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Original Issue

Crawfish, Cajuns and a Merry Old Gumbo Ya-ya

I added a four-pound largemouth to the stringer and eased it back over the boat's side. Laying down my rod, I relaxed for the first time in two hours of strenuous fishing. Being careful not to upset the tipsy pirogue, I stretched my cramped arm and shoulder muscles.

Then, as the young Cajun guide, Papite Broussard, slowly paddled the long, cigar-shaped boat down the familiar bayou, I glanced around me.

Everything was as I remembered it—the murky, shallow water, the imposing cypress trees dripping with streamers of Spanish moss, the stately herons and Indian hens going about the business of living with dignity, even the noisy kingfishers, skimming over the water and startling the swamp with rackety cries.

I could see that Papite was regarding me with interest. "The bayou, you like him, hein?"

When I admitted that I did, he sat thinking for a moment, then observed, "All of the bayou is good, M'sieu. But me, I like best the écrevisse, the crawfish, for with him I make the gumbo. And the gumbo—well, only le bon Dieu can know how good the gumbo is."

I was on the bayou mainly to fish, of course, but when I planned the trip from Texas to Houma, Louisiana—my mother's birthplace—I also had determined to enjoy all the Acadian dishes I remembered so well from my childhood. And here was an opportunity to sample practically every Cajun treat in one evening. "Papite," I ventured, "you know how much I enjoyed the hospitality last night at your Tante Thér√®se's house. But I have never attended a real all-night fais-do-do [Cajun corruption of féte-Dieu, or Corpus Christi Day]. Can you get me invited to the one coming up tonight?"

For a moment Papite looked at me in surprise. Then he said reproachfully, "Why you want to go by fais-do-do? My Tante Thér√®se, she not fix plenty of gumbo, bisque, stouffe [meat stew] and boiled crawfish, no?"

Patiently I expounded on his tante's cooking, and the demitasses of thick, black coffee and chicory she had served us during the previous night of music and talk. Then I played my trump card. The fais-do-do is almost always an exclusive affair that few outsiders are allowed to attend. Party crashers are sometimes even chased away with guns and knives. That was why Papite was so upset. However, relatives or friends of relatives are welcome in any Cajun home and at any Cajun festival.

"You mean you don't want to invite your own cousin, three times removed?" I asked in a hurt tone of voice. "The husband of a sister of my very own mother was a cousin of Renard Broussard. Does that not make us relatives?"

Instantly Papite's swarthy face lighted up, and he smiled. "Ah oui! Why you not say? Now it can be arranged."

Though different from most Cajuns in that he had blond hair, Papite was typically Cajun. The word Cajun is merely a corruption of the more elegant "Acadian," but the appellation is considered somewhat of a slur, and one should never call an Acadian a Cajun to his face. Only the bayou folk and their relatives may use it.

The Acadians' banishment from Nova Scotia has been dramatized in Longfellow's narrative poem Evangeline. These were Papite's ancestors, who settled, after much wandering, in the bayou country.

They hunt and fish and trap, raise cattle and grow vegetables, which they peddle to middlemen. Acadians run the shrimp boats; they are skilled oystermen, crabbers and guides. Their favorite dish is undoubtedly gumbo, which they make from shrimps, crabs, beef or chicken—but most often from crawfish, for not only is the little crustacean a delicacy, but it is always at hand in every bayou, pond, river or ditch.

"M'sieu," Papite said, "if we go to the fais-do-do tonight we must catch up some crawfish to take with us. Everybody takes something to a fais-do-do."

The young Cajun reached under the small stern seat of the pirogue to pull out two lengths of twine, two tow sacks and a coffee can filled with one-inch chunks of salt pork. He grinned and explained. "Always I carry the crawfish bait and lines wherever I go."

Handing the articles to me, he pointed the nose of the little boat toward a nearby slough. Along the banks of this slough were many small chimneylike mounds of mud we both knew to be crawfish holes, or nests. Papite stooped, expertly whisked up one crawfish that had been crawling on the ground.

He threw it into one of the sacks, and we hastily rigged our lines by tying a piece of salt pork to each. For about three hours we averaged a catch every few seconds, until both sacks were filled with three-to-four-inch crawfish.

Usually fais-do-dos are indoor affairs, but this one was staged under a grove of wide-spreading oaks, not far distant from Tante Thér√®se's house. There the earth had been packed and smoothed for an all-night jamboree. Pits had been dug for cooking and grills set up.

It took three pirogues and two bateaux (wide, flat-bottom boats) to transport Tante Thér√®se, her spouse and her 14 children—and us—to the festival.

When we arrived the fais-do-do was well under way. Young couples were dancing on the packed earth, and dozens of older Cajuns were sitting about on camp chairs and benches gossiping and laughing. Others were tending the cook fires and provisions. Over one fire sat a great galvanized-iron washtub of boiling salted water, into which two men were dumping live, washed crawfish. Papite, after introducing me all around as his Cousin Devereux from Houma (family names are seldom mentioned), added our two sacks of washed crawfish to the boiling water—after carefully removing any dead ones.

Above the hilarious gumbo ya-ya (everybody talking at once) the musicians could be heard beating out catchy, foot-tapping tunes on a guitar, mouth organ and wheezy old accordion.

Then came time to eat. Three long tables, at least 30 feet from end to end, were set up to form a horseshoe and covered with bright oilcloth to protect them from grease spots. Full bowls of gumbo and steaming rice were brought to the hungry Cajuns, along with other delicacies, such as fried catfish, frog legs, jambalaya, oysters, crabs, chicken, hush puppies and French bread.

Three deep bowls of boiled crawfish were served, one to each table. Guests gathered around these bowls, dipping fingers in and pulling out steaming crawfish. Papite and I joined the other crawfish grabbers eagerly.

To eat boiled crawfish properly one must break the little crustaceans in half, deftly shuck off the edible tail, remove the black vein thread that runs down the back, dip the meat in a handy bowl of sauce and pop the highly seasoned morsel into the mouth.

Later a big, bright moon rose above the cypress and oak. Old songs were sung, with various groups suggesting their favorites, punctuated by frequent trips to kegs of strong New Orleans beer and sweetish orange wine from the Mississippi River Delta.

Not until a red sunrise silhouetted the trees along the eastern skyline did the fais-do-do break up. Married folk gathered up offspring and joined amorous couples and unattached groups to walk—or stagger, according to the degree of inebriation—toward boats, autos and several one-horse buggies, to head for home.

Next evening I left the bayou, my ice chest packed with neatly cleaned bass and jars of gumbo and bisque. But all the way back to Texas my thoughts kept returning to the days I had spent in south Louisiana. Never, for me, had time passed so swiftly and so pleasantly.

The Cajun country is an angler's dream. Black and white bass, crappie and monster catfish are there for the taking. Fishing is good at any season, but spring is the best time to visit Cajunland. Then the bayous and lakes are blanketed with water hyacinths, waxy-white lilies and other water flowers. The birds are mating and sporting their most colorful plumage. The fish are striking like crazy, and the air is soft and spicy-smelling with the heavy scent of exotic blooms and Cajun cooking, for that is the time of year when Cajun women move their cook pots out of doors and M'sieu Crawfish comes into his own.

But, best of all, it is the time of year when a visiting angler is most likely—if he is wily—to be able to wangle an invitation from some Cajun family to attend a real, honest-to-goodness fais-do-do. Should such a stroke of good luck be his, the experience, believe me, will be one that he'll not easily forget.