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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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New book highlights Cajun food and cultural traditions

New book highlights Cajun food and cultural traditions

Flour, oil … equal parts. We all know the recipe for a roux. This lava-hot concoction is usually the first step to a fantastic dish. After 15 to 25 minutes, or so, this paper-bag colored, bubbling paste can give birth to a gumbo, fricassee, gravy or étoufée.

A roux is more than the sum of its parts – it’s a symbol of the common thread that binds a group of people identifying themselves as Cajuns.

Food for that matter is what binds Cajuns together as well. Food plays a central role at our celebrations, gatherings and way of life. Think crawfish boils on Good Friday, boucheries in the fall and oyster dressing at Thanksgiving. Through the food, Cajun culture is preserved.

Addie King Martin and Husband Jeremy Martin were sitting at the family camp behind Golden Meadow and were discussing food and culture and the implications both have on each other and the people that culture represents. They had questions about the connections certain traditions surrounding food played into defining a person’s identity, their culture … specifically ours, the people of southeastern Louisiana. They began a year-long quest to find those answers and penned a book in the process.

Southeast Louisiana Food –A Seasoned Tradition is the culmination of a year-long process that started on the dock of a humble fishing camp and took authors Addie K. and Jeremy Martin on a cultural odyssey through our corner of the bayou state.

They learned that the Cajun people are resilient and hospitable – two factors which formed the basis for and the reason our culture exists today.

“Cajun culture has grown and survives because it has absorbed other cultures into the fold,” says Addie. “Outside men from German, Austrian and Spanish heritage married Cajun women. The men became Cajun by extension, and the women, of course, raised their children as Cajuns.”

The book is a journey through Cajun culture, past, present and future. It’s not a cookbook, but what book about our Cajun culture, traditions and food would be complete without some essential recipes? All of the Cajun staples are there from seafood and sausage gumbo to bouillie. There are actually over 60,000 words and 120 pictures in the book. The first half focuses on our past and the second half talks about the present and future for our people in this rich delta region of Louisiana.

“One of the more interesting we learned is that our culture, Cajun Culture, is a melting pot and not homogenous,” says Jeremy. “The land is rich in opportunity and people from all over the world come here and have for centuries … the Indians, Acadians, Europeans, Vietnamese and Hispanics. This is a melting pot culture, but we still remain our Cajun identity. We absorb some of them into our culture, but still identify ourselves as Cajuns!”

“Cajun culture isn’t the same as it was 25, 50 or even 75 years ago,” says Addie. “We still have similar practices. That gives people something to rally around.”

And she’s right! Fried fish on Fridays, gumbo on Sunday and even red bean Mondays are all traditions we rally behind and practice to this day.

“We have recipes that call for Velveeta! I mean, it’s a Cajun recipe still, but we adapted it to modern, available ingredients,” she said.

The practices, we as a Cajun culture, seem to rally behind are food-centered, always our food. Our resilient and hospitable nature allowed Cajun culture to survive in an area where the foods change seasonally.

“Fisheries, culture and food are all tied together,” says Jeremy. “If you lose one, you lose the other two.”

This seems to be why we rally around our foods and the traditions we associate with them in such an enjoyable, prominent way throughout our lives. We talk about food while we are eating. We talk about tonight’s supper plans while having lunch. We love our foods here for sure.

The story of us as told through our traditions and customs associated with the seasonal foods is one that has been around for decades. It was always an oral story told and shown from one generation to the next.

“Our Cajun history is oral and we wanted to get that,” says Jeremy. “Our book comes from a unique perspective. We interviewed scholars, cooks, people who eat the foods. The interviews allowed for a more optimistic book about the present and future of Cajun culture,” he added.

“Before the late 1800’s, none of our recipes were written down,” says Addie. “Measurements, quantities and cooking times were all regulated to a cook’s mind and passed on generation to generation by showing, doing and sharing in the process. Cajun cuisine as we know it is a modern development. Boiled crawfish as a popular food came into vogue after WW II. Before then, boiled crawfish was seen as a poor man’s food,” she added.

Reading, writing and modernization in shipping, refrigeration, etc. all helped to shape the present Cajun culture as we know it.

At the 41st annual French Food Festival held October 23rd to the 26th, Addie and Jeremy presented their new book as part of the Folklife Demonstrations held in conjunction with the heavily attended festival. During their hour-long presentation/cooking demonstration, they started their presentation with that tried and true tool in the Cajun chef’s arsenal – the roux!

Addie prepared petit pois in a roux, with boiled eggs.

“Eggs are used a protein stretcher,” says Addie. “Not all families had meat at every meal.”

As she dropped raw eggs, in their shells, into the roux, members of the audience gasped, others whispered, “She didn’t peel her boiled eggs!”, and murmurs of “It’s a raw egg??” could be heard.

“We are all familiar with the traditions of a dish, but in different households the practices may be different,” she says. “In our family, we always put the eggs in their shells raw to cook with the peas. We peel them afterwards.”

“Culture is a bottom up, not top down structure,” adds Jeremy. “That structure gives our culture flexibility and ultimately staying power.”

To learn more about Addie and Jeremy’s book, visit Addie’s food blog at or search for Southeast Louisiana Food –A Seasoned Tradition.