Friday, May 27, 2011

Requisite Intent

Requisite Intent is a legal term I learned from a lawyer from New Orleans.  Since then, I’ve had an almost-empty file folder by that title.  Yesterday, I put something in it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Not Bad, Crawdad . . . Of What's Said and Shibboleths

It was the culminating rhymed bye of a g-chat that began with a pedestrian pleasantry, (“See you later, alligator!) followed with the expected reply (“After a while, crocodile!”) took a detour though the jungle (“See you soon, baboon!”) and landed right where it began: in the bayou.  Not bad, crawdad.

Not that anyone in Louisiana says “Crawdad” as far as I can tell.  And no one says “crayfish” either.   I’d read these assertions in an article called “Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana” by C. Paige Gutierrez that I had photocopied for my class.

-C’est vrai?  I interrogated my French 1002 students. 

-Oui, they affirmed, some a little grudgingly. 

The ethnographic tone of the article at times felt odd to a portion of the class while others nodded in agreement as the author listed the unspoken rules of the crawfish boil, and reflected on how the crawfish, in its bayou-bred, up-from-the-mud tenacity, has become a symbol for Cajuns, themselves

-The way she writes about us . . . I just don’t think she’s from here, one student said.

-Maybe. Maybe not.  Maybe she’s a transplant who decided to stay, I offered. 

Sometimes choosing a place that wasn’t yours at first makes it even more yours in the end.   

“Crawdad” and “crayfish” sound like terms out-of-towners might toss around to try to blend, all the while giving themselves away.  Crawdad, especially, just sounds affectionately familiar.  I probably said it when summering in New Orleans in college, when I learned that I was a Northerner. 

“NORTH Carolina?” my New Orleans friends echoed back to me as if the name, itself, negated the need for argument.  “Did y’all even secede?” 

(Ulysses S.) Granted, we were the next to last to declare southern sovereignty, but still . . . I had never had my own regional identity questioned.  How southern was I?  How southern did I want to be?

“You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?” one student asked another French instructor in our department.

“Uh . . . I’m from Romania.”

“Is that north of I-10?”

Louisiana is bursting with words that puzzle outsiders: Atchafalaya, Natchitoches, muffaletta, boudin, beignet, half the street names in New Orleans.  The word “New Orleans” is a sort of shibboleth, too, often used in the show Treme to distinguish out-of-towners (who pronounce the last syllable in a way that rhymes with “means” or approximate the French pronunciation by separating it into three syllables) from locals (who use a short “i” sound and sometimes rhyme it with a drawly “Dahlins.”)

Crawfish are another in-group/out-group marker.  Within the first few minutes of a crawfish boil, peeling skills reveal who’s where on the continuum.    

I’ve been to two this year.  After the men cook the pot of crawfish, boiled live with spices, andouille sausage, corn, and potatoes, all of the contents of the pot are dumped onto a long table and everyone gathers around to pick at the pile.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Heads come off with a clockwise twist. 
2) Peel back the first section of shell, then press on the end of the tail until it pops up. 
3) Slide the meat from the remaining shell and remove the intestinal vein, and voilĂ !  You have the first 
    fishy fraction of your dinner. 

WARNING: If the tail's poking straight out, don't eat it.  It was dead before boiling.

You should have crawfish!  I exclaimed to the middle-aged British tourists whom my roommate and I met on the levee, a few days ago when the river was predicted to crest.  They had taken an obligatory photo of the swollen Mississippi, but quickly steered our conversation from sandbags to sandlots. 

-Where can we see a baseball game?  You know, like a local team or a school group?

My roommate and I looked at each other and shrugged, a little amused by the urgency in their voices.  It reminded me of the time I was in Ireland and woke up at 6 A.M. to drive to this step-dancing competition for 9-13 year olds.  I was enthralled because it felt like the perfect thing to do when roadtripping through the Irish countryside.  In fact, I couldn’t believe my great fortune.  But as I looked around, I knew the other people in the audience, primarily parents, were beyond bored, eyes aglaze from watching girl after girl bounce and tap through the same routine.

The last time I’d seen a baseball game was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the day after I’d flown back from France in 2008.  I was trying to be open-minded at the time because I loved someone who loved baseball, but between the circus antics of the announcer, the perpetual product placement on the billboards, rows of children eating corndogs and cotton candy, it encapsulated much of what I found uncomfortable about the United States. 

-Was it that bad?

-I squeezed his hand.  Can we please go the Farmers Market now?

-You looked young, so we thought you might know, the tourist said, a little disappointed at our un-Americanness.    

-You really should try the crawfish though.  It’s the season.

Child Dressed as Crawfish, Looking Vaguely Like a Religious Icon
-I don’t eat that, she said. 

I wondered if she was a vegetarian or allergic to shellfish or thought no explanation was necessary since crawfish live in the mud, resemble feisty, fiery insects, and much like artichokes, prompt curiosity about how to get past their prickliness to something edible.

-We heard there was a festival?
-Yes, in Breaux Bridge last weekend. 

The Crawfish Festival is held every year in Breaux Bridge, LA, Crawfish capital of the World. 

I’d gone with a friend and her husband.  We ate alligator on a stick, confronted death in a ride called the scrambler while listening to Joan Jett, took Cajun waltz and two-step lessons from a man in his eighties who later tried to sell us a self-produced instructional DVD, watched the defending champion take all in the crawfish races, and got sunburns as we sipped watered-down daiquiris out of coconuts and listened to zydeco . . . bons temps. 

Which, by the way, is another shibboleth.   Good times, bons temps.  (As in Laissez les bons temps rouler.)  My students write about having a bon temps in their French compositions all the time, and I half-heartedly circle it and note that it’s non-standard.  It’s a borrowing from English, transformed into French, and a said signifier that you’re in Louisiana