The First Cajun Thanksgiving
None of this is remotely true, which means it’s all real. More or less. The first Cajun Thanksgiving was probably a lot like the first Thanksgiving anywhere, just with more alligators and fewer pilgrim hats. Then again, no one who was there is still around to tell anybody what it was really like, so this is probably exactly how it happened.
(If you're here to cheat on The Louisiana Citizenship Test, the answers are: Mary, Paul Prudhomme, and The Hebert Brothers. But you should still read this.)
THE FIRST CAJUN THANKSGIVING
A short, round man with a short, round face crinkled his brow in confusion, then tilted his head to one side and asked, “What you think them is, Thibaut?”
“I dunno, Remy,” replied a taller, more rectangular man. “But we gotta cook ‘em.”
“Fry ‘em, maybe?” replied Thibaut.
Remy pointed at the strange creatures hopping around over by the shed. “They ain’t no chickens, though” he said.
“Yeah,” replied Thibaut. “But they still birds. We can probably fry ‘em.”
Remy took a step toward The Things That Were Not Chickens, which the five not-chickens took as an act of aggression against their sovereign nation of Over By The Shed and, in response, began to sing the song of their people.
Gobble, gobble, gobble
Remy jumped back. “Who dat?!”
Thibaut ran up next to his friend and tugged on his shoulder. “Get back, Remy! Them chickens is hostile!”
“MAIS!” shouted Remy, as Thibaut pulled him to the ground. “Whatcha know about dat?”
The pair scrambled across the ground until they’d put a safe distance between themselves and the not-chickens. They eyed the area over by the shed. The not-chickens eyed them back.
“Whatcha think dat flappy thing is?” asked Remy.
“Darned if I know,” replied Thibaut. “But it don’t look natural.”
“No,” said Remy, shaking his head. “It don’t.”
“We need a plan.”
“No. We need a gun.”
Thibaut turned his head and called out to someone in the house. “Hey, Mary!” he shouted. “Catch me my scattergun!”
Remy shook his head. “We gonna be picking shot out them chickens for days, Thibaut.”
“They ain’t chickens, Remy. Besides, whatcha wanna do? Get pecked to death?”
The backdoor of the house opened, and a stern looking woman appeared, carrying a shotgun. “Whatcha need dis for?”
“To kill them things,” replied Thibaut, pointing a quivering finger toward the shed.
Mary walked up next to the frightened men and held out the shotgun. “Why you need a shotgun, though?”
Remy jumped up. “Because they’s hostile!” he shouted, never taking his eyes of the not-chickens.
In her late fifties, Mary had a gravel voice from decades of chain smoking, and the years had not been kind to her skin, which now resembled something more like thin strips of animal hide spread over yellowed parchment like some kind of leathery, sun-bleached paper mache nightmare.
“Hostile?” she asked. “Of course they’s hostile. We ‘bout to cook ‘em up!”
“You don’t understand,” replied Remy. “They’s organized, too.”
Thibaut nodded toward Remy. “He took one step toward them, and they’s all started caterwauling something awful, Mary. You ain’t never heard such a sound! And dat one over there,” he said, pointing at the largest, meanest looking Thing That Was Not A Chicken, “I think dat’s their leader.”
Mary scoffed. “So,” she said. “Kill it first, then. Make an example.”
“Whatcha think I’m about to do with dis scattergun?”
“Make a mess,” replied Mary. “I ain’t about to be spittin’ shot out my mouth all Thanksgiving.”
“You got a better idea?” asked Thibaut.
“Yeah,” she said. “I do.”
In one smooth motion, Mary moved her hand to her hip, then raised it again, only now it was holding a giant pistol.
She turned and pointed the hand cannon at the biggest not-chicken, which eyeballed her with contempt. Then, she pulled the trigger. And it would never eyeball anything again.
“GLORY!” shouted Remy. “You blew its whole dang head off!”
The not-chicken’s headless body stood still for a moment, not quite sure what had just happened to it. Then, with no brain left to figure things out, it eventually gave up and collapsed to the ground.
“There,” said Mary, handing her pistol to Thibaut and squinting her eyes. “Now see to the rest.”
No one knows when the first turkeys appeared in Louisiana, but everyone generally agrees that it was probably by accident. Especially the turkeys.
The first Cajun Thanksgiving happened many years after the first American Thanksgiving with the pilgrim hats and shoe buckles crowd. It’s hard to pin an exact year down on it, though, because time passes differently in the swamp. Slower, usually. Except for when you’re being chased by an alligator or almost step on a cottonmouth. Things tend to speed up pretty fast after that.
Louisiana didn’t even become part of the union until April 30, 1812, and then the War of 1812 broke out a couple months later. Which was probably just coincidence, but you never know. What we do know is that a bunch of pirates and Cajuns (and probably Cajun pirates) ended it with the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and the UK never attacked America again, so…
The point is, you don’t mess with Louisiana, despite what Texas says.
This is something the turkeys Over By The Shed learned very quickly the morning of the first Cajun Thanksgiving, which was, not coincidentally, the turkeys’ very last Thanksgiving.
“Whoo, boy! Dat’s a mess, right dere,” said Remy.
The war for control of Over By The Shed had not gone cleanly. Various bits of not-chicken littered the battlefield, and there were feathers everywhere.
“Yeah, well, they’s dead,” replied Thibaut.
Remy crossed his arms and shrugged. “What we gonna do now?”
“I guess we gotta pluck ‘em,” said Thibaut. “And then figure out how we gonna cook ‘em up.”
“We ain’t frying them?” asked Remy.
“Maybe one,” said Thibaut. “We’ll heat up some lard and toss one in. After Mary does her whatevers to it, ‘course.”
Mary’s “whatevers” was a term used to refer to the mysterious black magic voodoo she routinely performed in the kitchen. The men didn’t understand it, but they knew better than to ask questions.
The thing about Louisiana in the days before interstate commerce and international shipping was that there were very few things native to the state that were actually edible. At first glance, anyway. And second glance. Straight down through eighty-fifth glance, at which point you were so hungry that you’d just give up and try anything.
Which is how Cajun cuisine happened.
Creatures in the swamp tended to sloop and droop, if they did anything at all. Others just tried to eat you. But apart from a few fish, the last thing any sane person would do is consider putting anything that creeps and crawls along the bayou into their mouths.
However, it was precisely because there wasn’t much to cook in Louisiana that local chefs were willing to try anything and everything. Which explains crawfish, really.
Which is why the early Louisiana settlers had to be just a little bit crazy, otherwise they’d have starved and died out long before some confused turkeys stumble-gobbled their way into the state.
Of course, just heating something up doesn’t make it taste good, which is where the voodoo comes in. A good Cajun cook can crush the gnarled roots of some unpronounceable plant into a powder, then add some butter and mix the resulting paste with a few drops of bayou water and a couple of pinches off some otherwise deadly leaf before stirring in a bucket full of unidentifiable tails and tentacles to produce a culinary masterpiece that good boys would slap their mamas for.
Mary was one of those cooks.
Remy hauled one of the not-chicken carcasses into the kitchen and dropped it on the countertop.
“You best go pluck dat,” she said.
“I can’t, me,” replied Remy. “We gotta clean up the rest of thems.”
“Fine,” grunted Mary, as she scooped up the not-chicken. “How you want me to cook dis one?”
“Thibaut says fry it in some lard,” replied Remy.
“Dat man wanna fry everything. Okay, then,” she said, getting to work on getting rid of the feathers.
Remy went back outside, and Thibaut waved him over to the shed.
“I got me another idea,” he shouted.
As Remy got closer, he could see Thibaut was already working at the feathers of the next bird. “We gonna grill dis one,” he said. Then, he pointed at the rest of the not-chickens. “And dat one we gonna smoke, dat other one we gonna stick it on a beer can and cook it up some on a fire so dat beer gonna boil right up its wherevers*."
(*The first beer available to buy in cans came out in 1935, which moves our story somewhen into the 20th century. News usually takes a while to swim through the hot water-air of the Deep South. Holidays aren’t any different.)
Remy shrugged and grabbed one of the birds. The two worked on plucking them clean for the next hour or so.
“Go fire up the grill,” said Thibaut as he unceremoniously yanked the final feathers from the last not-chicken. “Take these two,” he said, handing a couple of the birds off to Remy. “I’ll get the smoker going.”
Mary wandered outside with a large pot full of lard, which she put over the trash fire pit the trio always left smoldering. She tossed some old junk on the pile, then grabbed a handful of lard from the pot and tossed it into the fire pit. By the time she went back into the house and came out with the not-chicken, the fire was blazing.
“Dis one ain’t gonna take too long,” she called out to Remy and Thibaut in the distance.
Remy shouted back. “These ones gonna need about tree hours!”
“Good!” hollered Mary. “We can snack on dis one while we wait on the other ones.”
Once all four of the not-chickens were cooking away, Remy, Mary, and Thibaut gathered around the trash fire pit.
“Dis gonna be a good Thanksgiving,” said Thibaut.
“What’s it all about, anyway?” asked Remy.
“What’s what about?” replied Thibaut.
Thibaut rubbed his neck. “I dunno,” he replied. “But I think it’s somethin’ to do with we eat these here birds and then say we thanks.”
“Who are we thanking, though? Mister Clovis down at the hard-to-get-to store? And what is these birds, anyway?”
Mary chimed in. “Turkeys,” she replied in the smug voice of know-it-alls everywhere. “They’re called turkeys.”
“How you know dat?”
“Because dat’s what Clovis called ‘em down at the store.”
“Where they come from?”
Mary shrugged. “I dunno. Ask Clovis.”
Thibaut sniffed the air. “They sure smell good, though.”
Mary and Remy took their own sniffs. "Dat they do,” they replied, in unison. "Dat they do."
The trio was enjoying their fried turkey and smacking their lips when Remy paused mid-chew. He turned his head and looked over his left shoulder. He blinked. He turned and looked over his right shoulder. He blinked again.
"Um, Thibaut?" he asked.
"What dat, Remy?"
"How many of them turkeys we got?"
"Whatchoo mean? We got dis one right here. Them others is cookin' up, they."
Chewing resumed, but the talking didn't.
A few minutes later, Thibaut glanced over Remy's left shoulder, then his right. "Um," he said. "Why you ask for?"
"Well," said Remy. "When we was first attacked over by the shed, they was five of thems, right?"
Mary chimed in. "I got five of them from Mr. Clovis, dat's right."
Remy nodded. "Only," he said, "we got dis one right here we's eatin' on now, and we got dat one on the grill," he continued, counting out with his fingers as he went down the line, "then dat other one over in the smoker, and one what we done sat on a beer can to boil up its wherevers."
"Yeah?" replied Thibaut. "So?"
"So," said Mary, ice dripping from word, "one's missing."
It was at that moment, due to the narrative laws of story logic imposed upon an otherwise disinterested universe, that the Lone Turkey emerged from the backside of the shed. Its beady bird eyes glared in defiance.
"GLORY!" shouted Remy, as he dropped his half-eaten fried turkey leg and scrambled to stand up. "THEY'S COME BACK FOR REVENGE!"
Thibaut sprang to his feet, accidentally kicking over the pot of lard still resting over the fire. "HOLY MOTHER!" he shouted, as the lard ignited and summoned forth the flames of perdition from the trash fire pit.
"Get the scattergun!" shouted Mary, as she shoved her way between Remy and Thibaut, searching for the shotgun.
Remy tripped over his own feet and fell head first into what was left of the fried turkey. The fires of the trash pit billowed the heavy, black smoke of used tires smoldering over an open flame, and the air grew thick with the smell of rubber and lard, and probably a bit of Remy's hair, since the turkey he fell into was still quite hot on the inside.
"Murfle himmerphlist!" shouted Remy from inside the smoking remains of the deep fried turkey carcass. He threw his hands in the air and began running madly around, in much the same way a not-chicken with its head cut off would.
Thibaut spotted the shotgun just as the Lone Chicken appeared through the smoke and fire like some kind of bobbling vengeance demon from the very depths of Hades. He dove for the scattergun.
Gobble gobble gobble!
Mary spied the gun at the same time, and also dove for it. Her head met Thibaut's with an audible crack, and the two began to roll around on the ground, clutching at their skulls.
Quack quack quack!
Thibaut, slightly concussed at this point and not at all well, attempted to shake it off and come to terms with what was going on around him. Had he just heard a gobble and a quack?
Waddling just behind the Lone Turkey was an angry duck, its eyes alight with the fires of vengeance reflected in its beak. And just behind the duck...
Cluck cluck cluck!
Remy pulled the smoldering fried turkey carcass off his head just in time to see three devil birds - the forgotten turkey, an angry duck, and a furious chicken, all barreling toward him at breakneck wobble. The Lone Turkey had recruited allies.
"GLORY!" he shouted. "THEY'S ORGANIZED AGAIN!" He threw his hands back into the air, turned around, and ran screaming toward the house.
Mary was lying semi-unconscious, still reeling from her head smack with Thibaut. He didn't have long to act.
He reached for the shotgun just as the poultry death squad was almost on him, beaks at the ready. In unison, they lunged toward him, a mass of feathers and wobbly bits and rage.
He pointed the business end of his boomstick at the approaching trio, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.
When the smoke and feathers cleared, all three of the birds were dead. And, after having been hit at point blank range with a shotgun, were now in pieces scattered around the fire pit.
Remy peeked out from the backdoor of the house. "Is it over?" he asked.
Mary had come to, and was busy collecting up the various bits of turkey and duck and chicken scattered about the place. "Yes," she said. "Now come out here and help.
For his part, Thibaut was still traumatized and remained silent, his fingers clenched tightly around the shotgun's trigger.
"Don't mind him," said Mary. "Catch me my roasting pan."
Mary went into the kitchen with various bits of three different birds piled onto separate plates. Never one to let anything go to waste, she set upon each pile with a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that, until her occult culinary voodoo ritual was complete. She then grabbed the turkey, which was mostly still intact, and took a handful of duck along with a handful of chicken and got to work.
A few hours later, the Turducken was born.
Remy, Mary, and Thibaut sat down to Thanksgiving dinner later that night, with four gorgeous turkeys set before them on the table (what was left of the fifth one after they were done snacking on it was tossed into the eternal flame of the trash fire pit).
“So what we do now?” asked Thibaut.
Mary smiled. “We all hold hands, then we take turns saying what we’s thankful for,” she explained.
“I’ll go first,” volunteered Remy.
Mary and Thibaut nodded.
“I’m thankful for these four turkeys dat ain’t chickens. Dat fried one was good, but gave me an ahnvee somethin’ awful.”
“My turn,” said Thibaut. “I’m thankful for dis turkey we done given the cabris with dat duck and chicken I’m also thankful for, me.”
Mary cleared her throat. “I,” she began, “am thankful for the turkeys and the ducks and the chickens. I’m thankful for Remy and Thibaut and Mama, rest her soul. I’m thankful we got food to eat and friends to share it with.”
The three thankful people all smiled at each other, which soon turned awkward when none of them knew what to do next.
“What now?” asked Remy.
“Maybe we say Amen or somethin’?” suggested Thibaut.
“Amen,” said Mary.
“Amen,” replied Remy and Thibaut.
That’s how the First Cajun Thanksgiving happened, or at least it’s how I imagine it happened. I don’t know when it happened or exactly where it happened, but I do know that deep frying turkey or cooking it on a beer can is delicious, and both methods were born in Louisiana.
The origins of the Turducken remain in dispute, with everyone from Paul Prudhomme to a surgeon in New Orleans claiming to have invented it. However, history never remembers the Thibauts and Remys and Marys of the world, who are usually the true inventors of all the good things that fancier people come along later and take credit for.
Not that any of it matters, really. The First Cajun Thanksgiving happened however anyone wants to remember it, which is just how things work in Louisiana. It’s a state that does what it wants when it wants, and it doesn’t need anyone’s approval to do anything.
Which works out well for the rest of the country, since everything Louisiana does always turns out delicious.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING, AMERICA!
© 2016, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.