Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Black Pot

If it is possible to fall in love with a place, I have already done so. Physically, Lafayette is not a beautiful city, but I mean it when I say that it is the personality that counts. The capital of Cajun country in Louisiana, it is where you can find traditional Cajun food and music on a regular basis, as if time has not passed since the arrival of French Acadians in the 18th century. It is a place where people still cook with a black pot.

So it only makes sense that there would be a Blackpot Festival, every year, at Acadian Village, a folk life museum situated on 10 acres of farmland just at the edge of Lafayette proper. Created and organized in large part by the Red Stick Ramblers band six years ago, of the half dozen or so Cajun festivals in the area I've attended, I consider Blackpot Festival the premiere. With an outdoor dance pavilion and a small church serving as simultaneous music venues, one can see not only Cajun legends old and new, but also blues, bluegrass, country, and Appalachian music; and that isn't counting the scores of musicians who jam around campfires after hours.

But here Cajun prevails. In this part of the country where conversation in French was banned in schools just a few decades ago in order to induce the assimilation of Acadians into Anglo-American life, on this weekend I watch and listen to twenty-something-year-old Cajuns croon in ancient French, equipped with accordions and fiddles, while dancers take the field. It is as if Britney Spears never happened.


The weekend, however, truly culminates around the cooking contest, where local contestants cook their wares on-site in their own cast iron black pots. Only a handful will earn titles, but it is really the spectators who win during the free tastings. Gumbo, rabbit stew, jambalaya, soups involving frogs...the Cajuns really figured it out when they first threw the nearest swamp animal in a black pot for dinner. It doesn't take much suspension of disbelief to buy that the morsels being served up at the contest are true to the spirit of Cajun swamp life in the early days.

To me Blackpot Festival is the perfect marriage between food and music. And, in this environment, it is impossible not to enjoy the company of friends, some I brought with me from New Orleans, some I reconnected with from my old home of Alaska, and some I've met only a handful of times previously in Lafayette who treat me as they've known me forever. Food, music, and possibly a little booze, the kindness of strangers and friends...it sounds simple enough but why is it that you can't find that combination just anywhere? Maybe it takes culture, or in Lafayette's case, a couple hundred years of culture.

There is a Cajun saying, "Lache pas la patate," which means, literally, don't drop the potato. In modern times, the slogan has become an Acadian call to arms to hold on to a culture from a time far past--Don't let go, so to speak, of those things that make one Cajun. In the same way I love New Orleans for its continual blending of cultures throughout its existence and still so today, I fawn over Lafayette for precisely the opposite reason; because the Acadians are and have been determined to preserve and celebrate a culture created long ago in a distinct moment in history, and one that could have become extinct without such stubbornness. Born in the countryside of France, driven through the snows of North America, finally to flourish in the swamps of Louisiana, Cajun culture is at once French in its roots but also truly American in its resourcefulness which shaped it into something utterly unique. In their own way, Cajuns are evidence that America truly is a melting pot, in this case, a black cast iron one with a gumbo in it.

Photos by William Clancy used with permission.

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