The future looks at the past

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 13, 2009



LUTCHER – Lindsay Nardy, dressed in a billowing hoop-skirted dress of the antebellum South, wasn’t quite sure what to do when Tom Payment of Les Danseurs Cajun de la Louisianne grabbed her hand and engaged in a Cajun-style two-step.

“I’ll guide you though it. Just relax and watch me,” Payment told the Lutcher High School senior. “Just follow me, and you will be fine.”

As the couple danced along to the live Zydeco band, other students engaged in net making, took lessons on hand carving and tried their luck at chopping out wooden shingles. The exhibits were a part of St. James Parish’s annual Cajun/Creole Day, a yearly initiative designed to reconnect high school students with the culture and traditions of the past.

Rachael Schexnayder, a ProStart teacher for the St. James Career and Technology Center at Lutcher High School, said the program is designed to get students interested in the various cultural influences that make up the many traditions carried out in the River Region.

“Our students usually don’t know why we are referred to as ‘cajuns’ and don’t realize the combination of influences that go into the foods we eat and the lifestyle we lead,” Schexnayder said. “Our goal is to give them a better appreciation for the culture of the past so that they can pass along some of these traditions to future generations.”

Schexnayder said the program, which is paid for with a grant through the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Houma Regional Arts Council, gathers artists, cooks and skilled workers from across the St. James Parish region to demonstrate some of the tricks trades of the Cajun culture.

“They have all learned their skills through generations of families, and now they are passing along what they know to this younger group,” Schexnayder said. “You can’t get this much hands-on experience in the classroom setting.”

Students learned carving techniques, the art of Cajun quilting, the intricacies of fishing and shrimping nets and the proper method of grinding sassafras into file for gumbo. Later, the groups moved outdoors where a team of cooks demonstrated preparations for gumbo, jambalaya, cane syrup, sausage and Cajun beignets, which are traditionally known as “grand pates.”

“The grand pate, which loosely translates into ‘big foot’ is a thicker, more doughy version of the beignet,” said cook Cliff Turner. “Different cultures have different methods of preparation.”

Schexnayder said the project, now in its fourth year, has made great strides in changing the students’ appreciation for the lifestyle and culture of the community.

“In our small parish alone, there are people from French, Spanish, Italian, African and German descent,” Schexnayder said. “The lifestyle and food traditions that are so strong in our area have been influenced by all of these cultures, and with the help of these talented cooks and artists, we are showing these students what it means to be a part of the Cajun and Creole heritage.”