Program preserves Louisiana culture

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 11, 2010



LUTCHER – High school students in St. James Parish had the chance Wednesday to reconnect with the culture, traditions and customs of the past by diving into them first hand.

About 150 students from Lutcher and St. James high schools took lessons on hand carving, net making and quilting; danced along to Zydeco music and indulged in an assortment of culinary delicacies as part of the school system’s annual Cajun/Creole Day at the St. James Career and Technology Center.

Rachael Schexnayder, a culinary arts teacher at the center, 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 so one day they can continue to pass those traditions down in the future.

“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.

Schexnayder said grants from the Houma Regional Arts Council and the River Region Arts and Humanities Council help pay for the program, now in its sixth year. The event brings in artists, cooks and skilled workers from across Southeast Louisiana, who demonstrate some of the tricks and 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, and we stress to the students that they must at least spend some time with each artisan.”

Some of the tradesmen and women were even surprised by how much genuine interest some of the students show.

“One of the things that always impresses me is that when they sit down and talk they tell stories to me about family members that have quilting experience,” said quilter Daisy Comeaux. “It is rewarding for me to hear. It’s not just girls, either, some of the guys really get into it as well.”

Students were taught about the intricacies of weaving a fishing net, the tricky skill of alligator trapping and skinning, and the proper method of grinding sassafras into file for gumbo.

Later in the day, the groups moved outdoors where a team of cooks demonstrated preparations for gumbo, jambalaya, cane syrup, sausage and Cajun beignets.

Schexnayder said the project 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.”