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Cajun Culture Slow to Fade
The 'Cookin' Cajun' Dies, but Acadiana Lives On

Prudhomme audio Listen to Scott Simon talk with Paul Prudhomme.

Sept. 8, 2001 -- In the 1980s, America went Cajun-crazy. Thanks to chef Paul Prudhomme, the smell of blackened redfish wafted through the nation's restaurants. Thanks to movies like The Big Easy and musical acts like cult favorite BeauSoleil, Acadian culture made its way into the popular consciousness. And thanks to Justin Wilson, the Cajun cook and cornpone comic, the heavily accented yell "I gar-rawn-tee!" became a national catchphrase.

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson helped push Cajun culture into the popular consciousness. He died this week at 87.
Photo: Philip Gould

Wilson died on Sept. 5 at 87. His greatest success came from his hugely popular TV show "Cookin' Cajun," but he also published several cookbooks and recorded several albums. With his exaggerated accent, red suspenders and corny phrases, Wilson took a lot of flak from many Cajuns unhappy with the image he presented.

"He cranked up the accent a little too much," says Philip Gould, a photographer who documents life in Louisiana. "But what a lot of people don't realize is that in his humor, the Cajun always came out on top -- the Cajun was smarter, wiser. But he could have done just as well with 50 percent of the accent."

As Prudhomme told Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon this week, Wilson was a "humorist" who never meant to offend anyone.

Whatever Cajuns may have thought of him, at the height of his popularity Wilson was at the center of a singular cultural moment for the Cajun community.

Times grew hard for Cajuns and other residents of rural Louisiana in the 1980s. A downturn in the oil and gas industries threw many Cajuns out of work. The sudden popularity of Cajun culture was a lucky coincidence.

Tourists descended upon Acadiana -- surprising many Cajuns, but giving others entrepreneurial ideas. Hand-painted signs promoting "swamp tours" were tacked to trees and light poles. Local restaurants expanded their menus of authentic Cajun dishes, and Cajun musicians suddenly started getting more paying gigs in local watering holes.

The Cajun craze has eased in the intervening years, but Cajuns now have a solid place in the larger culture -- Cajun food remains hugely popular, as does Cajun music. And the Cajun culture itself remains more or less intact -- perhaps surprisingly so, given how quickly some regional cultures are being compromised by overexposure to media and technology, and by changes in demographics.

"American culture is washing out lots of cultures all over the world," says Barry Jean Ancelet, professor of French and folklore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "The miracle is that there are still people who think of themselves as Cajun and who live the culture and still speak French."

Cajuns at a crawfish boil
Cajuns gather around a pile of crawfish on the bayou.
Photo: Philip Gould

For a short time earlier this year, it looked briefly as if the Cajun culture were anything but resilient. Judging by the 2000 census, it looked at first like the number of Cajuns had dropped by a breathtaking amount, to about 44,000 from about 407,000 in 1990.

On closer examination, it appears the reason for the supposed decline was due mostly to the wording of the census form. "I can see 40,000 Cajuns from right here where I'm sitting," said Ancelet, speaking from his campus office.

The 1990 census listed "Cajun" as one choice for the question about "ancestry or ethnic origin." The 2000 census dropped "Cajun," but added "French Canadian." Many people wrote in "Cajun French" and others chose "French," so it looks like the Cajun count was diffused over several other ethnicities in the census.

The Cajun culture may be fading, but the process appears be going a lot slower than for other cultures. Ancelet prefers to think of it not as erosion, but evolution. "All living cultures evolve," he says. "If they stopped evolving, they'd stop living."

Cajuns at a crawfish boil
John Vidrine plays Cajun accordion during the Cajun Courir du Mardi Gras in Mamou, La.
Photo: Philip Gould

The word "Cajun" came from "Acadian," the name of the French-speaking Catholics who in the mid-18th century were thrown out of their homeland in Nova Scotia -- which they called Acadia -- because they refused to convert to Anglicanism, or to swear allegiance to the British crown. They eventually made their way to Louisiana.

Ancelet thinks that the Cajuns' origins, which drew them tightly together against a common enemy and as a simple matter of survival, are part of the reason they are able to keep their culture so well intact. "People have been predicting the demise of the Cajun culture for at least 150 years," he says.

And while he agrees that the popularization of the culture beginning in the '80s has helped keep the community intact by providing an economic boost, he warns that it has been a double-edged sword. "It's a commodification of our culture," he says. "We need to be careful not to sell ourselves. It's just too easy to turn yourself into a caricature."

Other Resources

Justin Wilson's homepage includes recipies for Cajun cookin' at home.

•Philip Gould documented Cajuns and other Louisianians in the book Louisiana Faces: Images from a Renaissance

•The Acadian Museum in Erath, La.