by Kyle Digby – @kyledigby
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I grew up in the small town of Mandeville, Louisiana. I currently live in the capital of Cajun country: Lafayette, Louisiana.
WHERE ARE YOUR PEOPLE FROM?
This is a complex question for Cajuns. Historically speaking the Cajuns are the descendants of the Acadian people, former French colonists that were expelled from Nova Scotia by British soldiers during the Seven Years’ War (or French & Indian War) in 1755. Families were broken up and scattered to different ends of the world, and were rejected from numerous places, before finally finding refuge in Louisiana. They carved out a way of life for themselves here, and because of the nature of their history, welcomed refugees and settlers from all other backgrounds. People of Spanish, Native American, African, German, Irish, Caribbean, and American backgrounds were all integrated into and with the Acadian culture, blending in this melting pot and becoming a uniquely new creole culture that’s come to be known as “Cajun.” Personally, my people are from Lockport, New Orleans, Montreal, Paris, Basque country, England and Germany. But Cajun culture is a multicultural blend of people from many different backgrounds and walks of life. Trying to nail down exactly what is Cajun and what it means to be Cajun is sometimes difficult.
WHAT DO YOU EAT?
Everything. Cajun and creole cuisine is one of the only uniquely American styles of cuisine. Like the culture itself it blends flavors and ingredients from many different backgrounds and regions, and ties them all together with classic French culinary techniques and traditions. One of the most iconic Louisiana dishes, gumbo, actually derives its name from “kingombo” an Angolan word for okra. Jambalaya is more or less a chicken and pork paella (jambon (ham) + paella = jambalaya). Being in Louisiana, seafood is of course ubiquitous, and the unique bounty of local ingredients, wild game, and waterfowl has definitely shaped the culinary tradition. There’s also a lot of traditionally Alsatian influence, especially with pork, in certain parts of the state with the tradition of boucheries (or communal pig butcherings), and staples like boudin, cracklin, and blood sausage. Food is almost always a social event, with families and friends often coming together for large communal meals or seafood boils, and it is a huge part of the culture.
HOW DO YOU DRESS?
More or less like any other Americans. Though there are some peculiarities that might arise based on your trade. But costuming is really big, and very important, during carnival and Mardi Gras. Carnival begins on January 6th (Twelfth Night, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas, aka the Feast of the Epiphany in Catholic tradition) and is a celebration that ramps up over several weeks and culminates on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the Lenten fast. Historically it’s basically to celebrate making it through the winter without having died, a celebration of life, rebirth, and new beginnings. Blowing out the old stores of fat & potatoes and welcoming in spring. During carnival, people traditionally mask, to hide their identity while participating in the debauchery and foolishness of the celebration, mocking public officials, and concealing their class hierarchy. Elaborate costumes and make-up are important parts of the fun and celebration, and for artistic expression and political commentary.
WHAT CUSTOMS DO YOU OBSERVE?
In the rural southwestern parts of the state, far from the elaborate parades and huge crowds of New Orleans, Mardi Gras more closely resembles the old European tradition of wassailing. Drunken bands of costumed revelers, adorned with capuchons and masks, travel on foot or on horse from door to door playing music, singing, dancing, playing tricks, seeking ingredients for a large communal gumbo. If you’re lucky, a farmer will throw out a chicken, which all the drunken revelers will chase and clamor to capture for the gumbo. At the end of the day they return to the starting point for a huge party. Google “faquetaique” or “courir de Mardi Gras” to see what it’s like. People here love to celebrate life though. Despite constantly ranking near the bottom of almost every material measure of quality of life (education, income, health, etc..) Louisiana almost always ranks among the happiest people in America. And that’s because we have a strong sense of community and family, we celebrate life with meals/festivals/sports/music, and are (sometimes unfortunately) largely unconcerned with politics or the goings-on of the rest of the world. Cajuns are some of the most hardworking people on earth, but we work to live, we don’t live to work, or accumulate material wealth, and we work hard at playing and having fun.
The Cajun people of south Louisiana are a largely French speaking people. Everyone speaks English now, but a large number still speak French and fight to keep it alive. A century ago, everyone spoke French, but the US government and Catholic church tried to stamp it out and get everyone to switch over to English. But now there are groups dedicated to keeping French alive culturally in south Louisiana. People even put their children into French immersion programs where they learn all their school subjects in French. You have a generation of older people who spoke nothing but French, a generation of adults who don’t speak it much at all because they had nuns literally beating it out of them, and now a younger generation that is growing up speaking it again. It’s cool because the kids share this link with the elders of the community, and they also have a secret language they can talk and text in that their parents don’t know!
Music and dancing are also hugely culturally important here, and traditional francophone music thrives here. A Cajun band, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, just won a Grammy, and it has been a big deal for a lot of people here. Lafayette is kind of like Nashville in the respect that a lot of people in this town grow up in a musical tradition, and your butcher or the bank teller are also world class musicians. Getting together to drink beer and jam on the porch are very common here, and it’s just another way that people come together to celebrate life.
Cajuns are incredibly hard working, loyal, and generous people. Never was that more evident that during the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and the flooding of south Louisiana in 2016. Thousands of rescuers dubbed ‘The Cajun Navy’ poured into these flood affected disaster zones with their own personal boats and watercraft to conduct search and rescue operations, unprompted by officials. They even towed in campers and cooking equipment to prepare meals and provide shelter for those affected. Because of their traditionally rural background, Cajuns know that you must count on your neighbors when you need help. They believe that you can’t wait on a government or outside force to come help you (because in their experience it’s either never happened, or never been a good thing). And so they are quick to drop what they are doing and help anyone out in a time of need, because they understand the reciprocity of such action. If you expect your neighbors to help you, you need to be there for them.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT EDUCATION, RELIGION, SCIENCE?
I personally feel that education is important, and wish the state of Louisiana would make a better commitment to adequately funding public education throughout the state. It’s encouraging, at least in terms of Cajun culture, to see the effort of French immersion schools to help preserve and perpetuate that aspect of the culture. I graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in International Studies and a concentration in the Environment and Economic Development. The broad curriculum emphasized proficiency in history, anthropology, globalization, politics, economics, philosophy, natural resource management, literature, and religion. This generalist background is one of the reasons I love Mixed Mental Arts. Often, most educational models emphasize specialization, and increasing focus on particular areas of study, but often fail to take as step back, and examine seemingly unrelated links between disparate fields of study, forming a more holistic model. I currently work in oil & gas exploration, but am considering giving up this career field to become a teacher because I feel that it’s important work, and I want to make real contributions to making my community and my state better for the future.
Most people in South Louisiana are practicing Roman Catholic. It has one of the highest concentrations of Catholics in the US, and is one of the most religiously conservative places outside of Salt Lake City. Which at times seems strange combined with the French sort of Laissez Faire liberalism and relaxed social mores of the region. I grew up in the Catholic tradition, but have studied and read many other religions and philosophies, and now more or less consider myself to be agnostic, or at least “spiritual, but not religious.” I firmly believe in the power of science to better understand and relate to our place in this world and in this universe, but also understand that at times, it can act as a religion in and of itself. Ultimately, they’re all disciplines that inform the overarching story of how we understand the universe we exist in. Some use myths and parables, some use objective observation and science, but it’s all part of crafting our narrative of understanding that is always shifting and never fully complete.
HOW IS YOUR CULTURE SUITED TO THE ENVIRONMENT?
This culture is a direct product of this environment. It was settled by people that were cast out of their home, that no one wanted, and they came here and settled this land that no one wanted and created a life for themselves out of flood-prone, mosquito and disease ridden swamps and marshes. They thrived largely in isolation for almost two centuries because it was surrounded by swampland and cut off from the rest of the world. All this eat-local and farm-to-table and hunt-to-eat stuff that is now in vogue was just how people lived here. Unfortunately, that way of life and relationship to the land is literally disappearing. The construction of the levee system by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the great flood of 1927 has prevented the Mississippi River from flooding and depositing silt and mud every year, building the land up. Plus canals cut through the marshes by oil companies in the last century are allowing for salt water to infiltrate the marshes, killing the canes and grasses whose roots hold the land together. And now a parasitic insect from Asia is threatening to exacerbate the problem. Because of these issues, Coastal Louisiana is losing 3 football fields of land every day to coastal erosion, and there’s no real solution in sight for how to stop it. It’s a national disaster, and combined with rising seas from climate change, the people of coastal Louisiana are poised to be some of America’s first climate refugees. And this is destroying the habitat that produces shrimp, fish, ducks, and other important parts of the natural bounty on which this culture is based. This culture is so closely tied to the environment here, but state officials are nothing but paid lackeys for the oil & gas industry, and they’ll never take meaningful steps to hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done and continue to do to our environment. Our culture is literally washing away, out to sea.
Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about my culture! And this is just the tip of the iceberg! Love the podcast guys, keep doing what you’re doing.