“CAJUN MEN COOK”, subtitled “Recipes, Stories & Food Experiences from Louisiana Cajun Country” has the distinction of, first, being published in 2003 by Wimmer Cookbooks, a company whose cookbooks are generally a cut above many other publishers. It is also a Tabasco Award Winner.
The Tabasco® Community Cookbook Awards, as you may know, were established about twenty years ago by the McIlhenny Company to recognize the role these books play in chronicling and preserving local culinary traditions. The Walter McIlhenny Hall of Fame was created to honor qualified cookbooks which have sold over 100,000 copies, contributing substantially to charitable causes.
“CAJUN MEN COOK” was compiled by the Beaver Club of Lafayette, Louisiana. If I may digress for just a moment, the Beaver Club is an offshoot of the Lafayette Lions Club, the “mother club” established in 1939, and chartered by Lions International in 1940.
Fundraising during the World War II era was modest and directed primarily towards the Lions’ eyeglass and children’s assistance programs, but shortly after World War II, the Lions Club “took a momentous step which would transform the club into Lafayette’s premier civic organization. This project involved the creation of a city park; all the club had was a single truck. Almost all of the clearing was done by hand with axes and cross saws, with members and their families turning out en masse on Saturdays to do the necessary work.
In 1959, the group had reorganized as the “Beaver Club”, the name symbolizing the club’s eager-beaver involvement in parks. The success of their first TV fundraiser led the Beavers to undertake their first major project as an independent club. As explained in the introduction to “CAJUN MEN COOK”, “the airport grounds in 1960 included a low, heavily wooded area along the Vermilion River. The Beaver Club proposed to transform this area into another major city park, and, with approval of the city administration, the organization did just that! Playground equipment, picnic areas, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a fishing lake, and a boat launch site transformed this once abandoned area into a citywide recreational center…”
The Introduction to “CAJUN MEN COOK” also offers a detailed explanation to the title and the impetus for a cookbook by and for Cajun men (well, and presumably for anyone else who likes Cajun food!).
“Few places in this country”, they explain, “exhibit such a widespread preoccupation with the preparation and consumption of food. This is because cooking and eating are integral components—some would say the most important ingredients—of major Cajun social rituals. Cajun men are the best practitioners of Acadiana’s culinary arts, and some of their best recipes appear within these pages…”
They offer a bit of history so that we can have a better understanding of the people. “The Indians were here first,” they say, “and they had their own cuisine, based on locally available foods. Then came the Spanish, French, Italians, Africans, native-born free people of color, refugees from Hispaniola, Acadians from Nova Scotia, and ‘les Ameriains’ as English-speaking settlers from the East Coast were called—each with their own distinctive cuisine.
The first Acadians had emigrated from France to Acadie (present-day Nova Scotia) in the early 1600s. These French pioneers established themselves as farmers and they soon prospered, despite frequent invasions and the repeated transfer of the colony between France and Great Britain. Acadie became a permanent British possession in 1713 and the colony’s name was changed to Nova Scotia. In 1755, Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia, acting without necessary royal authorization, ordered the expulsion of the colony’s large Acadian population, ostensibly because they refused to renew their oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Some escaped to modern-day New Brunswick, but most were deported to the British colonies along the East Coast and, later, to France. Many exiled Acadians eventually traveled to south Louisiana, where they attempted to reunite scattered families.
In Louisiana, the Acadians came into contact with Creoles, Indians, Spaniards, Africans and other groups that they had not previously encountered in their long North American experience….”
The Acadians borrowed survival skills from their new neighbors and the resulting exchange of culinary techniques, “when married to new foods found in Louisiana” gave birth to both Cajun and Creole cuisines.
It may interest you to learn, also, that the term “Creole” is a French corruption of the Spanish word “criollo”, a term meaning native or indigenous to an area. However, the term came to mean anything born, grown, or developed in the Americas, including people, tomatoes, onions, ponies, and cuisine. The best Creole cooking reflects African influences to a greater extent than its Cajun counterpart.
The recipes offered in “CAJUN MEN COOK” are sure to please all cooks, whether male or female, and the book has been written in a style sure to make you happy–it’s the “kind of cookbook you can read like a novel”. (how often have you heard cookbook collectors say that?) – but it’s true. Read it first like you would a novel, to appreciate the history and the wealth of information. “CAJUN MEN COOK” provides detailed instructions for making a smoke house, preparing and smoking meat and the history and instructions for making a Roux. (So many Cajun recipes begin with the instructions, “first you make a roux” that one group, the Les Vingt Quatre Club for the Lafayette Museum Association named their cookbook, published in 1954, “”FIRST – YOU MAKE A ROUX”).
Learn how to make jerky, read about the King Cake tradition (and how to make your own King Cake) and discover a bit about Cajun families. Learn about the Spanish contributions to Cajun Cuisine and the Ace Duck Camp Hunt…and when you have savored all the stories and history that “CAJUN MEN COOK” has to offer, go back and begin reading the recipes—and what recipes!
From Crawfish Dip to John’s Crab Dip Supreme, from recipes for Pain Perdu (Lost Bread) to recipes for Gumbo, Jambalaya, or Cajun Paella – “CAJUN MEN COOK” offers us all a tasty exposure to a regional cuisine unlike most others to be found in this country. As explained by a chef of a Lafayette restaurant, “one of the things that makes Cajun cooking so special is the fact that it was developed using only the ingredients which Cajuns could grow, hunt or catch themselves. Cajuns make for wonderful farmers and agriculture is still a mainstay of the economy of South Louisiana…with Crowley, Louisiana positioning themselves as the Rice Capital of the World….”
For those of us who love seafood, especially shrimp, “CAJUN MEN COOK” provides a wealth of recipes—but if you are a steak & potatoes kind of guy (or girl), you won’t be disappointed either. Try Don’s Barbecue Brisket or Cabbage Rolls, oven style. Check out the recipe for Peppered Beef or Lazy Cajun Brisket. There are lots of chicken recipes, including such interesting titles as “Wife Went to Bed Sick Chicken Dinner” and Grandma Claudia’s Smothered Chicken. Mmmm! There are also in “CAJUN MEN COOK” a generous dose of game recipes, for Cajun men are known for their hunting and fishing skills. There are recipes for Squirrel, Trout, rabbit, quail, deer, duck and catfish – I bet you haven’t seen most of these recipes elsewhere!
I’m happy to report, there is also a section of celebrity recipes from the Blue Ribbon chefs of Cajun country, and – a glossary of terms, eminently useful in a cookbook which uses such regional seasonings as file’ and crab/crawfish/shrimp boil. However, you probably have most of the seasonings in your kitchen cupboard for spices and seasonings such as Dill Weed, Celery Seed, Bay Leaf, and Marjoram are fairly universal.
“Cajun Men Cook” can still be purchased new, from Amazon.com, for $13.22 – and 16 used copies are available at Amazon, starting at $2.05.
ISBN –0- 9642486-0-3
Review by Sandra Lee Smith
Originally written for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 1/03