Prevalent throughout the country parishes of south Louisiana between 1890 and 1920, Creole Gourmet Societies sprang from a French tradition. In many cases, the members or their parents settled in Louisiana directly from France. They ignored any connection to Nova Scotia and the 1755 Le Grand Derangement, dismissing the word ‘Cajun’ as an insult and the Cajuns themselves as ignorant and low-class.
Traditionally, the clubs’ members, all men of direct French descent, met monthly on the lawn of various plantation homes throughout southwest Louisiana. The six-hour meals included a lavish spread, cooked by the wives (standing behind the table), served by their sons (standing around the table), and enjoyed by the husbands, seated, each with their own bottle of wine.
The French meal was far from the Cajun cuisine we know today. The men, most of them Parisian, called their food Creole, a term applied at the time to the cuisine of high French society living in Louisiana. (As applied to a person, the term ‘Creole’ at that time referred to someone of usually French or Spanish parents, born in the Louisiana Territory prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803).
The Aioli Dinner (1971, pictured above and below) was George Rodrigue’s first painting with people. In the six months he painted the canvas, he developed his own rules of art, abandoning the strict lessons of art school in favor of symbols and a graphic interpretation of his Cajun culture. He painted his figures not in rulebook shadow, but rather glowing like ghosts from beneath the massive Louisiana live oaks. He called his series from the beginning Cajuns, a term of insult to the older generation, including those seated at the table, as well as his own mother, who insisted, without success, that he abandon this label.
Rodrigue’s mother embraced the hi-brow heritage of her father (pictured in the painting), a Courrege who immigrated to Louisiana in the 1880s directly from France. Yet George’s father, George Rodrigue, Sr. descended directly from four Rodrigue brothers who traveled by foot from Nova Scotia following the British occupation of 1755, now memorialized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic poem, Evangeline.
Ironically, artist George Rodrigue’s parents were first cousins on the Rodrigue side, making his mother more Cajun than French, a connection she denied throughout her life. (For a related post, see "The Family Table"...)
For the setting of his painting, Aioli Dinner, Rodrigue chose the Darby House of New Iberia, because in his research of Gourmet Dinner Clubs, it was the only plantation on record still standing in 1971. The house was in disrepair and has since burned, but it was a grand estate for these gatherings. In addition to George’s maternal grandfather, Jean Courrege (seated front left, looking at us), Octave Darby, the plantation’s owner, enjoys the dinner, as does George’s uncle Emile Courrege (standing third from the left).
In my own research of these dinner clubs, I read magazine and newspaper articles from the 1960s and 1970s. To my surprise, nowhere does the word ‘Cajun’ appear —- not in the dinner stories, nor within ads or other articles included on the microfilmed pages. “It was not until Chef Paul Prudhomme, blackened redfish and Tabasco,” says George Rodrigue, “that the Cajuns themselves embraced their culture with pride.”
In the 1970s the Trappey Family, specifically the sons and grandsons of the original gourmet societies, tried, but failed, to revive the clubs. It seems that times have changed, and the women longed to join the men for dinner. Yet even in those days, a mere forty years ago, a gallery in Boston introduced their exhibition's painter, George Rodrigue, as a ‘Ky-yoon’ artist.
The word ‘Cajun’ has come a long way, as have the family meals. Today the culture seeks to preserve, rather than dismiss, its unique heritage, something more Louisiana than French or Canadian. Yet, George Rodrigue’s mother died in 2008 at age 103, a French woman, confused by her son’s pride in his Cajun background, even as she denied her own.
As we celebrate Louisiana’s bicentennial, we take the good with the bad, preserving what we can of our state’s culture for future generations. This may be as simple as raising our state flag or cheering on the New Orleans Saints. Or, perhaps it encourages us to pull away from our computers and televisions, to visit the Historic New Orleans Collection, to ride a riverboat on the Mississippi River, to re-read, even memorize, the poem Evangeline, and to share a Sunday afternoon’s gumbo or boiled crawfish — with friends and family, including men, women, and children- in honor of tradition.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)