Do you appreciate good boudin? Are you particular about your mirlitons? Like to bump and grind to a little zydeco in the evening? Did you dig Clifton Chenier when Cajun wasn't cool?
How chic is Cajun?
So chic that Cajun fast food has arrived, the burgeoning Popeye's paving the way here for two Cajun Kings. Blackened redfish and crawfish e'touffe' are culinary musts for the well-heeled diner. Cajun music and its rock-influenced cousin zydeco have caught on across the country. And now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (which concludes tomorrow) has given Louisiana the cultural nod, teamed up, in a case of dueling chics, with India.
"Lots of restaurants are doing Louisiana food now," says Cajun chef ce'le bre Paul Prudhomme, who will temporarily close his now-famous K-Paul's restaurant in New Orleans to take it to New York this month. "I hope it never gets chic."
"Cajun food has definitely been embraced by people who like to be trend setters," says Peter Finkhauser, owner of New Orleans Emporium and New Orleans Cafe in Adams-Morgan. "We have a number of people come from entertainment, sports, politics -- a couple of senators and most of the New Orleans delegation, representatives and so forth."
Finkhauser, a German-born former executive chef at several American hotels, "saw the possibilities" in the New Orleans Cafe and purchased it three years ago, when it was "just beignets and cafe' au lait." He went to New Orleans and studied the Cajun cuisine "in depth," working with big-time restaurant owners the Brennan family and Prudhomme, and developed a menu.
At the Louisiana section of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, visitors have been entertained by a fuller representation of the state -- weavers, boat builders, blues and zydeco musicians, basket makers, cowboy and native American storytellers, and other attractions, including a Mardi Gras float.
"Look at Friendship Station on Wisconsin Avenue here," says Washington economist Steve Dinehart, enjoying a Louisiana band at the festival. "All these zydeco and Cajun music acts they're having . . . A couple of years back Clifton Chenier might drift into town, or the Neville Brothers if we were lucky . . . It says something when the Neville Brothers are playing at Merriweather Post Pavilion instead of the other smaller places around town."
At the festival grounds, not many Louisianans see eye to eye with haute Cajun.
"I don't know about that tradition of blackened redfish at all," says Ray Brassieur, a tall, red-bearded guitarist with the Cajun band File and "working folklorist" at the festival. "We live in the prairies and the bayou. We have freshwater stuff -- poisson arme' and choupique. We eat a lot of catfish."
Mirlitons, by the way, are a tropical squash.
"A lot of our food gets mixed up with New Orleans and Creole cooking," says Faren Serrette, another member of File, from the Atchafalaya (pronounced Cha-fe-ly-a) Basin. The essential difference between Cajun food and its imitators, says Serrette, "is a black iron pot. People back home cook simple . . . We don't fry fish, like they think -- we eat a lot of fish stew, 'cause that feeds more people."
"Cajun music is definitely more popular than it's ever been," says Brassieur. "We rigged this band because of demand. Last month we played in Tulsa, Okla. We were very surprised at how much they just love it.
"It's especially popular now in New Orleans to have weddings with Cajun music. These people don't speak French. It's become chic to have a Cajun band sometimes."
Cajuns were originally Acadians who emigrated from France to Nova Scotia, Brassieur says. In Nova Scotia the Acadians were "booted out in what was called La Grande De'rangement." Louisiana's French and Catholic cultures made that state the most appealing place to make their new home. Today Cajuns live mostly in the southern part of the state.
"When we got here, the English couldn't say 'Acadian,' so we cut it short to 'Cajun.' "
"Business is fantastic," says a harried Ellis Cormier, Cajun and owner of the Louisiana-based Cajun Way Family Restaurant. He has been manning a Cajun food stand at the Folklife Festival because he is "trying to go nationwide with this thing.
"I been working my tail off," he says, throwing handfuls of boudin sausages into a box. "We can't catch up." Cormier also owns the Boudin King restaurant in Jennings, La. "You haven't heard of Boudin King, have you? But you heard of Cajun. I think I got to change the name on that."
Back in New Orleans, where almost everyone owns a bag of Zatarain's pepper seasonings, a five-gallon pot for crawfish and a butane burner for high-flamed fish preparation, the Cajun mystique is not-so-haute, according to Deborah Bate, a former dweller in the city's affluent Garden district.
"New Orleans has Cajun jokes for its Polish jokes, most of them too salty to repeat," she says. Paul Prudhomme is a figure of mixed discussion at best, she says. "The joke is, he dropped his redfish into a bowl of black pepper by mistake and made a career out of it."
"Some places, they want to exploit Louisiana culture ," says Thomas Edison (Brownie) Ford, a native American from North Louisiana participating in the festival. "I've seen places all over where they say they have Louisiana red beans and rice. It don't taste like Louisiana beans and rice . . . They just don't understand good spices."
"Politicians use it when it's election time," says Brassieur, referring specifically to Cajun chic. "They'll always come on the radio with a speech in French. They want to show us they can speak French. We also have a local paper, the Times of Acadiana, which this year gave an award to people most successful at making a living off Cajun culture. They gave it to three people well known in the community.
"But this Cajun thing is helping the culture along," he adds. "It has been helped by outsiders, and sometimes it takes an outsider to see the value of a community.
"It used to be a great stigma to be Cajun, to have an accent. People called us a lot of things worse than Cajun . . . Now it's something to be proud of. It's a cultural revival."