Am I allowed to feel a little bit Cajun?
Monday, Oct. 1, 2012
Written by Walter Pierce
Florence Hunt’s rice and gravy was always better. Richer and thicker. Stick-to-the-ribs good. I didn’t know why at the time — a boy visiting the small dairy and soybean farm in a place called Eola, which was more or less a scattering of proud family farms and churches along Bayou Bouef in Avoyelles Parish outside Bunkie. She and Pawpaw Hunt lived, worked and held court for the many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who popped in most every weekend in shifts to visit, to hunt dove or, for us kids from the city, to do “farm stuff.” Four-wheelers and aluminum cans didn’t exist at the time. But I had a .410 and tin was abundant.
She was my great grandmother on my dad’s maternal side, and her rice and gravy was just superior. Better than my other great grandmother’s and both of my grandmothers’ put together. Better, even, than my mom’s. (Della, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry but it’s true.)
After Pawpaw Hunt passed on in 1974, Florence moved into a tidy little house in a shady neighborhood in Bunkie. We visited every couple of months or so, stopping at a little bakery in Opelousas on the way up from Lafayette for coconut macaroons. There was no I-49 at the time. It was a tedious drive. But Mawmaw’s rice and gravy was waiting. It was a staple that never changed, and neither did she: soft-spoken, doting and pear-shaped — a prototypical great grandmother. Yet she had an accent unlike anyone else in the family. I was a kid. I didn’t pay no never mind.
It wasn’t until about the time Florence Hunt died in 2000 that I learned she was born an Armand to French-speaking Catholics in Bordelonville, a hamlet on Bayou Des Glaises in Avoyelles Parish. She didn’t speak a lick of English until she began school. This is the early 20th century when the dominant Anglo culture forced assimilation down the throats of Louisiana’s Francophones. Literally. You didn’t speak French in public places or for public functions, beginning with public school where it was discouraged through corporal punishment. French was shamed. It was “country.” It was low class. And it was nearly eradicated. Nearly.
The shaming worked pretty well on Florence Hunt’s generation and a few after hers. She learned English. She married a plantation overseer named Hunt. Converted to Baptist. Never spoke French again as far as I know, certainly not in front of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She never mentioned it. It was an obliterated history. I realize now that her accent was what we call Cajun — the accent of a Louisiana Francophone speaking English. Speaking a second language.
The history that Florence subordinated at the stinging urge of a teacher’s ruler and the mainstream’s obsession with assimilation was my history. A history I was deprived of until I was well into adulthood.
Being a Pierce whose genealogy is strung together with English and Scottish names — Melton, Bradford, Hunt, Dobbins, Stone — I’ve never considered myself Cajun, although an eighth of me is, assuming an Armand from Avoyelles Parish can even properly be called Cajun, which is what this month’s cover story explores. It it genetics? Culture? A combination of the two?
I wish I had known sooner about Florence Hunt’s past. When I was 10, I probably wouldn’t have cared. But would it have affected that awkward transit through adolescence? Would I have gravitated toward that little bit of “Cajun” in me? After all, by the time I was a teenager Cajun was well on its way to cool.
Maybe I would have appreciated Florence’s awesome rice and gravy for what it really was: just a fricassee from a homemade roux.
in case you missed it