Down in southern Louisiana's Cajun Country, the youngsters start to dance before their feet touch the floor. At most any family dance hall, you'll see Dad scoop up his infant daughter (or Mom her son) and join in a fancy two-step to the tunes of a rollicking five-piece violin and accordion band.
Around the crowded floor they whirl, the youngsters grinning in their parents' arms, Dad and Mom kicking up their feet as the tempo of the music builds. The kids are cute, so several of the dancing couples wave or nod, but nobody -- except maybe a big-city visitor from the East -- sees anything out of the ordinary.
In Cajun Country, the whole family dances, even when some of them aren't big enough yet to walk.
One of those dance halls, Mulate's, in the bayou village of Breaux Bridge, is a good place to begin a tour of Cajun Country -- a region made up of 22 southern Louisiana parishes, mostly west of the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast and the Texas border.
It is a wonderfully lush, wet landscape of woods, swamps and fields of rice and sugar cane and quaint country villages with a French flavor.
An evening at Mulate's, a comfortable, down-home fish restaurant with a long history as a Cajun gathering spot, gives you a quick close-up look at these friendly, fun-loving, somewhat shy descendants of the Acadians, a French-speaking people of Catholic religion who were brutally expelled by the British from their Nova Scotia farms in 1755.
It also introduces you to the Cajuns' lively music, not unlike country-western -- though the singers switch easily from English to French -- and to the spicy, pepper-hot Cajun food made famous by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, who grew up not far from Breaux Bridge.
Try one of Mulate's tasty stuffed-crab, fried catfish or crawfish dishes -- Breaux Bridge calls itself "the crawfish capital of the world" -- but have a cold beer handy, or maybe two, to cool your tongue.
After their exile from Nova Scotia and succeeding years of hardship, many surviving Acadians found their way to sanctuary in Louisiana, a Catholic territory founded by the French. They readily adapted to their new home northwest of New Orleans, resuming the life of farming, trapping and hunting they had lived in Canada.
"Cajun," a long-ago corruption of "Acadian," is the term commonly used today for descendants of the original Acadians. "Acadiana" is the more formal name for this region used on state road maps.
As a people largely isolated until this century by the swamps and bayous of their new home, they remained close-knit over the decades, retaining many old customs, including -- at least among older Cajuns -- their 18th-century French (with North American variations).
Today's Cajuns are now very much a part of mainstream America -- as a result of the influence of schools, roads and television. But they are still linked by family ties, and they maintain a strong interest in their heritage, which for a time seemed threatened by the flood of oil industry newcomers to this part of the state. Indeed, the name of the football team at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette -- "Capital of French Louisiana" -- is the "Ragin' Cajuns." And, as a T-shirt proclaims, "damn proud of it."
In Louisiana, they say the Cajuns have a zest for life, which you quickly will recognize when you watch the couples -- blue-collar and professional, young and old -- enjoying themselves at Mulate's, one dance after another until sweat pours down their faces.
Why not join them? The music is irresistible -- nobody just listens, they get up and move -- and nobody cares about your footwork as long as you are having fun.
"Laissez les bons temps rouler," announces the band leader at the start of the new set, "Let the good times roll." And so, quite willingly, you do.
And so you will continue to do -- after this sample of the Cajun spirit -- while you explore the rest of Cajun Country, your feet tapping all the while to the beat of tunes coming now from the car radio.
Sprawling across the southern third of Louisiana, Cajun Country, or Acadiana, is a largely swampy wetlands draped in the eerie beauty of Spanish moss. So delicate is the moss, swaying from the branches of a live oak, and yet it is a bit funereal, too -- a reminder that despite their fun-loving nature, the Cajuns' life in Louisiana began in tragedy.
In this luxuriant, yet moody landscape, laced by muddy, slow-moving bayous -- the frog-filled rivers of this region -- you can visit a restored Acadian village in Lafayette; take a boat ride in the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp at Henderson; walk through gorgeous gardens near New Iberia; tour restored plantation homes; visit a food festival -- there's one almost every week somewhere -- and stand beneath the oak at tiny St. Martinville that shaded poor Evangeline, the heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Acadian poem, who arrived in Louisiana in futile search for her long-lost love.
At least two plantations take overnight guests, Nottoway in White Castle on the Mississippi River and Mintmere in New Iberia on Bayou Teche. Some Acadians achieved wealth enough for such large homes, and they were followed by other prosperous settlers -- French aristocrats fleeing the revolution at home and American sugar-cane planters who came after the United States acquired the territory with the Louisiana Purchase.
We stayed, however, in a delightful, beautifully restored Cajun bed-and-breakfast inn, Ti Frere's House, in a country setting just outside Lafayette. There are only two guest rooms, each with its own bath. The roosters in the back-yard pen can be trusted as reliable alarm clocks, and the eggs at breakfast are very fresh.
Ti Frere's was built in 1880 by Oneziphore "Ti Frere" (Little Brother) Comeaux, who added Victorian touches to the more traditional Cajun style -- a large front porch for socializing and a steep-pitched roof. Steep roofs were necessary in the Cajuns' Canadian homeland because of heavy snows, and the exiles continued to build what they knew when they got to Louisiana.
Though they are not Cajuns themselves, the owners, Peggy and George Moseley, are from this part of Louisiana, and they know where to send you for good Cajun food. Peggy Moseley jokes that, given the high quality of local cooking, she even recommends the nearest school cafeteria.
After a day of sightseeing, you are treated to wine and cheese on the porch, and when you leave your hosts offer a traditional "lagniappe" -- "a little something extra." In our case, it was a shaker of Cajun spices to sprinkle on our breakfast eggs at home.
*Acadiana is a semitropical region, fragrant with spring's flowers, uncomfortably muggy in midsummer, but very good for growing crops such as rice, sugar cane, garlic and the peppers that are a staple of the Cajun diet.
The home of Tabasco, the famous hot pepper sauce, is at Avery Island near New Iberia, just south of Lafayette. At the plant -- you can sniff the sauce before you get there -- you peer into the huge oak vats where the red pepper mash, aged for three years to sharpen the bite, is being mixed with vinegar just before bottling. You get a sample in a tiny replica bottle as you leave.
Food -- being grown, manufactured or served up in a cafe' or at a weekend festival -- is a big part of a Cajun Country tour.
The obvious gateway to Cajun Country is New Orleans -- no slouch itself at good food, good music and good times. Consider a two- or three-day circle tour northwest from the city that promises a lot of beautiful scenery and interesting history and not too many miles of driving.
The suggested route that follows is based on the premise that you spend a leisurely day getting to Lafayette, a distance of about 120 miles, where you will spend a day or two on sightseeing excursions from the city -- including dinner at Mulate's. Afterward, you return to New Orleans through the heart of Acadiana on U.S. Rte. 90 (and side roads) via such Cajun communities as St. Martinville, New Iberia, Franklin, Morgan City, Thibodaux and Houma. The route to Lafayette: From New Orleans, take I-10 west to Louisiana Rte. 22/70, south of Baton Rouge. Signs will direct you to the Sunshine Bridge across the Mississippi. Pick up Louisiana Rte. 1 north, the River Road to Nottoway Plantation at White Castle.
With 64 rooms, it is really an American castle, one of the largest plantations in the South. Of Greek Revival and Italianate style -- long balconies and lots of columns -- it was built just before the Civil War by a sugar planter from Virginia. As the story goes, it was saved from destruction by a Northern gunboat officer who had been a guest there before the war.
Further north, at Plaquemine, go left via Louisiana Rte. 75/77 to Grosse Tete on I-10 again. On this shortcut, to get around Baton Rouge, you will wind along a bayou through lovely green countryside. Grosse Tete is a small village where the largest sign I saw advertised "fishing worms."
West from Grosse Tete, I-10, rising up on tall stilts, tiptoes across the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp, a huge wilderness of moss-covered cypress and oak. In Henderson, on the western side of the swamp, you can take a 90-minute boat tour of the swamp (departing several times daily), always keeping alert to spot swamp creatures such as deer, alligators and water snakes.
Henderson is also an excellent stop for lunch. Pat Huval's Fisherman's Wharf Cafe', one of a cluster of Cajun cafe's on the bayou, specializes in crawfish, the tiny lobsterlike shellfish that is served up in a variety of ways -- steamed, deep-fried, as a stew -- much as you would shrimp. Huval's crawfish bisque with sausage-stuffed crawfish heads is very good and very, very spicy.
Lafayette is a small, modern city on the edge of the Attakapas Prairie to the west. An oil town -- recently prosperous but now suffering from the drop in prices -- it offers plenty of good hotels and motels, and Ti Frere's. Cajun Country touring from here can take you in any direction. Here are some recommended stops:
Acadian Village, Lafayette: If a night at Mulate's stirred your interest in Cajuns, you can learn a lot about their life in Louisiana at this recreated village of the late 1800s, sitting beside a small iris-ringed swamp -- and a patch of prairie, too, since Cajuns settled in both regions.
Most of the nine or 10 structures, including several homes, are authentic, moved to the site from their original locations and restored and furnished with Cajun antiques. Three buildings -- the general store, a chapel and the blacksmith shop -- are replicas.
The homes, wrapped in sweet honeysuckle, are more substantial than they appear. Behind their cypress-wood siding they are very well insulated with "bousillage entre poteaux" (mud between posts), an ingenious mixture of mud and Spanish moss that kept out the heat and the chill.
Most of the homes have outside staircases, reaching to the "garconniere" or attic loft, where the young males in the family slept. The staircases were constructed outside for a very good reason: Indoor staircases, but only those indoors, were taxed in the 1700s.
The early Cajuns have a reputation for hardy self-sufficiency, able to grow their own food and make what implements they needed. So each building displays an object or two that may puzzle you. At the Thibodeaux House, built from hand-hewn cypress in 1820, there's a long bamboo stick with a corncob stuck on the end of it of no apparent use.
That is, until you read the sign that identifies it as "a Cajun backscratcher." Only later did we learn this was a little Cajun joke.
St. Martinville: A visit to this small town, just south of Lafayette, will treat you to the history of the Acadian exile and a bit of the romance. This is the "Land of Evangeline," and a good reason to read or reread Longfellow's poem, perhaps in the shade of the Evangeline Oak, nicely encircled by a small park.
The British removed the Acadians, who had settled Nova Scotia in 1604, because they considered them a threat to their Canadian lands. Troops herded about 8,000 men, women and children on ships, often separating families and friends, and scattered them throughout the American colonies and the Caribbean -- an event remembered by Acadians as "Le Grand De'rangement." For the next decade, many found their way to French Louisiana.
According to Cajun legend, somewhat different from Longfellow's poem, a betrothed Acadian couple (Evangeline and Gabriel, to give them Longfellow's names) were put on different ships. Gabriel reached St. Martinville first. Three years later, Evangeline arrived, her wedding gown carefully packed in her trunk, only to discover that Gabriel had given her up for lost and married someone else.
They are said to have first seen each other beneath the Evangeline Oak, the site of the town wharf on Bayou Teche where Evangeline presumably first stepped ashore. She died of grief within a few months, and the story is that she is buried in the Catholic Church nearby.
Longfellow is supposed to have heard this tale and created his own version, much more romantic and just as sad. Gabriel, instead of marrying someone else, leaves St. Martinville in search of Evangeline just before she arrives. She pursues him for years, missing by an hour, a day, a month. Eventually she gives up and becomes a nun. While treating the ill during an epidemic years later, she finds Gabriel, who is one of the victims. He recognizes Evangeline and dies in her arms. She dies shortly after.
In 1929, a movie, "Evangeline," was made not far from St. Martinville, starring Delores del Rio. She and the cast ordered a statue made of Evangeline -- some say it resembles del Rio -- which sits behind the Catholic Church. Evangeline wears the long dress and wooden shoes of a young French country girl.
For a while, St. Martinville, a rather graceful little town, was one of the leading communities of Louisiana. Many French aristocrats settled there, and while the jewels with which they fled lasted, they tried to recreate the life style of Paris, building fancy houses to hold great balls. They called their new home "Le Petit Paris."
Longfellow-Evangeline State Commemorative Area: The name is ponderous for a quite lovely park filled with moss-heavy oaks on the Bayou Teche just north of St. Martinville. It is the site of an early French indigo plantation. The small plantation manor -- Acadian House -- was built in the early 19th century and is furnished as it was in its earliest days.
In one room, our guide, a young Cajun named Suzanne, scoffed when we pointed to the corncob and bamboo contraption we thought was a back scratcher. "Oh no," she said, "we used to soak the cob in coal oil and used it as a torch to go night-frogging."
Well, whatever, it seemed suitable to either task.
Our guide pointed out the "whistlewalk," a pathway from the kitchen in a separate building to the main house. In earlier days, servants were required to whistle as they carried pots from the hearth so the mistress of the house could be sure they weren't sampling on their way.
It is a tradition that lingered in this region. "Grandme re," said the guide, "made us do that when we were bringing in pecans to make pralines."
In the front of the house is an especially grand oak, believed to be 350 years old and, in the Land of Evangeline, naturally the subject of another legend. When the breezes waft from the bayou, it is said, Evangeline and Gabriel can be heard whispering among the dangling ribbons of Spanish moss.
Jungle Gardens of Avery Island and the Live Oak Gardens of Jefferson Island: Each live oak with its mantle of moss and gnarled branches seems individual, so you never tire of seeing another. Both of these large gardens, not far from New Iberia (or each other), feature live oaks at their most impressive, and yet each garden is quite different.
Jungle Gardens is the creation of Edward Avery McIlhenny, the Tabasco manufacturer, who built it at the beginning of this century on the salt island (rising above the surrounding marshes) where the peppers for his sauce are grown. The Tabasco plant is a few hundred yards away.
It is an informal garden of exotic trees and flowering bushes, principally azaleas and camellias, set beside Bayou Petit Anse. You walk or drive through it as you would a woodland wilderness (though a carefully tended one), enjoying the variety of shapes and the tones of green.
Live Oak Gardens is also built on a salt island, the project of a successful 19th-century actor, Joseph Jefferson, and later his son. The older Jefferson made a career of portraying Rip Van Winkle on stage, spending many of his winters on Jefferson Island.
Theirs is an elaborate hillside flower garden overlooking Lake Peigneur. Here you walk winding paths past great clumps of color, usually with a magnificent old oak standing sedately in the background. This is a picture-snapping garden.
Go to a festival: They claim in Cajun Country that there's a festival somewhere every week of the year, and if that's not exactly the truth, it is close to it. There are festivals to jambalaya (a rice, sausage and fish dish), shrimp, sugar cane, boudin (a spicy sausage you spoon from its casing), pralines (a brown-sugar candy), rice and almost anything else edible.
We chanced on the Crawfish Festival at Breaux Bridge, held the first weekend in May of even-numbered years. It is a noisy, all-day street party with carnival rides and plenty of beer, crawfish and dancing -- everybody dances -- to Cajun bands playing from the backs of flatbed trailers.
In Cajun Country, a street dance is a "fais-do-do," a very popular pastime. One group -- a base fiddle, drum, violin and washboard -- had couples twirling under a blazing Louisiana sun.
Food booths lined the sidewalk on Main Street, most of them selling local crawfish: boiled by the dozen; or as a plate of etouffee (a sauce over rice); or a crawfish pie; or deep-fried crawfish tails in a bag like popcorn; or a crawfish "dog" -- a really hot hot dog of ground crawfish tails, onions and spicy peppers ($2 each). Carry it and a beer as you mingle in the street (cars are detoured) with the rest of the celebrants before the next dance.
"Laissez les bons temps rouler," they say in Cajun Country. We certainly tried to do our part.