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Is there anyone who better encapsulizes the heart of the Cajun culture better than the populist chef, Justin Wilson?  Active politcally in his early years, Justin (joo-STAN) was the son of a Democratic office holder in the parishes, and supported Democratic candidates for major office in his home state.  An ambassador for the rich Cajun culture, and a tremendously funny guy, it's difficult to say whether he was a better storyteller or a chef.

. . . we rush back in the house and I get my twice-barrel carabine, and Jean Ba'tiste get his automatic shootgun.  Dat a one hole gun that shoot three times out of the same hole if the game warden there.  If he ain't there, it shoot five time right through the same place.

The "Big Three" of Cajun Cooking

If you do a lot of Cajun cooking, best to buy these three by the gallon - dry white cooking wine, Louisiana hot sauce, and worcestershire sauce.  Wine is the Cajun substitute  ingredient for broth or water.  You want to choose a wine with very little sugar, but sufficent character.  A good rule is that if you wouldn't mind drinking it, it has the quality you want.  A cooking wine shouldn't be thought of as a "cheap" wine - it should be of drinkable character, but still affordable enough to use in larger quantities.

Louisiana 'Tobasco' hot sauce is an age-old preparation of vinegar and hot peppers.  Some less familiar brands can be half the price, and the quality is just as good or better than the name brands.  I usually buy two a year from the internet.  Note that it might grow cloudy over time, but this doesn't affect the quality or usability in the least, and it won't require refrigeration.

Worcestershire "sauce" is a fermented fish preparation in constant production since 1837.  Yep.  Much like Vietnamese nuoc mam, traditionally using anchovies, tamarind, and malt vinegar.  In Cajun cooking, worcestershire isn't a mere condiment - it's a fundamental part of the flavoring base, along with wine.  I'll sometimes go through as many as six gallons in a year.  Secondary brands can be just as good for a fraction of the cost, but it's best to make sure it passes the taste test first.  I personally like the original Lea et Perrins best.

This classic Crawfish Étouffée (which means 'smothered) is an example of a traditional way all three are used.
Crawfish Étouffée

1 cup butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 onions, minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
16 ounces cleaned crawfish tails
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon hot sauce
dry cooking wine
salt and pepper to taste

In a stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. When butter is bubbling, add flour to make a roux, stirring constantly to prevent or remove any lumps. Cook the roux for a  minute or two, making sure not to brown it.  Stir in onions and bell peppers; saute 10 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Add garlic, and saute for 3 minutes. Stir in crawfish tails. Slowly pour in enough wine to reach a little thicker than soup-like consistency. Season with cumin, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and salt and pepper. Reduce heat, and simmer for 7-10 minutes.

Jambalya - a Cajun Paelle

This flavorful and filling dish is so easy, it's almost difficult to make a mistake.  Sauteéd meats and vegetables form the flavor base which the rice is cooked in.  Note: as a departure from similar European dishes, like Spanish paelle, traditional Cajun Jambalya contains no tomatoes.  This one pot dish does well in a slow cooker.

12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
4 ounces chicken, diced
3 ounces Cajun spiced ham (tasso), diced
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot sauce
3/4 cup rice
3 cups chicken stock
5 ounces Andouille (AHN-du-wee) sausage, sliced
Salt and pepper

In a bowl combine shrimp, tasso, chicken and Creole seasoning, and work in seasoning well.  In a large saucepan heat oil over high heat with onion, pepper and celery, 3 minutes.  Add garlic, bay leaves, Worcestershire and hot sauces. Stir in rice and slowly add broth. Reduce heat to medium and cook until rice absorbs liquid and becomes tender, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. When rice is just tender add shrimp and chicken mixture and sausage. Cook until meat is done, about 10 minutes more. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Creole seasonings.

Cajun Creole Seasoning

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all ingredients thoroughly

Filé Gumbo

An African-influenced stew which conatains okra. The aboriginal Arcandians from Canada (from whom the name 'Cajun' is derived), learned how to make filé powder from dried sassafras leaves from the local Indians.  This is commonly used as a thickening agent in this dish, as well as adding it's own distinctive flavor element.
Squirrel Gumbo

4  squirrels, cleaned
1  chicken
2 cup  bell pepper, chopped
2 cup  celery, chopped
1 quart stewed tomatoes
1 can (small) tomato sauce
2 cups  okra, diced
3 tb creole gumbo filé
3/4 cup  dark roux
cooked rice

Pressure cook and debone squirrels and chicken. Save the broth. To
boiling broth, add bell pepper, celery, onion, tomatoes and tomato sauce.
Make roux (using oil and flour in equal parts, in a heavy skillet brown
roux) and add to the above mixture, stirring until well blended. Cook until
vegetables are tender. Add meat and okra, and season - you may also
want to add hot sauce to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes. Just before serving
or when serving, add filé and serve over white rice.

Iko Iko

Practically a subject for a lengthy diary of its own, the traditions of Mardi Gras take a year long effort. The classic "Iko Iko" relates the tale of the yearly competition, as "Indian" tribes, who have spent the past year sewing their feather-strewn costumes, use any means possible to be this year's winner.  

African American Mardi Gras revelers masked as Native Americans and formed coherent "teams" or "tribes" of Mardi Gras performers that competed informally in the streets during Mardi Gras parades. The African American "Indians" worked all year to develop elaborate personalized costumes, songs, dances, and drum rhythms. Through the socially permitted masking of Mardi Gras, African Americans preserved elements of their African heritage while appearing physically in public as Native Americans. This provided a kind of social sanction for overt expression of African pride, which in most cases and place were punished or supressed the rest of the year.

The confrontations between the tribes at Mardi Gras in the streets of New Orleans are highly ritualised. The principal members of the tribe confront their counterparts in the opposing tribe – Spyboy versus Spyboy, then the Flagboys (who threaten to burn the opposing team's banner), 2nd, 3rd and 4th Chiefs, the Queens, and children. Finally, the Big Chiefs have their showdown, swaying and rotating and preening to show off their costumes. An acknowledgement of success is for the opponent to admit that the other’s costume is “pretty”.

The patois runs thick in the song Iko Iko - so much so that there's a certain level of conjecture about what exactly the word's mean.  It's generally accepted that the hook, "jockomo fee na ney", says that the tribes aren't "joking around" and that they "mean business", although even the original author, James Crawford, laughs off the real meaning.

Interviewer: How did you construct 'Jock-A-Mo?'
Crawford: It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. “Iko Iko” was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. “Jock-A-Mo” was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” That was a phrase everybody in New Orleans used. Lloyd Price just added music to it and it became a hit. I was just trying to write a catchy song....
Interviewer: Listeners wonder what 'Jock-A-Mo' means. Some music scholars say it translates in Mardi Gras Indian lingo as 'Kiss my ass,' and I’ve read where some think 'Jock-A-Mo' was a court jester. What does it mean?
Crawford: I really don't know. (laughs)

The great Doctor John offers his own interpretations.

The song was originally called 'Jockamo,' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockamo means 'jester' in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second line' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps. - Doctor John

Iko Iko has been covered  by Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead (who made Iko Iko a constant staple in their live shows from 1977 onward), Cowboy Mouth, Warren Zevon, Long John Baldry, Dave Matthews & Friends, The Ordinary Boys, Glass Candy, and Sharon, Lois & Bram among others.  This version from the late, great Willy DeVille is especially close to the bone of the original tradition:

Author's Note: Wrote it in the Luxor, where I dined on steak tartare on toast points, shiro maguro sashimi with ponzu ad onions, kobe beef, paddlefish caviar, and drank 2oz shots of Jewel of Russia Vodka on a bar made of a solid block of ice.  I had FUN!  But I'll be living at the gospel mission for about the next month to pay for it all :-)

And Another: Wrote in the Luxor, published in Flagstaff, and now I gonna went to Tucson in 'bout four or three hour.  Once I done did that, I'll answer all your questions, I ga-rawn-tee !

Originally posted to T-n-T on Sat Feb 20, 2010 at 03:37 PM PST.

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