Is Hank Williams’ Classic Song Jambalaya Just About Food?
Hank Williams called his great 1952 tune "Jambalaya" but it's not just about the Cajun dish. It's a 2 minute musical look at American Cajun culture. Let's explore some of the lyrics and see what this song is all about.
First of all is jambalaya itself.
This is the southern Louisiana answer to western Kentucky's burgoo. It contains a little bit of whatever is edible and handy. It usually contains andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp, celery, bell peppers, onions, rice, tomato sauce and lots of cajun spices.
The bayou seems to come up in lots of Cajun songs and poetry. The correct pronunciation is "buy-you" but Hank says "buy-oh" probably so it will rhyme with "me oh my oh" and "pee-row". At any rate it is a big shallow stretch of usually moving water that doesn't have any trees growing in it. It looks like this.
That's Marcel Thibodeaoux trying to catch a catfish for dinner by fishing in the bayou. If it had trees and scum covering it it would be called a swamp. Correction--that's actually Marcel's cousin Andre Fontainenot. They look just alike.
Now we get to the important stuff. How do you get from one side of the bayou to another? You pole your pirogue. The pirogue (Hank pronounces it "pee-row") is a flat bottom boat which is pushed along the bayou with a long pole. It looks like this.
That is a post office pirogue delivering the mail down the bayou. You must be very careful when standing up it the these things because you can easily become alligator dinner.
Another colorful Cajun item in the tune is "crawfish pie.". These can be little fried pies (like fritters) that are stuffed with crawfish meat and rice or the dish type that look like small pot pies. We called the crawfish where i come from "crawdads" and I do not want any of those in my pie. We used them for bait back home.
That brings us to file' gumbo. To me the dish looks a lot like jambalaya and made with a lot of the same ingredients with ONE major exception. It contains file' (pronounced "fill-a") powder. It is sometimes called gumbo filé and is an herbal powder made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. The root of the sassafras tree is where we got the original ingredients for root beer. North America is the only place in the world that produces file' powder and the Cajuns swear by it. They powder their babies behinds with it.
Let's close out our Cajun education with the line from Hank's Jambalaya--"fill fruit jar". He is referring to drinking the home made liquor made with this contraption:
The moonshine still is usually thought of as native to Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina but there were plenty hidden in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. You must always drink your 'shine from a fruit jar--it's a law in most Southern States.
Cousins by the dozens
Now you know everything you need to know about Cajun life except the cousins thing. Let's just say that there are about 800,000 Cajuns in Louisiana and five last names.