July 28, 1755. On this day, the British decided to expel the Acadians, immigrants from France, who settled in the land that the French called Acadia and the British called Nova Scotia. It was the beginning of a long resettlement that displaced many people and broke many families. This heart-wrenching episode in colonial history contributed to the development of the fascinating Cajun culture and cuisine of the Louisiana bayous.
On that fateful day about 260 years ago, the British destroyed the homes and barns of Acadian settlers, making it impossible for them to rebuild their communities. At issue was the British government’s demand that all colonists pledge their allegiance to the English crown—including a willingness to fight against France, which the Acadians, of French heritage themselves, refused to do. In retaliation, the British removed the Acadians from their farms and boarded them onto ships. Families were torn apart and many lost everything they owned. Some were dropped off, in small numbers, at points along the eastern seaboard as far south as New Orleans, while others were transported to the Caribbean. Some were put in jail, and many died at sea.
Acadians call this event the Grand Dérangement, or Great Upheaval; in English, it is known as the Expulsion. It displaced 10,000 to 18,000 Acadians. As a result of the deportation— and the subsequent migration in search of loved ones—many Acadians eventually settled in the remote swamps of Louisiana. The word Cajun is a loose pronunciation of Acadian, meaning “those from Acadia.”
Though Louisiana was then a colony of Spain, the Acadians managed to retain their French culture and became a major cultural influence. French is spoken in many parishes, and throughout southern Louisiana, one may hear English spoken with a French accent—testimony that the culture still survives in its contemporary Cajun form.
My friend and colleague Margot de l’Etoile, who is Canadian, writes, “Many of the Acadians drifted back over the years and settled in the Maritimes—not only the west coast of Nova Scotia, but also up the east coast of New Brunswick and all the way around the Bay of Chaleur. The French in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are therefore not Quebequois but are the remnants of the Acadians who slunk back. Many, of course, stayed in the places they were removed to, and their culture thrived, particularly in New Orleans.”
The Acadians originally came from southern France to Canada in the 1600s, bringing with them the flavorful country cooking style of their native land. They were a tough people, accustomed to living under strenuous conditions. They tended to serve nutritious, hearty country food prepared from locally available ingredients, and mainly cooked in one pot. Like the cooking of the Acadians, the cuisine of the Cajuns reflects their ingenuity, creativity, and adaptability. Despite the tragedy that befell them, they made the best of what south Louisiana offered. They settled along the bayous and resumed their usual livelihoods of farming, fishing, and trapping. They brought along their way of life and way of cooking, applying their familiar country-style methods to a completely new environment.
The Acadians adapted their dishes to the resources that grew wild in the area where they settled, using filé powder from the sassafras tree, bay leaves from the laurel tree, and an abundance of different fresh peppers, such as cayenne and banana, that grew wild in southern Louisiana. To learn how these early settlers combined their French peasant dishes with the spices and flavors of the south is fascinating!
In the Maritime Provinces of Canada, chowder is an important item on the menu, both for its nourishment and flavor. The word chowder comes from the French chaudière, which means boiler—probably a large iron cooking pot.
This is a traditional Acadian recipe and is a delicious example of simple North American comfort food.
Acadian Fish Chowder
Makes 8 cups
1/4 cup meaty salt pork, rind removed, chopped in 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3/4 lb. fresh or frozen cod, halibut, or haddock, cut in large pieces
5 cups whole milk
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Place the chopped salt pork in a pot over low heat. Gently fry the pork until browned.
Add all of the remaining ingredients and cook at low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Fish will break in to tender big chunks while cooking. If desired, adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper. Serve.
The Cajuns worked their unique magic, combining their French roots of roux making and the country habit of long, slow cooking to form some of the traditional dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya still found in Louisiana kitchens. Here is a classic Jambalaya from Chef Paul Prudhomme.
Cajun Chicken and Tasso Jambalaya
Makes 4 main-dish, or 8 appetizer servings
2 Tbs. Cajun seasoning
1/4 tsp. rubbed sage
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 pound (about 2 cups) chopped tasso (preferred) or other smoked ham
3/4 pound (about 2 cups) boneless chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup chopped onions, in all
1 cup chopped celery, in all
1 cup chopped green bell peppers, in all
1 Tbs. minced fresh garlic
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 cup peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups uncooked rice (preferably converted)
Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl.
Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over high heat. Add the tasso and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat starts to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken and continue cooking, stirring frequently and scraping the pan bottom well, until the chicken is browned, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the seasoning mix, 1/2 cup each of the onions, celery, and bell peppers, and the garlic.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Continue to cook the mixture, stirring almost constantly and scraping the pan bottom as needed, until the vegetables start to get tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Stir in the remaining onions, celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Remove from the heat, stir in the stock and rice, and mix well. Transfer the mixture to an ungreased 8 x 8-inch baking pan and bake, uncovered, until the rice is tender, but still a bit crunchy, about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir well, and discard the bay leaves. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.