Mae’s Tarts

My grandma makes a great fruit tart…she ranks up there with the best of ’em.  Tart-making is a baking tradition that has been passed down for generations in many Cajun families.  It is an important piece of maintaining our unique cooking culture and is usually carried down amongst the women in the family. For every family gathering that I can remember attending, my grandmother has made an assortment of different flavored tarts…and she almost always remembers who likes what flavor.   Here is a small photo/video glimpse into the baking-world of Mae Rose Gaspard.

*Mae’s Tarts*

2 Cups Sugar

2 Sticks Butter

4.5 Cups Flour

4 Eggs

1 tsp. Vanilla

4 tsp. Baking Powder

Roll out 1 Tablespoon of dough.  Fill with fruit.  Seal with fork.  Bake at 350 degrees 15-20 minutes.

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Waste not.

One of the most consistent comments I have heard from people of my grandparents’ generation is: ‘when I was young, nothing was wasted…we found a use for everything, or we fixed it.’  My grandma still has a set of old flour sacks that when emptied, were used to make clothes.  “Momma would buy our flour in these sacks and then someone would get a dress out of the fabric”, she said.  What a brilliant example of how we can use and reuse.  These clothes were handed down in the family until the threads weren’t mendable.  It was a time when labor was felt.  Hard work gave light to preciousness and simplicity.  I admire this connection…it seems like the majority of our generation has lost it.

Back then, they wasted not.  Pages of the Sears catalog served as toilet paper, entrails of animals were made into delicacies, intestinal linings were cleaned and used as sausage casings, mason jars preserved things…and doubled as drinking glasses.  Spoiled leftovers were given to animals which eventually came back around to feed the people.  Needles and thread fixed holes in britches.  Quilting passed time and kept the family warm.   Decorations were made of ‘trash’.  The list goes on.  Appliances were made to last and easy to fix.  People didn’t recycle…they reused.  Money was scarce but people made do.  I have heard these words repeatedly: we didn’t have much…but we didn’t know anything else, it was just the way things were.  Life has changed rapidly. How do we honor these changes?  When have we gone too far?  When is too much, too much?

In today’s world, most items are made or wrapped in plastic.  This includes the water we drink.  We buy it as disposible.  We consume.  We throw it out or ‘recycle’.  If this bottle makes it to the recycle bin, it ends up on big ships that float out of the Mississippi River and onto China…where it’s melted back down, made into another item that we then buy back. It’s the same old story:  our waste clogs the environment, keeps us working countless hours a day to buy our own ‘waste’ back from a country that continues to abuse their people and pollute their air because we. continue. to buy. it.  We sell the raw material for much less than what we buy it back for….think about the shift this is creating economically.

And environmentally, most of us have already lost connection with the land around us.  Farming has become big business.  The empty rice mills in most every town of southern Louisiana blatantly show us this reality.  Small farms do not have the support to stay running.  The organic industry began out of desperation to offer an alternative to big-business farming.  It used to be about supporting a way of life, too.  And now that this industry is growing, we are faced again with a shift:  Does buying organic mean that we are supporting small farmers? Organics can be big business, too. What does it mean to support farmers that choose a simple lifestyle, people who are growing quality food that we need to nourish our bodies?    Supporting farmers who go out of their way to provide meat or vegetables grown in a healthy way is not only better for us, but it’s also better for the environment.  It supports the thriving of culture, it gives us options.  When things get too far gone, maybe then huge vehicles that consume twice as much gas will get tossed for a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato.  I am constantly asking myself where my priorities lie.  Often I’m disheartened by the critical thinking that goes into our systems and how this negligence informs how many choose to spend their money.  The concept of owning your own power goes a long way.  Sometimes we think we’re trapped.  But maybe we’re not.

I hear it from my grandparents.  And others.  Spanish moss used to cover the trees…and everything.  Pesticides that get sprayed from airplanes have killed most of it.  Many cypress trees that were slaughtered in the swamps beginning in the 20’s were left to sink.  Did you know cypress trees take thousands of years to grow?  One hopeful twist on this particular story is that crawfisherman, author and environmentalist, Greg Guirard has been pulling these logs out of the basin for decades and making things with the wood.  Cypress stays preserved when under the water so some of the logs he removes are hundreds of years old.  He makes tables, chairs or other useful things….or sells it so he can put money back into preserving the Atchafalaya Basin.  Not only this, but Mr. Guirard has planted 40,000 trees on his property in the last 30 years.  A sign in his house reads, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

What does it mean to value the food you eat, the environment you live in…to take care of what’s around you?  When my grandpa went to France a few years back, one of the things that he noticed was how clean everything was.  He recalled, ‘The farms were spotless, the countryside was kept so clean…people did not throw things on the side of the road.’  It is not the same here.  Take a look at the coastline.  People throw their waste everywhere.  What is it?  Convenience?  Selfishness?  Lack of understanding how we all share these resources and land?  Our actions are part of systems.  We depend on these systems but we also feed them.  What if planting trees was part of our plan to give back?  

Faces behind stories.

Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with folks, facilitating some interviews, accompanying people on everyday life adventures, playing music and reconnecting with family.  The longer I’m here, the more I realize that there is so much to learn…that I can’t possibly absorb in a 2 hour interview, a 30 minute conversation, or a day spent together.  Months spent living here would not give enough time.  The complexities of deciphering what I learn and will take away can be both exhausting and revitalizing.  Many times throughout this trip, I did not take out my camera…and chose to simply sit and listen.  I got my toes wet.  I jumped in.  And it’s been a beautiful journey the entire way…

For now, I want to share the portraits of a few people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and/or know more deeply.  The depths of their stories will come with time and reflection.  There are still so many more to capture.  When fall comes around, I hope to be back on the ground and running…

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The Third Way.

Wow.  Ya’ll.  I feel like a puppy that fell off the back of a pick-up truck on a dusty road.  I’m not hurt in the slightest…just trying to catch up and the dust keeps getting in my face.  So many thoughts, stories, people and experiences swirling around in this ole head of mine.  I find myself looking forward to the moments when I’m not exhausted and the sparks of a writers-mind are firing….so I can coax some of this to ride on the waves of internet-land.

Today I was pleasantly reminded of a beautiful life approach that was introduced to me years ago by a dear friend…that continues to inform how I move in the world: The third way.  It’s the other option…the one usually not written on the ballet.  What does it mean exactly to create or honor this ‘third’?  So often physical life seems to collapse into a binary.  One or the other.  Him or her.  Wrong or right.  Consistently, if you look around…these little binary-nuggets are buzzing by, chillin’ on the sidewalk, making their way into our homes, offices and art-work…arguing or maybe peacefully existing.  Sometimes I wonder how much potential we are leaving behind every time we subscribe to a system of polar opposites.  The third may be dished out by the diplomat. A mix of the two. Or maybe given by the fearless outsider.  The option that was never seen in the first place…or long-lost covered with a passing of time. I like to think of the third as a bone the Universe decides to toss our way.

The reason I am talking about this is because various times throughout this trip, I’ve got caught up trying to decipher, depict, and understand what pieces of my culture need/desire to be shown, highlighted, respected.  And while I have some ideas, I still don’t know.  The moment I am revitalized by a newly discovered history, tradition and/or ritual, I begin to see its underbelly.  Sometimes an underbelly that allows for a certain kind of confinement.  It works its way into lives…challenging difference, applying a weight of sorts.  I wonder if other folks feel this.  There are so many precious stories, ways of life, recipes, songs-to-sing that connect us directly to our ancestors.  For me, these things have great potential to bring joy and meaning to life that is inexplicable.  But there are some aspects that I don’t wish to carry on.  I want to leave behind.  In fact, I wonder if these that I speak of, were even there in the first place.  Power can be tricky manipulator. I am not a lay-down-in-my-grave traditionalist (if you haven’t noticed already) but I do see the value in creative, thoughtful continuation.  I honor, within reason. As I walk, my feet are on the ground and in the air simultaneously.   I step with one foot and the other one rises.  How can we honor traditions while remaining true to ourselves inside of a world that has been changed by oil companies, pesticides, and human rights movements?  How do we make space for shifts, openings, deaths?  I’m reminded of how the creation of a third way might offer some of us a place to rest.  An alternate.  Like feeding vegetarians and meat-eaters gumbo from the same pot.  The option of serving the vegetarians first, before putting in the meat, is there.

In every single connection I’ve made on this trip, there has been an underlying sadness somewhere in the conversation.  A piece that touches on ‘cultural continuation’…and what’s next for the Cajuns?  A life led in relationship to the land is rapidly changing, if not already gone. The language that most elders refer to as ‘not good French’, is on its way out.  Materialism and cultural appropriation are filling in the spaces.  Environmental degradation is a by-product.  And when the dust settles, I’m often hit with a hopelessness over the reflections so articulately given by my elders.  Their voice makes the passing of time easy to touch…real.  There is a reflection of life present in older generations that I think my generation could learn a lot from.  I’m reminded of the importance of being here…doing just this.  Listening.  Questioning.  Observing.  Holding.  I wonder what comes next.

Yesterday, a friend shared with me a quote from Dewey Balfa.  It goes like this: “A culture is like a whole tree…you have to water the roots to keep the tree alive, but at the same time, you can’t go cutting off the branches every time it tries to grow.”  Such a beautiful metaphor for an important message.  Our deep roots are in graveyards, hearts and actions.  They weave through our spirit and shadow moments of reconnection.  Some of what makes the Cajun culture unique is that people who care have managed to water their roots and feel this pride for so long.  The music, dance, cooking, and connections to our environment have not died with our ancestors.  But they have changed and grown into branches…in all their different lengths, shapes and marks. As I move through my time here, I’m beginning to recognize more clearly the moments it is necessary to stop and dangle our feet a while. Take a moment to breathe, make a choice or ask a question.  It really is up to us and how we wish to accept/assimilate these changes, be a catalyst in their shifting…and/or embrace the connection to a third way.

À la maison.

In the home.  Memories and tales told by candlelight.  Butter is churned.  Soap is poured into molds.  Quilts are sewn.  Kids get bathed.  Coffee brews.  Gumbo simmers.  The home, the backbone.  Walls that hold up a roof.

The other day I went to see the shelter that my grandpa lived in when he was a child.  It’s an old cypress home that stands inside the remaining woodlands of Kaplan.  There was a time when most of this land was covered with woods. With time comes change and over the years, thousands of acreage has been clearcut to make way for ranching and farming.  Eventually, land seems to get used in ways that offer short-term benefits, more efficiency and money-supply.   This is why I feel extremely lucky that the gentleman who now owns this property was willing and able to see the value in keeping this little piece of home and history standing. Nestled between dozens of live oak trees, this was the house where my great grandparents raised my grandpa.  It was a time when people were largely self-sufficient and lived in close relationship to the land.

My uncle, who was also raised in this house, came with us that day as we made our way through thick plants and grasses.  He remembered the old trees.  He remembered the entire family getting on one horse to ride into town for flour and sugar.  This little four-walled building lined with newspapers for insulation was what they called home.  It still stands.

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Sometimes I wonder about my generation and where we are headed.  This trip I have largely been talking with folks one or two generations older than me.  I appreciate the honest way some see and depict youth, yet hope negative assumptions won’t shut doors.   It’s true…there are a lot of youth that don’t relate to a past beyond their memory, or see value in ancestral connection.  But many do.  And I like to think that my generation is trying hard to recapture some of the pieces that have faded away through modernization and fast-paced living.  I can see this cultivation happening in pockets of San Francisco, in fact.  Here, there is a melding pot of hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.  I see people making efforts by cooking the cuisine of their ancestors, creating music infused with heritage and upholding versions of home rituals.  I think young people do value these things…the question is will they care enough to let it influence their life?  Maybe in some cases, distance does make the heart grow fonder.  Having the space to find an individuality outside of tradition can be a gift.   Being able to place the self in a different context gives us a choice on how or where to return to our roots.  And this coming back to our heritage after it has gone missing, takes effort.  People who make the effort, want to honor something that they see in it.  And this is how depth, meaning, and connection live on.

As I looked at this old house that day, my imagination went wild with images of my grandpa being a young kid.  This home has withheld a myriad of floods and hurricanes.  The trees protected it.  When I began this project, I stuffed my face into books.  I saw our history boldly smothered over pages…pages that give some knowledge, but leave out a lot.  These missing pieces aren’t easily found once generations pass and homes collapse to the ground.  Just as a unique language and dialect is kept inside its people, so is the heart behind traditions, ways of approach and intricacies of lifestyles.  Certain patterns cannot be sustained. Other patterns may need to be remembered.

Change might be just what we need. We can honor lives, we can try to know them.  And just behind every moment of speedy dissonance, there are other moments.  These moments clean up.  They work together.  They catch on fire.  Many times, they are the memories and the heart beneath.  To sustain anything, the home has to be remembered, re-created, re-envisioned.  It’s happening all the time.  Choices are being made every split second.  I’m learning that choice happens when I fully and compassionately understand where I’m moving from and what I’m moving towards.

Dewey Balfa Heritage Week, 2012

The Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week took place at Chicot State Park in Ville Platte, Louisiana last week.  There is something magical about being able to practice a music that you love next to people who also hold a passion, relation, and heart for the same music.  Beyond love, it’s about preservation.  relationship.  personal responsibility.  honoring.  searching?  Traditional Cajun music is a style/genre of music that has been carried down for generations.  The old tunes, along with the new ones, are continuously reshaping how we look at culture and what we decide to highlight or appreciate.  What a generous week of extreme talent, inspiring people and great fun.  Here are some of my favorite images of the week:

(also, If you see an image of yourself here and would like a copy, please email me at:  lisafoster33@gmail.com)

Cajun French: A language where home lives.

Language: one of the main motivations that led me back to Southern Louisiana.  The Cajun French dialect: the accent, slang words, jokes, sayings…these intricate and alive pieces… we are losing with my grandparents’ generation.  Cajun French was banned in the schools when my grandparents were young, most of them did not teach it to their children, and the only way it is preserved is inside of the people that speak it.  This language was passed down orally, for generations.  Meeting all four of my great grandparents that could not speak english has shown me that a language can be lost in a lifetime.  It happens fast.  Southern Louisiana is simply one, of the many places around the world, on the cusp of experiencing this loss. As I’ve been talking and interviewing older folks, I’m realizing that most of them have something in common:  they wish they had taught their children to speak Cajun French.  And all of them take personal responsibility.  Listening to their wishes, I wish the same…that the language had been passed down to my generation.  But I also want to honor that the handing down of the Cajun dialect is rooted in much more than the weight of one’s own personal accountability.  English was being institutionalized and ideals behind Americanization were hitting this country full-force in the 1930’s.  School yards became quiet because children were punished for speaking the only language they knew how to speak.  Many of our grandparents supported the English language to support the future of their children, without question.  The ears of the present were much louder than the eyes of the future.

My mother could never communicate with her grandparents, my great grandparents.  I listen to my grandparents cutting up with their friends and wish I could understand.  The language of my elders is leaving.  The Cajun dialect is on it’s last leg.  When talking with my Uncle Nelton the other day, I asked him why he thinks the language is so important to our culture.  He said with tears building, “It’s how we lived, it’s how we talked with our momma and daddy, it’s how we remember them…and we don’t want to let that die.”   Witnessing the passing of this language generates some heartbreak.  I do not know how to speak it.  And I probably never will.

Though, I am beginning to see that much of the language is being passed down in the form of music.  The Cajun music culture is thriving in parts of Louisiana and brings hope for language preservation. The other night when my relatives were gathered in the living room, my aunt sang a song on the guitar.  She, along with 3 other people in the room, began to shed tears.  Afterwards, I asked if she would teach me that song.  She could not write it down, because they were never taught how to write their language.  So she looked at the lyrics in english and translated it by saying the words in Cajun French.  As she said each word, I wrote down the syllables as I heard them.  Forty five minutes later, I had a mess of syllables that I understood how to read. I played the banjo and she played the guitar.  We sang the song together.

Sometimes when I sing Cajun songs, my emotions becomes electrified.  It comes from something deep.  My minds starts floating to the love I have for my grandparents, the roots that I have.  I think about the way my family spoke a long time ago, about the words they used in a time when life was hard but simple.  I think about their terms of endearment and how connected I am to these pieces of my culture, even though I have largely lived outside of it for my life.  Hearing the words, rhythms and melodies gives me some sense of place.  For someone who has moved multiple times, this sense of place through culture offers some kind of definition of home that is deeply rooted.  I feel the beauty in it, but I am also beginning to feel the loss.  Perhaps playing music offers me some kind of hope.  Like I’m doing my part.  It gives my soul a place to be and feel this connection.  I am honored to have this place to go…this place to celebrate and act on my personal responsibility.  It is my choice to carry on in the ways I know how, for the people that are a part of me.  And I believe that caring is a very real place to begin.