arrived in New Orleans in April 1764, before pushing west. "There's a big misconception that the Acadians were deported to Louisiana," says attorney Warren Perrin, whose ancestors were among the first settlers. "In fact, they came here voluntarily." (Perrin is locally celebrated for his 13-year campaign to extract an apology from the Queen of England for that bit of unpleasantness two-and-a-half centuries ago. She capitulated in 2003.)

Until World War II, most Cajuns spoke French; they worked as subsistence farmers, trappers, loggers or boat builders. By the 1960s, a causeway bisected the Atchafalaya Basin; suddenly, New Orleans and Baton Rouge lay within a couple of hours' driving time. Then came the oil boom of the 1980s, when high fuel prices accelerated the development of Louisiana's oil fields, both on land and offshore, buoying the region and vastly increasing vocational opportunities. (Critics contend that the pumping of oil and gas has caused the land to sink, contributing substantially to both a loss of wetlands and an increase in vulnerability to hurricanes.)

What hasn't changed is the Cajun predilection for large extended families: most Saturday nights are still reserved for get-togethers with friends and neighbors, fueled by music, food and dancing. Acadiana is also home to an almost nonstop roster of festivals, large and small; savvy travelers tune in to KBON (101.1 FM).

Historically, the Cajun diet was born of necessity, as local cooks used abundant rice and crawfish, flavoring them with the "trinity": green peppers, onions and celery. Cooks melded French traditions ("first you make a roux [a thickening of flour and butter, pan-browned]") with ingredients borrowed from various cultures (African okra and Native American filé powder, from sassafras leaves, for example). The New Yorker's Calvin Trillin once wrote that the spicy, popular boudin—a sausage of pork, pork livers, rice and spices—is best served hot, squeezed from casing into mouth "in the parking lot of a grocery store and preferably while leaning against a pickup."

Another staple, crawfish étouffée (simmered in a tomato sauce) is said to have first appeared at the Rendezvous Restaurant in Breaux Bridge in the 1940s, when the owner made up a batch for herself and customers began requesting it. Today, a Cajun luminary, chef Paul Prudhomme, who grew up in nearby Opelousas, is renowned for a dish he concocted in the 1980s: blackened redfish. At the moment, a ubiquity of crawfish enchiladas at Cajun restaurants suggests the next new wave.

"The first thing the Acadians did when they stepped off the boat was to give a prayer of thanksgiving," says attorney Perrin. "And then they danced." Music in homes and dance halls has served to keep Cajun heritage (including the French language) alive. About an hour north of Lafayette, the town of Eunice (pop. 11,499) is home to the Cajun Music Hall of Fame and Museum (housed in another former general store) and to the recently restored Liberty Theater, originally a vaudeville palace dating from 1924. A five-dollar admission gains entry to Rendez-vous des Cajuns, a 90-minute variety show—a sort of Cajun Prairie Home Companion—broadcast live on local radio Saturday nights, with the banter often in French and the music ranging from zydeco to blues and rock. One recent evening featured the traditional music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. No sooner had they hit their first chord than couples crowded the dance floor, swaying to the rhythms of accordion and bass.

Later that night back in Lafayette, at the Blackpot Festival & Cookoff, a band known as Feufollet (the name refers to the ghostly, luminescent marsh gases, once believed to be specters haunting the bayous) belted out traditional Cajun songs in French. Twenty-somethings with tattoos shared the floor with dancers in their 60s and 70s, all of them—no matter their age—swinging and swooping and hollering. Cajun culture, it would seem, is alive and well, and ready for another century.

Freelancer Wayne Curtis is based in New Orleans. Photographer Tyrone Turner works from Arlington, Virginia.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.