Today we've all been feeling blue about leaving the Bluegrass State and all our horsing around in Kentucky behind, but now we’re ready to “Laissez les bons temps rouler” or “let the good times roll” for all you non-French speaking readers out there as we head to the deep South to experience some true “Joie de vivre” (joy of living) from the Cajuns and Creoles that know it best. So pack up your washboard so we can play some zydeco tunes, grab a bottle of tabasco sauce, make sure you’re decked out in your mardi gras beads and come along on this week’s adventure to Louisiana!
Just like when we did Illinois when it came to Chicago, one of the main things I wanted to convey to the kiddos was that Louisiana is so much more than New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Sure, both those things are extremely important to the state and perhaps the first thing the average American calls to mind when the word “Louisiana” (the state was named by explorer Rne-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle to honor French King Louis the 14th, by the way!), but let’s not forget about the rest of the state!
We of course had to start with why the addition of the state itself to the Union was so important. The land started in the hands of the French, who then handed it over to the Spanish to keep it safe from the Americans, so you can begin to see how Louisiana became quite the cultural melting pot. In 1800 the Spanish gave it back to the French who quickly came to the realization they could not afford to maintain the large expanse. The area that now contains Louisiana was purchased in 1803 by Thomas Jefferson as part of The Louisiana Purchase. The final purchase price of around $15million dollars (which ended up being about 4 cents an acre!) added what became all or part of 15 states!
Before being purchased by the United States, two very distinct cultures began to emerge in Louisiana; the Cajuns and the Creoles. I can honestly say that before beginning my Louisiana research I wasn’t aware of the distinction. The Cajun people are descendants of the Acadians who left Canada to flee British rule and religious persecution. They currently live mostly in the Southern part of the state and have their own distinctive food, music, and language. (I am so excited to try out real Cajun and Creole cooking this week and learning what makes each different!) Creole is a little more difficult to define but in short they are descendants from colonial settlers in Louisiana, mostly of French, Spanish and African heritage. In my best attempt to bring it down to a level the kiddos would understand tonight, I explained that the Cajuns are a little more ‘backwoods’ and the Creoles are a little more ‘citified’ I know this is a broad sweeping generalization and I plan on diving much deeper into the differences and similarities with them this week, but it was as simple as I could get for them within the hour we have to put up the wall tonight. And we had so much more to talk about…
We couldn’t talk about Louisiana and not learn more about the bayou! As I told the kiddos tonight a bayou is body of water typically found in flat, low-lying area, and can refer either to an extremely slow-moving stream or rive(often with a poorly defined shoreline), or to a marshy lake or wetland. Bayous in Louisiana are filled with everything from crawfish (of which Louisiana is the nation’s leading producer) to alligators. The bayou is just part of the Louisiana Wetlands (which also include marshes, swamps and bogs) that is under constant threat of erosion and destruction via human hands. According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources “At current land loss rates, nearly 640,000 more acres, an area nearly the size of Rhode Island, will be under water by 2050.”
Guess that means we should enjoy Louisiana now! And I had plenty of fun things to share with the kiddos tonight as well. Did you know that jazz can trace its roots back to Louisiana? New Orleans style jazz, or as it is more commonly referred to as, Dixieland, began in Louisiana in the 1910’s as one of the earliest forms of jazz. It was pioneered by Louisiana natives like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Martin and is still played throughout the state by many street musicians. (If you get a minute, check out this video that I shared with the kiddos tonight – AMAZING!) Current musicians such as Harry Connick, Jr, Wynton Marsalis and even Britney Spears are all native Louisianans. If curling up with a good book is more your thing, vampire aficionado and Louisiana native Anne Rice may be in order. Of course, I’ve already mentioned the biggest party in the state, Mardi Gras, which is one non-stop affair of parades, beads and masks for approximately the two weeks prior to the beginning of Lent every year. And there is no end in sight of the culinary delights the state has to offer; from gumbo to po’boys or Café du Monde’s famous beignets to Brennan’s Bananas Foster I've decided I could spend a week talking about just the food alone! If you love the culinary arts I promise you’re going to want to stick around this week for all I have planned!
We ended on a more somber note tonight, though since after 2005 no discussion of Louisiana would be complete without reference to the havoc wreaked on the state by Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded by the storm by as much as 15 feet in places. The economic impact it had on the areas struck have been estimated at $110 billion making it the costliest natural disaster in United States history! Hurricane Rita followed closely on its heels one month later and struck the state another blow. The state is still recovering from the double blows nearly a decade later and the long-term effects it will have on the land itself have yet to be fully realized.
We also managed to touch on the Lake Ponchatrain Causeway which is the longest continuous bridge in the world and the famous New Orleans Street Cars. I had to rein myself in I was having so much fun sharing Louisiana with them! This is going to be one fun week at the Gatchel’s, so stick around!
I of course had to dive right in to the culinary delights and what better way to start than with the official state cuisine, gumbo! There are both Creole and Cajun varieties and tonight I tried my hand at Chicken and Okra Gumbo. My kids have had (and liked!) okra before and I knew we would have to get it into at least one dish this week. Traditional New Orleans versions tend to feature both a meat and a seafood but (don’t worry Bean!) we’ve got plenty of seafood coming this week so I thought this would be something a little different. The smells coming from the kitchen alone were enough to let me know this one was going to be a winner! For dessert I picked a dish most often associated with Mardi Gras, a King Cake. Traditionally, the first king cake of the season makes its appearance on the feast of the Epiphany, or the Three Kings. The sweet treat usually has a trinket hidden inside of it and the person who receives that piece is then supposed to host the Mardi Gras party the following week. I found a super simple recipe for a King Cake with a Cinnamon Cream Cheese filling that is actually made out of crescent rolls! You can’t celebrate Louisiana without at least trying a king cake!
Have I piqued your interest in all things Louisiana yet? I promise you’ll want to hang with us with week as we explore the Pelican State and all it has to offer. Tomorrow there’ll be red beans and rice (a super simple crock pot recipe for it that I again have no doubt will have my stomach growling all day with its aromas) and we’re going to learn a little bit more about Mardi Gras and make our own Mardi Gras bead necklaces. So until then…
We broke out some Candy Land later last night after I had posted
You can take the girl out of Kentucky...
Ready to help me make our King Cake
Her favorite part - taste testing for me
King Cake ready for the oven
We had to frost it!
Skyping with Aunt Sarah to try to make her feel better after her injury during her Indianapolis run on Saturday
Our King Cake :)
Chicken and Okra Gumbo
A side shot of the King Cake (I kid you not, I did cut a piece for Grant to take to work tomorrow, but there is less than half a King Cake left tonight...)
The Louisiana Wall is up!