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Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco

Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Readings in Louisiana Culture

Marcia Gaudet
James C. McDonald
Copyright Date: 2003
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    Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco
    Book Description:

    The detectable identity of southern Louisiana's one-of-a-kind culture has been expressed in numerous descriptive phrases--"south of the South," "the northern tip of the Caribbean," "this folklore land." A strange, piquant, and savory mixture, it also has been likened to one of the region's signature dishes, gumbo.

    Capturing this elusive culture and its charm has challenged many authors, anthropologists, and anthologists. Coming perhaps closest of any book yet published, this new anthology of readings affords reflections on southern Louisiana's distinctive traditions, folklore, and folklife. Crystalizing its rich diversity and character, these sharply focused essays are a precise introduction to aspects that too often are diffused in sundry discussions of general Deep South culture. Here, each is seen distinctly, precisely, and uniquely.

    Written by leading scholars, the thirteen essays focus on many subjects, including the celebration of Mardi Gras and of Christmas, Louisiana foodways, the delineation between Cajun and Creole, the African Americans and Native Americans of the region, Zydeco music, and Cajun humor.

    The essays show great range and are reprinted from hard-to-find publications. They include a description of Cajun Country Mardi Gras on the prairies of southwestern Louisiana, an analysis of the social implications of the New Orleans Mardi Gras parades, a study of the Houma Indians of coastal Louisiana, and an analysis of the devotion given to a young Cajun girl whom many regard as a saint.

    Collected here, the essays portray a land and a people that are unlike any other.

    Marcia Gaudet, a professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is the author ofTales from the Levee: The Folklore of St. John the Baptist ParishandPorch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft.

    James C. McDonald, a professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is the editor ofThe Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-642-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco An Introduction to Louisiana Culture
    (pp. vii-2)
    Marcia Gaudet

    Louisiana has been described in many ways—“south of the South,” “the northern tip of the Caribbean,” “this folklore land.” South Louisiana’s culture is different not only from the rest of the United States, but also from the rest of the South and even from the northern half of Louisiana itself. A professor who recently moved back to Kentucky after retiring from University of Louisiana at Lafayette wrote to a friend that he was moving back “to the states.” Whether it’s the French and Spanish influence, the unique mixture of Cajun and Creole, the blending of African, Caribbean, and Native...

  4. 1 Mardi Gras and the Media Who’s Fooling Whom?
    (pp. 3-15)
    Barry Jean Ancelet

    Journalists routinely travel far and wide to report on what’s happening in the country and the world. Their human interest pieces are all the information most of the public has on other people and their culture. Yet reporters often lack the kind of ethnological background to understand the cultures they encounter. Consequently, they frequently produce interpretations considered inaccurate by concerned folklorists and community members, interpretations which misinform their viewers, listeners and readers. This chapter examines popular media coverage of the south Louisiana prairie Mardi Gras celebration and some of its unusual (and erroneous) interpretations as a case study of intercultural...

  5. 2 Buffalo Bill and the Mardi Gras Indians
    (pp. 16-25)
    Michael P. Smith

    The culture of New Orleans has always been characterized by the mixing and absorption of elements from many cultures. Most commonly acknowledged sources are the French, Spanish, African, Irish, Italian, and German. Sometimes, unexpected elements surface, such as the influence many scholars attribute to Mexican military bands whose instruments contributed to the development of jazz. One of the most unusual stories of all is the connection between the American West and our own Southern culture.

    In 1884–85 New Orleans hosted the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition—an event of international scope that brought culture and industry from many...

  6. 3 Every Man a King Worldview, Social Tension, and Carnival in New Orleans
    (pp. 26-41)
    Frank de Caro and Tom Ireland

    Public celebrations and public performances are enacted because they have “meanings” for those who enact them. They communicate ideas, beliefs and feelings and may often constitute complex symbol systems designed to interconnect attitudes and emotions. The complexity of such systems may be considerable, especially if the celebration itself is multifaceted, and individual participants in a given celebration may, of course, be aware of only limited aspects of the celebration’s total significance. There may be public statements of the event’s meaning which only partially explain it or which may even conflict with private understandings. Even a community as a whole may...

  7. 4 Mardi Gras Chase
    (pp. 42-47)
    Glen Pitre

    “There’s one! Get him!”

    A dozen teenage boys pour from the back of a pick-up truck to dash across a field of sugar cane stubble. Their faces masked, each carries a switch of bamboo or willow or even a cut-down fishing pole, weapons they wave above their heads like sabers as they run.

    Their quarry flushes like a rabbit from the brush beside a drainage ditch, a frightened boy who runs with all his heart for the trees that mark the edge of the swamp. The odds are long against him.

    A couple of three-wheelers leave the road beside the...

  8. 5 The New Orleans King Cake in Southwest Louisiana
    (pp. 48-58)
    Marcia Gaudet

    The feast of the Epiphany, January 6, once marked the close of Advent and the beginning of the Carnival season in many Catholic cultures. On the eve of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) it was traditional to have a Twelfth Night cake in which a token, usually a bean, was baked. There is evidence of the Twelfth Night cake and bean custom in England, France, Spain, and other parts of Europe as early as the fourteenth century. In New Orleans, Mexico City, and other traditionally French or Spanish Catholic cultures, the Twelfth Night cake custom is still observed.

    In New Orleans,...

  9. 6 Christmas Bonfires in South Louisiana Tradition and Innovation
    (pp. 59-70)
    Marcia Gaudet

    Christmas season bonfires, once popular in France, Germany, other parts of Europe, and the British Isles, continue to be part of the Christmas celebration in a small area along the Mississippi River in south Louisiana. After dark on Christmas Eve, huge bonfires blaze along the levees of the river in the parishes of St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Ascension. (This area includes about 30 miles of levee on each side of the river and is located about midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.) These bonfires, built of logs, cane reed, and bamboo, create the effect of spectacular...

  10. 7 The Creole Tradition
    (pp. 71-79)
    Michael Tisserand

    It was long past midnight in late 1965 when a station wagon, filled with laughing men, barreled down the narrow Railroad Avenue in Welsh, Louisiana. When Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot heard the commotion, he got out of bed and pulled his clothes on. “I knew there was something serious somewhere,” he remembers.

    Indeed there was. Fontenot watched as the car rolled to a stop in his driveway and his longtime musical partner, accordionist Alphonse “Bois-Sec” Ardoin, stepped out, followed by a man Fontenot didn’t recognize: Ralph Rinzler, a trained folklorist who had come to Louisiana looking for performers for the...

  11. 8 Hidden Nation The Houmas Speak
    (pp. 80-88)
    Barbara Sillery

    They meet at the Tribal Center in Golden Meadow, Louisiana. Angry adult voices fill the former settlement schoolhouse. The raised single-story white framed cottage stands a few hundred feet from the slow moving waters of Bayou Lafourche, just before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The swings in the playground hang limply in the humid air as the glare from the sun bounces harshly off the whitewashed tombs lying nearby. They gather to fill out forms, trace their lineage and prove their “Indianness” to a government only a fraction as old. The people of the United Houma Nation own...

  12. 9 Some Accounts of Witch Riding
    (pp. 89-102)
    Patricia K. Rickels

    At the time of the New England witch trials, no charge was more common than that the accused had “ridden people,” that is, leaped upon them as they slept and “grievously oppressed them.”¹ The wordnightmare, commonly used today to mean merely a bad dream, is also defined by TheAmerican College Dictionaryas a “monster or evil spirit formerly supposed to oppress persons during sleep.” Here the wordformerlyimplies that witchriding is extinct in America. The fact that it survives in American Negro folk tradition is recognized by Richard Dorson when he speaks of “the luminous ghosts who...

  13. 10 Charlene Richard Folk Veneration among the Cajuns
    (pp. 103-122)
    Marcia Gaudet

    Charlene Richard, a young Cajun girl who died of leukemia in 1959, is regarded by many in south Louisiana as a saint. Thousands have made pilgrimages to her grave in Richard, Louisiana (a small farming community 35 miles northwest of Lafayette), though there has been no official recognition or investigation by the Catholic church. Because of the beliefs associated with Charlene and what appear to be the beginnings of legend formation, Charlene Richard has become what might be called an indigenous, regional, popular, non-canonized, folk, or local saint.

    Though I had grown up in a Catholic family in Louisiana and...

  14. 11 Ôte Voir Ta Sacrée Soutane Anti-Clerical Humor in French Louisiana
    (pp. 123-133)
    Barry Jean Ancelet

    Though devoutly Catholic, Cajuns and Creoles have also been traditionally anti-clerical, as shown in Carl Brasseaux’s study of French and Spanish colonial records,¹ which he found teeming with accounts illustrating a general resistance to the superimposition of European values among the fiercely independent colonists. Many of these sentiments developed on the frontier in New France where thecoureurs de boisopenly defied missionary efforts and even actively campaigned, as Brasseaux found, “to discredit the missionaries in the eyes of their potential Indian converts, thereby extinguishing the religious threat to their way of life.”² Among other things, missionaries were hellbent on...

  15. 12 The Social and Symbolic Uses of Ethnic/Regional Foodways Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana
    (pp. 134-149)
    C. Paige Gutierrez

    A tourist, stepping off the plane at the New Orleans International Airport, is confronted with an array of commercial products found in no other part of the United States. Airport gift shops sell the city’s heritage in the form of freeze-dried gumbo mix, plastic-wrapped pralines, voodoo paraphernalia, Dixieland jazz records, and dark-skinned “quadroon” dolls dressed in ruffled antebellum hoop skirts. Scattered among these New Orleans artifacts are souvenirs of a different kind—those that are more properly associated with Cajun country, which lies to the southwest, west, and northwest of the city. Prominent among the Cajun-oriented products is the image...

  16. 13 Is It Cajun, or Is It Creole?
    (pp. 150-153)
    Marcia Gaudet

    In south Louisiana, food and food customs are a very important part of the folklife. The procurement and preparation of food are more than simply necessities of life; they add to the enjoyment and celebration of that life. Though Cajun and Creole children may not know the language of their ancestors and may hear folk tales and Cajun or Zydeco music only at folk festivals, they eat Cajun and Creole food in their homes. They are also likely to grow up with an understanding of the significance of certain foods and food customs in the culture—when certain foods are...

  17. Suggestions for Further Reading on Louisiana Culture
    (pp. 154-155)
  18. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 156-157)
  19. Questions and Topics for Classroom Discussion and Writing Assignments
    (pp. 158-170)
    James C. McDonald

    1. What are the reasons that Ancelet gives for inaccurate and distorted media coverage of Mardi Gras in rural southwest Louisiana? What problems are caused by journalists’ ignorance of the culture? Why is it that well-informed journalists often misrepresent the rituals that they describe?

    2. Ancelet implies that there is something wrong about “the outsider” viewing the Cajun Mardi Gras as “quaint,” “exotic,” and “picturesque.” What might be objectionable about this view, especially from an “insider” point of view?

    3. How do the problems that journalists and documentary film-makers have understanding and reporting what they are covering compare to the...

  20. Index
    (pp. 171-179)