A Cajun Christmas
by Mary Jo Anderson
Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?
Marcelle Bienvenu, Acadian House Publishing (July 2006) $20.00
The train jerked and hissed as it chugged to life in the wee dawn hours. Aboard, my sister and I nestled against Mama who, I know now, must have been too excited to be sleepy. At 27 she was taking her six- and seven-year-old daughters to Baton Rouge to spend a pre-Christmas week with her own mother. Upon arrival we girls perched on a stool while our Mama chattered with hers. The aroma of strong French coffee and the fragrance of the mint beside the back porch steps mingled with the unfamiliar but tantalizing smell of the “Cajun cooking” that made my grandmother’s hospitality legendary.
That easy blending of generations in her capacious kitchen is the very feeling I still strive to achieve for my own children and theirs. Our tots and teens drag chairs to the island where they too add to the soup or stew or simply take turns stirring the pot. And I see in their faces the same contentment I felt long years ago when the secret was imparted: how to make a roux. A near miraculous transformation of butter and flour, a roux is the basis of much in Cajun cooking. Older women taught young girls the alchemy of the roux with every bit of the gravity that our men bestowed on teaching the boys how to flush a covey of quail. Skill with a roux identified one as truly “Cajun”.
Christmas marks our memories like no other season. Every sense is intensely engaged: The colors and shimmer of Christmas ornaments, the velvety dresses we touched with wonder, the clatter and chatter of merriment against familiar carols, the herby freshness of greenery-decked stairways and mantels, the sweet tang of citrus, spicy cookies and best of all, the comfort of that mysterious pot of seafood gumbo.
No gumbo at your house? How, then, does Christmas come?
Every Catholic family draws upon its ethic heritage as well as the joy that the whole Church expresses in the birth of the Infant Savior. In addition to the Catechism, our Catholicity is handed on in our diverse histories, customs and food.
My own Mama made this point in the early 1990s when she gave me a new cookbook as an early Christmas present: Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? It is my Cajun bible and a dearly used and abused seasonal cookbook. A new edition was released in 2006. There have been years when I was not sure whose memories I recalled, my own or Marcelle Bienvenu’s! Indeed, the title phrase “Who’s your mama” really means, “could we be cousins?”
Part memoir, part Acadian history, Who’s Your Mama is the sort of book one reads for the lore as well as the recipes. Author Bienvenu established her culinary credits in the famous New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace and at K-Paul’s Kitchen. For the world beyond the bayous, Bienvenu’s stamp of approval comes with television star Emeril Lagasse as the co-author with Bienvenu of a new volume, Louisiana Real and Rustic. Yet, the charm of Who’s Your Mama remains the Catholic family life of displaced but flourishing French Acadians.
The French came to this hemisphere as trappers and traders. Catholics who settled in the bayous of Louisiana are descendants of colonists sent by Henri VI of France to Nova Scotia and parts of what is now New England before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. La Salle, a former Jesuit, canoed down the Mississippi to the Gulf where he named Louisiana for the French king, Louis XIV, and his own wife, Anna. The French sold Acadia (Nova Scotia) to the English in 1713. In short order the English demanded the French Acadians renounce their Catholic faith.
Some were deported and founded new settlements in Martinique and Guadeloupe. But many made their way to the Louisiana territory. The horrors of deportation included torture, slavery, and separated families. Le Grand Dérangement, as it was known, was immortalized in Longfellow’s haunting poem, “Evangeline” (written in 1847). Marcelle Bienvenu describes herself as a child who played at the foot of “the statue of Evangeline at the rear of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in the center of town.”
In the bayou waters the resourceful French found treasures that made their way into the family caldron. When aristocrats fled the French Revolution, some claimed Louisiana as home, and devised a “high brow” version of the Cajun cuisine known as “Creole”. The sufferings and triumph of the Catholic French live on in the murky bayou waters, the quaint place names, and the food.
Who’s Your Mama is populated with a tumble of aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends. It is a peep inside an intimate way of life that was never so private that one more soul couldn’t be seated at the table. It is crammed with recollections. On oysters, “I was allowed to put my stool next to Papa and watch the ritual of the men mixing up their cocktail sauce … they would stir up their concoctions according to individual taste … containers of cold oysters were passed around and around as the men jabbed the oysters, dipped them in sauce and threw them down their throats. I was not quite ready to put the gray, slimy mollusks in my mouth.” Recipes for Oyster and Artichoke Casserole, Oysters Casino, Oyster Pie, and Oyster Soup follow.
The Christmas section describes outlandish bayou decorations, seen from a boat tour of waterfront homes a gator pulls Papa Noel’s sleigh. On Christmas Eve the crèche stood in the place of honor, the children were permitted a “thimbleful” of Cherry Bounce, and then, a ritual my own family keeps: opening just one small gift before Midnight Mass.
There are Marcelle’s memories of giving Nannan (grandmother) the girl’s bedrooms because she stayed the night after Midnight Mass, and how “Every Christmas morning I awoke to the smell of Mama’s pork roast (which she had put in the oven when she returned from Mass), blended with scents of brewing coffee … the doors to the living room remained closed until everyone had eaten breakfast and Tante May had been fetched to join us. Then with great ceremony Papa opened the doors to wonderland. Bikes and dolls and footballs and stuffed animals and baskets of gifts were everywhere! The next few hours were pandemonium, with treks to church, the arrival of aunts and uncles….”
By New Year’s you have made your way through Milk Punch and Syllabub and Café Brulot. There are sepia photos of family events and recounting of the wonderful attire the adults wore for New Year’s Eve. With the close of the season one is not left as deflated as a balloon, for there is Mardi Gras just a few weeks in the future!
Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, writes on the United Nations and family issues for Crisis, WorldNet Daily, and other publications. Her commentaries have appeared on radio and television, including Vatican Radio. She has addressed members of the Czech Parliament on women and family issues in emerging democracies. Mary Jo is co-author with Dr. Robin Bernhoft of Male and Female He Created Them: Some Questions and Answers on Marriage and Same-sex Unions, published by Catholic Answers, San Diego.
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